A peace plan to end the wireless wars

No one would have predicted that the three of us would ever find ourselves on the same side of the corporate patent wars, let alone speak with one voice about how to end them.

That’s because one of us is the patent chief at a global smartphone maker (and an influential critic of patent licensing abuses); another is the former licensing chief at Apple and current chief executive of a non-practicing entity (NPE) patent licensing company that has been a target of criticism from product manufacturers; while the third is president of a patent pool operator, who has criticized companies on both sides of the patent wars for their gamesmanship, lack of transparency, and litigiousness.

We have come together because we see that patent owners and product makers have become trapped in an endless cycle of demands, counter-demands, and unproductive litigation. Unless we find a way out of this conflict, we will almost certainly see a repeat of yesterday’s costly and wasteful smartphone wars in tomorrow’s wireless connected car sector.

Product makers accuse patent owners of threatening lawsuits and using the expense of the legal process in order to demand extortionate royalties for their patent rights. For their part, patent owners say product makers refuse to pay fair compensation for the patented wireless, audio, and video features that give their products value as communication and entertainment devices.

The truth is, both sides have a point. That’s because patent owners and product makers are caught in a classic “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which the lack of transparency and fair ground rules in patent licensing lead companies on each side of a patent dispute to try to game the other. This only ensures that both sides suffer a negative outcome in outrageously-expensive litigation.

Unlike in the real property business, in intellectual property (IP) licensing there is little or no independent appraisal of the assets (i.e., patents) or transparency as to how prices are determined. And because most patent license agreements are confidential, there is little or no information or “comps” on what others have paid for similar patent rights. Nor are there any widely-accepted ground rules for what constitutes fair negotiating practices between buyers and sellers.

This is especially true in regards to standards-essential wireless patents, which are supposed to be licensed on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. But what’s fair or reasonable about the fact that an impossibly-large number of LTE (4G) cellular patents — more than 60,000, in fact — have been declared “standards essential” without any independent evaluation of those patents whatsoever?

That’s right, those 60,000-plus patents have all been self-declared “standards-essential” by companies each seeking their own commercial advantage. What you’ve got is a wireless gold rush — with plenty of fool’s gold posing as real gold.

So the three of us, working with industry leaders on both sides of the patent owner vs. product maker divide, have developed a three-pronged plan for ending the wireless patent wars and creating a more productive and less litigious patent licensing sector.

First, whittle down this ridiculous mountain of self-interested wireless patent claims to the fewer than 2,000 patent families that most experts believe are truly essential to smartphone handset makers. We can do this by excluding duplicative patents, expired patents, patents not in force in major economic markets, and patents for base station, infrastructure, and other innovations not relevant to handset makers. Independent, neutral evaluators will then confirm each patent’s relevance to the LTE standard for handsets.

Second, base royalty prices not on the subjectively-argued value of each individual patent examined in a vacuum, but on the objective value of the entire stack of LTE patents in a phone. A recent court judgment valued that LTE stack at roughly $20 for a smartphone with an average selling price of $324, but with greater price transparency from both sides, the market itself will likely set a rational price for the LTE stack. Royalties can then be paid to patent owners roughly proportionate to each patent owner’s percentage share of the total LTE patent stack.

And third, ensure greater transparency by promoting collective licensing solutions such as patent pools that openly publish their pricing frameworks and offer consistent terms to all licensees. Given the “prisoner’s dilemma” dynamics in patent licensing today, it is unrealistic to expect any one patent owner to unilaterally forego potential business advantage by revealing its pricing strategies. But collective licensing approaches such as patent pools reduce the risks of transparency for everyone.

As the IP journal Intellectual Asset Management recently noted, “There’s a growing sense that a collective approach to licensing could help solve some of the problems of the industry which, in sectors like mobile, has been scarred by long-running and costly disputes between patent owners and potential licensees.”

Our “peace plan” would eliminate many of the incentives and opportunities for gamesmanship in wireless patent licensing. And most importantly, it would help patent owners and product makers avoid a repeat of yesterday’s costly smartphone wars in tomorrow’s connected car, autonomous vehicle, and Internet of Things (IoT) industries.

It’s time for a new realignment in the industry — one in which the conflict is no longer between product maker and patent owner, but between those who license patents on a fair and transparent basis, and those who do not.

Apple is making a show based on Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ books

Okay, Apple, now you’ve got my attention.

Not content with landing an Amazing Stories reboot from Steven Spielberg, multiple series from Reese Witherspoon, a space opera from Ron Moore and much more for its upcoming original TV initiative (which might launch next March), Apple is also developing a series based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books.

Deadline reports that the project from Skydance Television is “in development for straight-to-series consideration,” with David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman attached as showrunners. Goyer is best-known for comic book adaptations like Blade, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, while Friedman was the creator of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The Foundation stories depict the fall of a massive galactic empire, and the efforts of a small group of scientists to preserve knowledge and restore civilization. They were first published in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s, then collected into three books in the ’50s. (At the 1966 World Science Fiction Convention, the series beat out Lord of the Rings to win the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series.)

