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Android Cellphones Handhelds Open Source Patents Your Rights Online

Why You Can't Build Your Own Smartphone: Patents 179

Posted by timothy
from the hard-to-count-'em-all dept.
jfruh writes "In the mid-00s, more and more people started learning about Android, a Linux-based smartphone OS. Open source advocates in particular thought they could be seeing the mobile equivalent of Linux — something you could download, tinker with, and sell. Today, though, the Android market is dominated by Google and the usual suspects in the handset business. The reason nobody's been able to launch an Android empire from the garage is fairly straightforward: the average smartphone is covered by over 250,000 patents."
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Why You Can't Build Your Own Smartphone: Patents

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  • We, outside U$A, (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 10, 2012 @07:57AM (#41941369)

    couldn't give a single f*ck.

  • Hard (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jamesl (106902) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @07:59AM (#41941379)

    The reason nobody's been able to launch an Android empire from the garage is fairly straightforward: the average smartphone is covered by over 250,000 patents."

    And it's hard. And it costs a lot of money. And the market is full of very good competitors. Otherwise there's nothing stopping you.

  • by Lisias (447563) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @08:04AM (#41941391) Homepage Journal

    But we should.

  • Re:False (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BeanThere (28381) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @08:31AM (#41941477)

    So basically you're saying that the system is OK because in an absurdly artificially restricted case you could potentially do it illegally without getting caught? OK, maybe technically (that's true of any crime), but that's not what normal people mean at all when they discuss things like this, nor is that an even meaningful hypothetical. (You can also get away with visiting a prostitute if you don't get caught or smoking a doobie if you don't get caught, but that's not relevant when normal people discuss whether it's morally valid or a positive or negative thing for these things to be illegal.)

  • by queazocotal (915608) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @08:58AM (#41941559)

    This is totally ignoring the software and patent problems.

    To elaborate on why open-source hardware is hard, and why making a single phone will cost you over $10K.

    Why open-source software works is:
    Widely available repository of code.
    Many people able to review it, or sections of it, and understand it.
    Ease of submitting tested patches.

    Hardware has problems that don't really fit well with this.
    The open schematic is the trivially easy part, and not really a problem.
    (though in practice, you need a schematic with copious links to design documents, which isn't well solved by open tools).

    The number of people who can review it is rather smaller - as you can't open up a c file, and see a clear error or awkwardness in code that can be edited.

    For all but the most basic errors, you are going to have to sit down and read several hundred pages of hardware documentation about how the chips in question work, in addition to having in-depth knowledge about the circuit design, and costings of likely changes.

    Now, you've done this, and generated a patch that you think (for example) lowers the supply current by 1%.

    Compile - test.
    On a PC, this takes a couple of minutes.

    For something of a smartphone class, a one-off PCB may cost several hundred dollars. Then the parts will cost another several hundred dollars in small quantities, as well as being difficult to obtain.
    Now, you have to solder the parts onto the board, which is a decidedly nontrivial thing - and if you decide you want someone else to do this, it's probably another several hundred dollars.

    So, you're at the thick end of a thousand dollars for a 'compile'.

    Now, you boot the device, and it exhibits random hangs.

    Neglecting the fact that you are going to need several hundred to several thousand dollars of test equipment, you now have to find
    the bug.

    Is it:
    A) The fact that unlabled 0.5*1mm component C38 is in fact 20% over the designed value, as the assembly company put the wrong one in.
    B) C38 has a tiny bridge of solder underneath it that is making intermittent contact.
    C) The chipmaker for the main chip hasn't noticed that their chip doesn't quite do what they say it will do, and the datasheet is wrong.
    D) You missed a tangential reference on page 384 of the datasheet to proper setup of the RAM chip, and it is pure coincidence that all models up till now have booted.
    E) Because you're ordering small quantities, you had to resort to getting the chips from a distributor who diddn't watch their supply chain really carefully, and your main chip has in fact been desoldered from a broken cellphone.
    F) Though the design of the circuit is correct, and the board you made matches that design, and all the parts are correct and work properly, the inherent undesired elements introduced by real life physics means it doesn't work.
    G) A completely random failure of a part that could occur with even the best design, and best manufacture.

    G - may mean that it's worthwhile making two or more of each revision - which of course boosts costs.

    Hardware is nasty.

