Thursday, February 10, 2011

San Diego to WSJ: what about us???

The front page of the Bay Area edition of the Wall Street Journal this morning proclaimed: “Wireless Industry Calls Valley Home.” The inside headline said: “Phone Makers’ New Area Code: 650.” For members of the San Diego telecom industry, those should be fighting words.
The premise of the story:
According to IDC, sales of smartphones are expected to grow 39% world-wide this year from 2010 to 421 million units. More than 40% of those devices will run on operating systems developed within 10 miles of each other in Silicon Valley.
The article by veteran tech reporter Yukair Iwatani Kane presented a oversimplified and distorted version of the US wireless industry. It played up Sony Ericsson — the has-been cellphone marker in 2010 to 6th in global market share and off the map in smartphones. It never mentioned chips at all — nor Qualcomm, the largest cellphone chip maker or its San Diego hometown.

However, Kane can’t be held responsible for the most glaring error, that of the headline: the iPhone, its OS and app store are developed and run in the 408 area code.

Still, if the measure of mobile phone leadership is software platform market share (arguable but plausible), Silicon Valley is out in front. It didn’t have to be so: Seattle (through Microsoft) had many chances but blew it, and London was ahead for a decade (due to Nokia’s investment in Symbian Ltd.) until Nokia started to fold.

This of course is about the secular shift in cellphones: it’s not about the radios and networks, it’s about the software, platform, application and the Internet. (Intel’s dreams notwithstanding, the chips are all ARM licensees which means Qualcomm must fight relentlessly to gain and maintain market share.)

If the fight is over software, then San Diego will play a decreasing role in the growth of the wireless industry. When I helped start the SDSIC in 1993, we were concerned about the region’s ability to support local software companies, and modeled some of our practices after Silicon Valley forebears. Despite our hopes, the region’s software industry never grew all that much — certainly trailing Silicon Valley, Seattle and several other cities.

UCSD and Qualcomm alumni are starting firms, but the software engineering and VC talent will remain concentrated elsewhere in the state.

Qualcomm itself would rather switch than fight. Under Jacos fils, it’s become less interested in San Diego and is expanding in the Bay Area to get local design wins and tap its software and Internet expertise.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Effect of zombie portfolio on LTE royalties?

The WSJ reports that the liquidation of Nortel is moving on to its portfolio of 4,000 telecommunications patents, worth as much as $1 billion.

The most strategically valuable are those related to LTE, given that the Canadian firm was aggressively developing 4G technology before it went bankrupt two years ago.

The WSJ listed four telecom firms as likely bidders — Apple, Google, Huawei and ZTE — all firms relatively light on 3G and 4G patents.

However, the article mentions as a possible bidder only one of the four major 3G patent holders: Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm and InterDigital. The latter is mentioned in the same breath as Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold’s well known Silicon Valley patent troll:
Closely-held Intellectual Ventures and InterDigital use patents for offensive purposes, licensing them as broadly as possible and asserting them in infringement suits against companies that refuse to take a license.
A possible rival bidder is RPX, a “defensive patent aggregator” that lists Google, HTC, Huawei, Nokia, RIM and Samsung as members. For obvious reasons, Qualcomm is not a client of the company.

Without knowing where the patents will end up, it’s impossible to predict their impact on Qualcomm’s QTL division and its IP-based business model.

However, with two rare exceptions — Broadcom and Nokia — large patent portfolios in the hands of other telecom companies have had no significant impact on the QTL business. Qualcomm has managed to cross-license patents with its customers (including more than 15 years with Nortel) without jeopardizing its royalty rate.

If the patents go to Apple, Google or one of the Asian makers, I don’t think it will impact Qualcomm‘s royalty rate. (Instead, Qualcomm’s pricing power will depend on the relative strength of its LTE portfolio vs. its 3G or cmdaOne holdings.)

I think the story is different if the patents are acquired by IV or InterDigital. Either might choose to sue Qualcomm’s LTE chips for infringement, and — unlike Nortel, Samsung or even Broadcom — they lack their own hostages that QTL can threaten with its patent portfolio. Still, I think Intellectual Ventures is a far more serious threat to QCOM than InterDigital.

In 1993, InterDigital sued Qualcomm (and was countersued) over 2G CDMA patents. The upshot was that Qualcomm paid InterDigital a flat $5.5 million settlement while InterDigital customers paid royalties for use of Qualcomm’s patents. InterDigital’s has been settling with smaller firms, but lost a major case against Nokia in 2009.

InterDigital stock has doubled in less than five months, but is still trading an discount to Qualcomm’s. They have an incentive to rebuild their patent portfolio to strengthen their hand in 4G licensing.

Given they cut their R&D back by 30% in 2009 — and their 2010 quarterlies suggest that R&D remains cut — I don’t see how InterDigital could afford to buy even one of the six portfolios. It’s also not like them to partner — the don’t need a license to patents but the right to assert — but perhaps they could presell rights to the patents they buy to existing customers to help pay for the cost.