Asimov (a legendary science fiction and science writer, as well as an occasional computer pitchman) returned to the series near the end of his career, and while the later books are not as well-loved by fans, they also won him awards and landed him on The New York Times bestseller list for the first time.

If you want to read thousands more words about why the books mean a lot to me, be my guest. But when it comes to a TV adaptation, two points seem salient: One, the books take place over hundreds of years, with a constantly rotating cast of characters, and two, they consist almost entirely of conversation, with just a few brief scenes of action.

That may be why previous attempts to adapt Foundation — including an effort at HBO by Goyer’s Dark Knight co-writer Jonathan Nolan — have failed. If this one pans out, I suspect we’ll see some pretty big changes.

Fleetsmith secures $7.7M investment to manage Apple devices

Fleetsmith, a startup that wants to make it easier for companies to manage their Apple devices, announced a $7.7 million Series A round today led by Upfront Ventures.

Seed investors Index Ventures and Harrison Meta also participated in the round. The company has raised a total of $11 million. They also announced that Luke Kanies, founder and former CEO of Puppet has joined their Board of Directors.

Fleetsmith wants to help SMBs provision and manage Apple devices whether that’s computers, phones, iPads or Apple TVs. Trying to provision these devices manually is a time-consuming process, one that larger organizations no longer have to deal with because of other commercial options or in-house solutions, but Fleetsmith puts that same kind of efficient device management within reach of smaller organizations by offering it as a cloud service.

The two co-founders, Zack Blum and Jesse Endahl, who came from Dropbox and Phantom were both in positions where they needed to buy and deploy Apple devices and couldn’t find a good way for a small company to do that on the market.

“How do you manage a fleet of Macs and secure them through the internet? We looked around when we were in a build/buy position and saw a lot to be done. We are democratizing what companies like Google and Facebook have with their own [home-grown] internal Mac management tools,” CEO Blum told Techcrunch.

Fleetsmith device admin console. Photo: Fleetsmith

The company takes advantage of the Device Enrollment Program, a business device management service offered by Apple to simplify provisioning of Apple products. As long as the IT administrator is enrolled in DEP, you can use Fleetsmith, Blum explained. An employee can then order a laptop (or any device), and when they connect to to WiFi, it connects to Fleetsmith, which configures the device automatically.

“The really cool thing about how DEP integrates into our feature set is that as soon as the employee connects to WiFi, it take care of deployment. The account is created, software gets installed, the drive gets encrypted. It makes installing and enrolling new people really simple,” he said. Once you’re setup with everything you need installed, the admin can force critical updates, but the system will give you several warnings before installing the update.

“Fleetsmith is automation applied perfectly, handing all of the menial work to the computer so the people do less firefighting and more strategic work. This is especially important in the mid-market because the teams are leaner and every computer counts,” new board member Kanies said in a statement.

The service costs is just $99 per year per device to access the cloud service. They offer a freemium version to manage up to 10 devices at no cost. The company launched in 2016 and currently has 20 employees. Customers include HackerOne, Robinhood and Nuna.

Apple says its global facilities are now powered by 100-percent clean energy

Last week, Apple called out the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to rollback the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The company cited both the obvious environmental impact of such a move, along with potential economic fallout.

It turns out Apple’s got quite a bit invested in the latter.  The company announced today that its global facilities are now 100-percent run by renewable energy.

The move is in line with the company’s 2015 plan to push toward 100-percent renewable energy, a list that includes all of Apple’s data centers as of 2014. As of today, the company’s officially adding retail stores, offices and co-located facilities to that list, covering 43 countries, including the US, China, UK and India.

The addition of nine manufacturing partners, meanwhile, brings the total number up to 23 suppliers promising to produce their products entirely with clean energy. How the companies involved actually hit these numbers is, unsurprisingly, somewhat more complex.

“Where feasible, we produce our own renewable energy by building our own renewable energy facilities, including solar arrays, wind farms, biogas fuel cells, and micro-hydro generation systems,” the company writes in its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report. “Where it’s not feasible to build our own generation, we sign long-term renewable energy purchase contracts, supporting new, local projects that meet our robust renewable energy sourcing principles.”

The push toward renewable energy has included some creative solutions, including 300 solar rooftops in Japan and 800 in Singapore. The company says it’s currently running 25 renewable energy projects globally, with 15 more in the process of being built. That will bump green energy capability from 626 megawatts to 1.4 gigawatts, by its count — and the finally tally doesn’t appear to include carbon offsets, unlike some of the competition. 

It’s easy to see how a rollback of the Clean Power Plan could ultimately have an adverse effect on the company’s bottom line.

“We’re committed to leaving the world better than we found it. After years of hard work we’re proud to have reached this significant milestone,” Tim Cook said in a release tied to the news. “We’re going to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the materials in our products, the way we recycle them, our facilities and our work with suppliers to establish new creative and forward-looking sources of renewable energy because we know the future depends on it.”