PATENT PENDING

One company has a big edge in the fight to dominate the Internet of Things

Most of the innovation on the so-called Internet of Things is locked up in patents held by the companies that make the innards of sensors, routers, and other devices, according to a study by LexInnova, a consultancy.

The study finds that the companies with the greatest number of IoT patents globally are the chip-makers Qualcomm and Intel, followed by Chinese network-gear maker ZTE. Here’s the breakdown:

But not all patents are created equal. Only 1.5% of all patents are litigated, according to a seminal 2000 paper on the subject by Mark Lemley, a law professor at Stanford. That suggests only a sliver of patents are worth the cost of enforcing. Lemley and three other co-authors devised a system to sift through patents and find the most valuable ones.

LexInnova applied this system to the IoT patents to show which companies had the strongest portfolio:

Where Qualcomm and Intel are neck and neck on absolute numbers of patents, Qualcomm has a significantly stronger patent portfolio, according to LexInnova’s research. This might be a major problem for Intel, which has staked its future on IoT. Brian Krzanich, its chief executive, called the company’s IoT group a “primary growth engine” in his 2015 shareholder’s letter. It reported revenue of $651 million for its IoT group for the first quarter of 2016, 22% higher than the previous year. Qualcomm doesn’t report numbers for its IoT products, although it said last year that it made $1 billion in revenue from chips used in smart homes, city infrastructure, cars, and wearables.

In the meantime, however, it looks like both Intel and Qualcomm are content to grow the IoT pie. As chip-makers, they both benefit from a proliferation of new devices, and as smartphone growth slows, even Qualcomm’s dominance in the mobile sector doesn’t guarantee future growth.

That’s why they joined forces, together with Microsoft, on a new standards group in February to ensure that all those connected cars, watches, thermostats, and fridges actually end up working together. Those war-chests of patents will come into play later, when the low hanging-fruit from the Internet of Things has been harvested.

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