Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Smarter than Smartphones?

iPhone apps

The current round of patent litigation is now focused on technologies related to the convergence of cellphones and computers.

By Mike Lloyd

New technology is untangling the complex network of patents at the centre of a litigation war between smartphone companies.

Many Australians are now using smartphones, the all-singing all-dancing devices that combine the functions of phone, computer, email, games machine, music player and video screen in a compact device. These remarkable gadgets are helping to spark revolutions overseas, and back in the more settled parts of Australia are changing the way we live, communicate and interact with each other. Smartphones are advancing rapidly as well, with the Apple iPad and other tablets merging the gap between phones and computers, and threatening to replace many of their uses.

But how many of us have thought deeply about the technology behind smartphones? While most of the technology developments have taken place within these highly secretive companies, there is a public record available for those who choose to look.

The vast majority of technological advances in the modern economy are claimed by patent applications. A patent, which can give its inventors a monopoly of up to 20 years, can be regarded as a deal between the inventor and the state. In return for publishing new inventions and therefore spreading new ideas, the state provides the 20-year monopoly for these inventions.

While some critics of the patent system regard the deal as a bit one-sided, there is no doubt that the patent system is effective at encouraging the publication of new ideas. More than 1.9 million patent applications are now published annually. The patent system is also providing a new source of national competition, with China racing to catch up on the current patent filing leader, the USA.

Identifying Key Patents
However, the patent system now risks becoming a victim of its own success because patent offices are increasingly swamped with patent applications to examine, and interested parties are overwhelmed by the number of patent applications they need to wade through. Help is on the way, though, with an Australian-developed invention being jointly commercialised by patent attorney firm Griffith Hack and patent analyst firm Ambercite.

Network Patent Analysis (NPA) uses citation links between patents to form and then analyse what can be a vast network of these patents. Like scientific papers, many published patents include references to earlier inventions that may disclose similar inventions. These “citations” can be analysed using sophisticated algorithms to group similar patents, and to then identify the most important patents in these groups.

The process is completed by displaying the networks in a diagram, with leading patents, patent owners, patent groups and their interrelationships clearly visible. All of a sudden, the careful barriers of secrecy built by leading companies can start to be broken down.

Griffith Hack and Ambercite have used NPA to review and expose many of the thousands of patented inventions applied for by the smartphone industry. Given the billions of dollars at stake in the smartphone area, it is not surprising that many of the leading companies are busy suing each other over their patented inventions.

There can be many reasons for these patent assertions. They may be to gain a financial benefit from the sale of smartphones sold by other companies; to keep competitors out; to clutch onto rapidly falling market share; or, in some cases, as a retaliation for being sued themselves.

Smartphone Patent Wars
Cellphone litigation is far from new, with the early cellphone makers engaging in a thicket of litigation over the patents used for the basic cellphone systems. Many of these litigations were settled in due course by, for example, the creation of patent licensing “pools”. Yet in 2006, Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of the then-ubiquitous Blackberry device, was almost forced to shut down its US operations during a patent dispute related to mobile email.

The current round of patent litigation is now focused on technologies related to the convergence of cellphones and computers. For example, NPA identified that one of the key patent groups, or clusters, was in the area of touch screens. This cluster included the overall leading smartphone patent, which was awarded for an Apple invention for a touch screen device. Apple is currently using this patent to sue Motorola over its smartphones, possibly as a partial response to several patents being asserted by Motorola against Apple.

Among the Motorola patents is a patent that claims the ability to detect when the smartphone is being held close to someone’s ear, and then to shut off the touch screen so that it can’t accidentally be activated by the ear touching it. Motorola claims to have invented this concept first, and it is contending that Apple’s application of the same concept infringes its patent.

But Apple uses a different technology to detect the proximity of the screen to a user, and this raises the question of whether the Apple technology is sufficiently different to the Motorola patent. NPA was able to shed some light on this question, suggesting that while Motorola may have reason to consider suing Apple on this patent, there are sufficient differences between the technologies to make the outcome of the dispute far from a foregone conclusion. In fact, NPA suggests that much of Apple’s inspiration for this patent was coming from in-house R&D and third parties, and only slightly from Motorola.

