Microsoft has been hush-hush about specifics of the patent licensing deals it has been signing with Android device makers, but a new blog post suggests Redmond might be wielding a larger intellectual-property club against the open source smartphone OS than had previously been thought.
Buried in Tuesday's announcement that China's Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) has approved Microsoft's purchase of Nokia's smartphone division was a surprising affirmation of Microsoft's patent rights.
"In reaching its decision, MOFCOM concluded after its investigation that Microsoft holds approximately 200 patent families that are necessary to build an Android smartphone," Microsoft deputy counsel David Howard wrote in the blog post.
That's quite a lot of patents. Little wonder, then, that dozens of Android vendors have reportedly signed licensing agreements with Redmond so far, including such big names as Dell, Huawei, Foxconn, Samsung, Sharp, and ZTE.
Most of those deals have reportedly involved royalty payments, which are believed to bring Microsoft hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year – likely even surpassing what it earns from Windows Phone.
We don't know the exact specifics of any of the patent deals, though, because neither Microsoft nor its new Android-flogging partners are telling. For the most part, we don't even know which patents Redmond is actually licensing.
In its deal with Sharp, Microsoft did reveal that the patents involved were related to the exFAT file system, and that Canon, Panasonic, Sanyo, and Sony have all licensed the same patents. That led to some speculation that exFAT might be what all of the other Android vendors are licensing, too – but Tuesday's revelation makes that seem unlikely.
Mind you, 200 patent families is by no means the biggest war chest in the ongoing mobile patent dust-up. Back in 2011, the Rockstar Consortium snapped up some 4,000 patents from the bankrupt Nortel, many of which were telecommunications-related. But then, Microsoft was one of the original members of that consortium – along with Apple, BlackBerry, EMC, Ericsson, and Sony – so it needn't worry about any of those patents coming back to bite it.
Redmond has also been remarkably effective in asserting its own patents. By some estimates, it earns as much as $8 for each Android phone sold.
Expect that to continue, including for devices sold in China. According to Howard, MOFCOM's decision in the matter of the Nokia merger "effectively adopts Microsoft's current patent licensing practices." ®