    This gets a lot less painful of course for lower end hardware. For very limited circuits, which can be done on simple inexpensive PCBs, and be easily soldered at home - costs of a 'compile' can be in the tens of dollars, or even lower.

  • by confused one (671304) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @09:10AM (#41941607)

    Patents won't stop you from building a couple of devices in your garage; but, they'll be as useful as bricks. You have to get the radios FCC certified and then run the gauntlet of certification hoops to convince the cell provider to allow you to connect your garage built device to their network. There are radio modules available that would speed up the process -- basically pre-certified modules that handle the entire cell phone function. You might be able to do it using these... But they're huge, relatively speaking. You won't be building a sexy device like a Galaxy S, iPhone, or Droid with them.

    We've done it on equipment we're designing for deployment; but, I have the advantage of being able to call Verizon and say, "I'm Confused, an electrical and software engineer with Big-Company. I am using a cell radio module from A_well_known_manufacturer. I need to activate it on our account for testing..." And, by the way, we won't do that until we're pretty damn sure the thing will work right.

  • by confused one (671304) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @09:23AM (#41941643)

    As an engineer, I thought I would point out there are two ways we deal with patents:

    Method 1: Once you have an idea, do a thorough patent search and verify your idea does not appear to violate any patents. If it does, re-design the widget so it avoids the patent.

    Method 2: Ignorance is bliss. Design and build it.

    I can tell you, if you use method 1 you will need an enormous staff and risk never getting anything done. Despite it all, you still won't be safe because someone will come along with patent claims anyway, even though you did a most thorough due diligence search. I'm not saying you ignore patents, that would be unethical. Company I work for has a record of the patents related to our products that we have been made aware of. It just doesn't make a lot of sense to go looking for trouble.

  • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @09:41AM (#41941757)
    1 also doesn't work because a lot of patents now are so broad they can't be worked around. Often so broad they'd get thrown out in court, after you'd spend a few hundred thousand dollars in legal fees.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 10, 2012 @10:06AM (#41941893)

    At my (prominant semiconductor) company, we have been specifically urged by Legal to NEVER do patent searchs. Since the penalty for knowingly infringing is triple that for unknowing infringement, this policy apparently makes some kind of legal sense.

  • by wvmarle (1070040) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @10:15AM (#41941945)

    Many patents involved are valid outside of the USA. And there certainly are plenty of reasonable patents (i.e. actual inventions) in the mix. Not just software patents. And if you don't believe me, try building and selling your own smartphone. You'll soon enough find out about it.

  • by goodmanj (234846) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @10:19AM (#41941971)

    Software-defined radio is not some magic wand you wave and poof! wireless telecom. It eventually gets down to physical RF hardware. And when that hardware operates in the gigahertz band (which it will have to do unless you want the FCC on your ass), you need high-tech RF transceiver hardware like SAW filters and gigahertz amplifiers, which are patented *in their own right* as electronic components, whether they're in a phone or not.

    Too many computer programmers are used to accomplishing miracles in software, and they forget that somewhere in the background, there's an electrical engineer that made their miracle possible.

  • by queazocotal (915608) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @11:21AM (#41942345)

    FPGAs are always going to be more expensive, and less power efficient for given tasks than comparable single function silicon.
    There is, even in the most efficiently implemented design in a FPGA, considerable area wasted by interconnects, and suboptimal use of resources.

    It's like making a working device from lego.
    Yes, you may be able to do it, but if you make it as one moulded piece, it's going to be lots cheaper.

    There are also no CPLDs in mobile phones.

  • Re:False (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ceoyoyo (59147) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @11:45AM (#41942533)

    Either you don't know what thoughtcrime is or you don't know what patents are.

    You can do all the tinkering in your own home you want. If you want to build yourself a smartphone that looks identical to an iPhone in every way, go for it. You can even go use it out on the street, and tell everyone about it. What you can't do is make them for other people. Making things (and distributing them) is definitely not thoughtcrime.

  • by jc42 (318812) on Saturday November 10, 2012 @01:18PM (#41943269) Homepage Journal

    "We are actually witnessing fewer patent suits per patent issued today than the historical average"

    So if there are, say, only 0.1 suits per patent, a startup trying to market their own smartphone will only have to win 25,000 court cases, and they'll then be free to sell it on the "Open Market".

    It may not be immediately obvious to all readers how this qualifies as promoting the "Progress of Science and useful Arts", as the phrase goes.

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