Touch screens were only one area of litigation activity. Altogether 16 different clusters of litigated patents were identified, with the largest cluster relating to the mobile synchronisation of emails and other data. Apple had the most dominant patent portfolio overall out of the almost 7100 patents analysed, while second-placed Microsoft had the largest number of patents. Microsoft has just announced a tie-up with Nokia in the smartphone area, and the dominance of their combined portfolio of patents is enough to push them into first place, with Apple, IBM, Research in Motion and Sun Microsystems rounding out the top five places.

The Facebook Connection
NPA was originally developed by Austrian-born network consultant Doris Spielt­henner, who developed NPA out of insights gained in the emerging science of “social network” analysis. While many of us may regard social networking as something conducted on Facebook, the analysis of social or any networks is an emerging business tool. For example, Spielthenner and some of her colleagues pioneered the analysis of networks between doctors to determine influential doctors to whom pharmaceutical companies should target their marketing.

Since moving to Australia, Spielthenner has applied her skills to working with conglomerates to analyse the key influencers in infrastructure bids, and working with law enforcement agencies to analyse relationships between criminals.

Patents (and possibly scientific papers) may be an ideal dataset to apply social network analysis. Many patent offices are very mindful of the publication side of the patent “deal” between inventors and the state, and go out of their way to make patent publications and related data available for the public to use. Commercial and public interest data aggregators then combine patent data from different patent offices and make the aggregated available for both the interested public and commercial patent analysts.

Patent data are likely to become even more detailed and analysable in the future as awareness grows of the value of patent data as a record of technology development. Given that smartphones are a key component of modern social networking, it is perhaps ironic that a technique developed from the fledging science of social networking has been applied to expose the key technologies and technology disputes behind smartphones.

A Surprise for Toyota’s Hybrid Car
Given the ability of NPA to analyse the complex and otherwise secretive world of smartphone inventions, it is tempting to ask what else NPA can achieve.

Griffith Hack and Ambercite have already applied NPA to a variety of commercial and public projects, such as the leading patents in the hybrid car field. A review of more than 58,000 patents gave top ranking to the patents filed by little-known Russian-born inventor Alex Severinsky ahead of the several thousand patents filed by Toyota, maker of the Prius hybrid, as well as patents filed by other automobile heavyweights such as Ford, Honda and Volkswagen.

When the Severinsky patents were investigated further, it turned out that the second-highest ranked patent had been asserted against Toyota and Ford. NPA has been used to visualise the relationship between the Severinsky patents and the leading hybrid car patents filed by Ford and Toyota, and this confirmed the claims of Paice Corporation, owner of the Severinsky patents, over Toyota and Ford.

However, most of the commercial NPA projects to date have been commissioned by R&D managers wanting to search the patent literature for new ideas that they can apply to their businesses. The interest in NPA from these R&D managers has ranged from looking for inventions out of the US that can be applied to Australia, to looking for inventions in related fields to be applied to the one in which they operate. NPA’s ability to group into clusters up to 250,000 patents in one study, and then list the dominant patents in each group, has been able to save these managers countless hours reading less important patents, identifying key inventions that they might have otherwise missed, and provide confidence that they have a clear understanding of key developments in their area.

Looking Ahead
While NPA is not the first patent landscaping product, earlier patent landscaping products have used keywords rather than citations to link patents. In contrast to keyword linkages, citation linkages allow greater precision in grouping patents, and allow patents to be ranked in importance, something that it is not readily possible using keyword analysis.

This greater precision and ability to rank patents is already attracting global interest. Research and development is a huge business globally, with a reasonable proportion of the hundreds of billions spent annually likely to be spent on catch-up activities as companies try to keep abreast of their competitors.

When this vast expenditure is considered, along with the ability of tools like NPA to shine a focused light on earlier R&D and reduce the risk of reinventing the wheel, particularly where this wheel may have already been patented by a competitor, the value of advanced patent analysis tools like NPA starts to become very clear.

Mike Lloyd is an IP consultant at Griffith Hack.