Are Patent Wars Impacting the IP Telephony Market?

Apple and Samsung have been locked in legal battles for years, largely over patents related to smartphones. To perhaps oversimplify the matter Apple has been arguing that Samsung has wholesale ripped off the iPhone’s design from day one, and Samsung is countersuing on points of design minutiae that the Korean company argues Apple has stolen. While it seems obvious at first that Apple has the upper hand here, that just about every smartphone is guilty of ripping off the iPhone, when it comes down to it patent law is extremely granular and both sides have support and detraction from their legal claims.

Precise Patents

The incredibly precise nature of patent law, and potential concerns for the hardware side of the IP telephony market, can be seen by looking at the recent news Apple is being sued for infringing a patent for a “mobile phone with a headset,” simply because Apple includes multifunction headphones with each iPhone they sell. While common sense argues that a multifunction headphone probably doesn’t count as a “headset,” the patent being brought up in this case revolves around a removable headset that is designed “to receive at least telephony audio signals from the phone, and to provide audio signals to the phone.”

Considering the fact the headphones Apple includes with the iPhone can, in fact, replace the device’s speakers, allowing you to listen to phone calls through them, and considering the fact you can speak into your headphone’s receivers to send an audio signal to the other half of your conversation, the company suing Apple may have a case here. Yet even though the company suing Apple is best understood as a “Patent Troll,” and even though the case will likely resolve in Apple’s favor, when it comes down to it the mere fact this lawsuit could be filed demonstrates some potential issues in the world of telephony technology, raising a pertinent question- could patent wars negatively impact the IP telephony market?

Probably Not

Think about it this way- even though Apple and Samsung have been flinging armies of lawyers at each other for years, trying to win the battle for smartphone supremacy, the average consumer has remained relatively insulated from these skirmishes. These patent disputes haven’t resulted in any products pulled off the shelves, or any sizable delays in product releases, or in any removed features. A few of these outcomes have cropped up abroad, but in the States these legal fights have come and gone, largely imperceptibly, and there’s every reason to believe the same thing will happen if hard-core patent wars erupt in the IP telephony market.

IP Telephony is A Poor Target

However, the likelihood of similar patent wars cropping up over IP telephony hardware is highly unlikely due to the fact IP telephony hardware just doesn’t represent the same massive market as smartphone technology. Right now there’s a lot less at stake between IP telephone designers than between Apple and Samsung- there’s a lot less to gain and to lose. While patent fights are certainly part of the IP telephony market they aren’t as extensive as in the smartphone market’s and they’re even less likely to create any sort of noticeable impact on users.

The Source of the Escalating Patent Wars

So why are we seeing these Patent Wars if they have no real impact on the technological landscape? In a word, money. The “headset” lawsuit against Apple is for $3 million dollars, a relatively small sum of money but a potentially quick and easy cash grab for a shell company writing patents and looking for a quick, if dubious, payday. Yet these frivolous patent infringement lawsuits add up, with U.S. companies losing $29 billion in 2011 alone from infringement cases.