Thursday, January 17, 2013

ViewSonic (which Nokia is suing in the US and Germany) exits the European smartphone market

Germany's most widely-read IT news site, Heise online, reported a few hours ago (here's the article, in German) that ViewSonic, a hardware company headquartered in California that (among other things) builds Android-based wireless devices, has decided to leave the European smartphone market. According to the Heise article, ViewSonic's PR department clarified that three Android-based smartphones shown at the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona won't be launched in Europe. The report cites a spokeswoman for ViewSonic who said that a "change of strategy" has occurred, and ViewSonic plans to focus in Europe on projectors, monitors, audiovisual information systems and cloud-based products.

The Android device market is clearly overcrowded. Only Samsung is making serious money in the short term. Some consolidation is going to be inevitable, and some device makers may increasingly look for other platforms.

ViewSonic's decision has tactical implications for its patent dispute with Nokia. In May 2012 Nokia sued HTC, ViewSonic and RIM over a number of patents. RIM has meanwhile agreed to pay Nokia for its intellectual property, while HTC and ViewSonic are still defending themselves in the United States and Germany. In the U.S., Nokia has an ITC complaint as well as a couple of federal lawsuits (in Delaware) pending against HTC, but it's suing ViewSonic only in Delaware, where the earliest realistic trial date based on current schedules is more than two years away. In Germany, Nokia may very well win some decisions against ViewSonic this year, but if ViewSonic no longer sells any Android-based gadgets in this country, the leverage Nokia can get in practical terms is limited to damages for past infringement. Injunctions would affect ViewSonic only if it changed mind again at some point and decided to re-enter the European smartphone market.

ViewSonic already defended itself against Nokia's patent assertion at a couple of first hearings held by the Munich I Regional Court (in Munich, second hearings are trials), such as one in November over a text message-related patent, which has a May 2013 trial date. If damages for past infringement are the only strategic issue for ViewSonic in the German market, and considering that ViewSonic's sales in Germany have never been huge, the stakes are minimal and ViewSonic may determine that the cost of defending itself in multiple German patent actions is unjustifiably high, unless it receives stealth funding from Google. I'm not saying that this is the case, but if ViewSonic continues to spend millions and millions of euros defending itself against Nokia's German cases, then the "cui bono?" question of why it's doing so if it has actually given up the market must be asked. If ViewSonic simply surrendered in Germany (except for a dispute over the amount of past damages), it would weaken the position of other Android device makers who may defend themselves against the same Nokia patents in the future, not in a strict legal sense but in a psychological one.

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