WAP's patently unfunny joke on consumers

By Pankaj Chowdhry, PC Week Those looking for humor in the networking industry will be hard pressed to find something to chuckle about. Between fiber distributed interfaces and Border Gateway Protocols, not many people at IETF meetings end up busting a gut.

By Pankaj Chowdhry, PC Week

Those looking for humor in the networking industry will be hard pressed to find something to chuckle about. Between fiber distributed interfaces and Border Gateway Protocols, not many people at IETF meetings end up busting a gut.

But while the industry itself doesn't offer any humor, the guys behind the curtain—the ones making the standards—can be more entertaining than any Jerry Lewis movie. The funniest zinger to come out of a standards body is the new Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP.

WAP, which industry pundits say will be installed in more than 25 million devices in the next couple of years, will let you access your toaster from your cell phone. WAP is based on XML and promises anytime, anywhere access to data from a variety of devices.

But one company has decided that it wants to make a nickel every time we decide to dial up our toasters. GeoWorks is claiming to have patents on two key areas: WAP and Wireless Markup Language. And after reading the patents, I've concluded the company probably does.

I have nothing against patents. Further, I have nothing against GeoWorks; it invested a significant amount of money in developing the technology and should be compensated. I start to have issues when a standards organization is willing to bless an "open standard" that contains patented intellectual property. As long as the current legal environment prevails, companies will have to file patents.

This is the reality of the current business climate. But why do consumers have to accept a standard that for all intents and purposes guarantees a monopoly to a company that has patented key areas of the standard? If the technology is so necessary, the company could proceed in the absence of a standard because its technology would be the only viable alternative. This would create a de facto standard driven by market forces. No harm, no foul—a company was rewarded for innovating and bringing good technology to market.

Remember H.323?
This is compounded by the fact that standards, when done incorrectly, don't benefit anyone, least of all consumers. A perfect example is the H.323 standard, which was held up by countless patent claims. Everyone from universities to Lucent wanted a piece of the action, which originally meant that anyone interested in using the standard had to negotiate with a dozen companies.

Fast-forward several years: H.323 has seen little adoption and is being discarded in favor SIP/MGCP. Will the same fate befall WAP? That depends on how painful it is for WAP companies to license the patents from GeoWorks. Just who is liable for infringement of the patent? Good question. Luckily, the folks over at GeoWorks have issued a white paper addressing that subject. They put together a nice little chart showing the different types of companies that may end up using WAP. These companies range from phone manufacturers to telecom service providers.

Surprise, surprise! GeoWorks wants 10 percent of revenues, or $1 per user. A company such as Nokia, which sells more than 10 million phones a year, may already be looking for a way to bypass the patents or simply throw the whole thing into litigation.

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