In light of the much-publicised dispute over handset design patents between Apple and Samsung, many commentators have cast Samsung as the “fast-follower”, while Apple is pushing at the frontier of innovation. I would argue such commentators have things very wrong.
Samsung is winning the broader and more important war over patenting innovations, over the Fourth Generation (4G) technological standard or platform, which enables the use of today’s smartphones, including Apple’s widely-applauded iPhone, and other manufacturers’ products.
Apple, on the other hand, has little control over the foundational technologies that will enable the delivery of future telecommunications services. This isn’t to take anything away from Apple’s enviable success in the international smartphone market but to explain, from a broader perspective, why Samsung has emerged as an innovation leader and how that has occurred.
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Controlling tech platforms
The real winner of the patents war in the telecommunications sector will be the company that owns patents related to the technological infrastructures on which all mobile devices are based. Why? Because any company that chooses to develop a product compatible with the underlying technological platform is required to make royalty payments to those firms who control the patents over that platform.
So the potential benefits of controlling the underlying technological infrastructure are enormous.
Samsung’s dominance in 4G patents
By the mid-2000s, three major international alliances had emerged to develop 4G standards, led by Nokia, which promoted Long-Term Evolution (LTE); Qualcomm, which promoted Ultra Mobile Broadband; and a somewhat unusual co-operative venture between Samsung and Intel, both of which focused on promoting a Korean-developed technology known as Mobile Wimax.
In recent years, Qualcomm has pulled out of the race to promote its own platform, focusing instead on promoting LTE – in part due to the perceived technological limitations of its technology relative to the advancements made by the Europeans and Koreans.
Today, Samsung owns the largest share of patents used in both the LTE and Mobile Wimax platforms while Apple holds very few patents over any of the network technologies.
According to one report published by the Wimax Forum, Samsung is estimated to own 15% to 20% of Mobile Wimax-related patents. Meanwhile, in a separate report by iRunway, Samsung commands 9.36% of all LTE patents.