Smartphone Industry and Patents

Smartphone patents protect the intellectual property and inventions used to develop mobile electronic devices. More than a billion people worldwide use handheld devices to access the internet and use software via either the iPhone or Android operating system platforms. One growing smartphone developer, Xiaomi, projected that it would sell 100 million devices in 2015. As smartphones are virtually everywhere, many patents have been granted to protect the technologies used to create these devices. One out of six active patents was smartphone-related in October 2012, representing more than 250,000 patents, and that number has only grown since. If we consider that each smartphone patent has been challenged approximately 20 times, we can estimate that more than 5 million smartphone innovations have been restricted. According to researchers, about 2 million patent lawyers would have to work around the clock to handle these challenges in just one year, and that doesn't account for applications that are within 18 months of being filed and those that have yet to be filed.

Pros and Cons of Smartphone Patents

Many companies now own substantial smartphone patent portfolios. Samsung filed 2,179 applications related to smartphone technology in 2013 alone, three times the number filed by Apple that same year. While this level of patent activity is a good indicator of innovation in the field, many individuals and companies who question the value of patents are concerned. Some argue that patents drive up the prices of smartphone technologies. Others fear the consequences of enforcement, including legal threats sent to businesses suspected of patent infringement.

Another group sees the extent of smartphone-related patents and challenges as an indicator of the issues with the patent system. For example, Kyocera has been sued by Microsoft with claims that the company's smartphones infringe on several of their patents. This litigation can cost companies hundreds of millions. This does not, however, support the idea that patents have harmed innovation in this industry; in fact, smartphones have evolved faster than any other consumer product over the past decade, with more devices sold than ever and plenty of new innovations like waterproofing technology, phones with two screens, and curved screens.

Many companies have even brought smartphones into our vehicles. The Apple CarPlay and Android Auto systems allow drivers to seamlessly integrate their phones with vehicle infotainment systems. These innovations can be credited to Apple's intellectual property portfolio, which includes a patent for this type of device. If Apple did not hold this patent, they would not be legally allowed to advertise or sell this technology.

In 2011, Sony, Apple, and Microsoft made a bid to challenge Google by purchasing more than 6,000 Nortel patents. In fact, Steve Jobs considered Android a stolen product and vowed to destroy it. However, experts expect multimillion-dollar lawsuits filed by companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft to taper off in the months and years to come. 

Although the statement by Jobs was considered a bold defense of a product that he owned, other companies have received grief for enforcing their patent ownership. 

At the end of 2014, 4,000 of the 6,000 Nortel patents mentioned above were sold to RPX for the purpose of licensing to other companies. While abusive demand letters are not desirable, this behavior by a few companies is not a reason to overhaul the patent system with proposed legislation like the Innovation Act.

Some Smartphone Patents and Their Life-Changing Potential

Some of the most significant smartphone patents in recent years include the following:

  • A patent granted to the University of Illinois for a biosensor that can be used to test for the presence of bacteria or viruses in an individual's bodily fluid by using a smartphone. 
  • An eBay patent for a sensor that determines that a specific user has authorized an online financial transaction, serving as a virtual wallet.
  • A patent granted to an individual for a smartphone device that can lock and unlock a handgun. The program also includes automatic locking when the gun is in prohibited areas such as in a school zone. It can also lock the gun if owner intoxication is detected.
  • An Apple patent that automatically alerts authorities if a crisis is detected, including a car accident, medical emergency, or natural disaster.

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