Nokia vs Apple: no easy answers in GSM wars

The news that Nokia is suing Apple over ten wireless patents marks the start of what may be a fascinating and prolonged canter through the worlds of mobile phone standards and intellectual property.

The news that Nokia is suing Apple over ten wireless patents marks the start of what may be a fascinating and prolonged canter through the worlds of mobile phone standards and intellectual property. (Alternatively, it could end up, as the Nokia-Qualcomm war did, in silence)

It's not generally realised that a lot of industry standardisation work is legal, rather than technical: a company that owns a useful patent which would work well in an international standard wants paying for it, but the standards body won't want barriers to adoption.

The mechanics of how this works vary from case to case - most commonly, an agency is set up which manages the pools of IP and offers an efficient way to license them. But whatever the details - and GSM is more gruesomely complex than many - there are fairly standard way to get the IP you need to make the goods that follow the rules.

Which means that cases like this, where an IP owner goes after a handset maker, are rare. We don't know the details of the case, but it's a fair assumption that it's going to have a number of unique aspects. Nokia isn't a patent troll, it's been in discussion with Apple for a year, and the manner of the action tends to support the view that whatever the outcome, Nokia genuinely believes it has a case and is proceeding as a responsible litigant would. Around $25 of the cost of a mid-range phone goes on GSM licensing, which means Nokia's claim of between $6 and $12 owed per iPhone is no small percentage of the total amount you'd expect. It all looks and sounds like a case with substantial grounds.

You wouldn't know that from the reaction online, though. Half the world has assumed that Nokia is doing it because it can't make phones as good as the iPhone, because it wants to cripple a competitor, because it's a cheap path to publicity, because its losing money and Apple has loads... well, pick any combination of greed, stupidity, ill-will, jealousy and desperation and you'll find someone confidently proclaiming that this is what's going on. Poor Apple, eh?

All of the above could be true, although I doubt it. Yet neither I nor you nor any of the shouty Apple fanboys know what's actually going on. So from whence comes their great confidence?

It could be that they hate patents in general, although it's hard to despise a framework that's helped create a global mobile phone standard with four billion users. It could be that Apple is always right, a shining example of wholesome propriety and not the aggressive, arrogant, secretive organisation some mistake it for. Or it could be that those darn Finns have no right taking a pop at America - World War III? Is there nothing the iPhone can't do? There's an app for that..

Or it could be prejudice informing an instant and gratifying group opinion.

Whatever the answer, the evidence is out there right now. Have a look and decide for yourself.

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