30 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Year of the Mobile Wars


Last year will be remembered in technology circles as one in which techology companies around the globe had a go at each other using the legal route. In Zimbabwe, the main highlight was the case pitting mobile service providers Econet and NetOne. The dispute started when Econet terminated its interconnection service with NetOne over outstanding fees.

Econet claimed that it was owed US$20,4 million excluding interests, in outstanding internet connection fees by NetOne.

Econet said it had an agreement with NetOne for local traffic termination under which the operators would pay US7c per minute for calls going into each other's network. But NetOne reportedly failed to remit accumulated monthly fees due to Econet.

NetOne responded to the disconnection by taking Econet to court, which resulted in the later restoring connection pending the hearing of the case at the High Court on August 27.

The day after the court hearing Econet again disconnected service, but rescinded its decision. Lawyers of both parties, Mr Harrison Nkomo and Mr Collin Kuhuni representing Econet and NetOne respectively, confirmed the development.

Mr Nkomo said Econet's decision to restore services to NetOne was unilateral.

"Econet has taken a unilateral decision to reconnect NetOne considering both the negative impact on the subscribers and the unreasonable stance that NetOne took of disregarding the impact of the disconnection," said Mr Nkomo at the time. He said although they appeared before Justice Hlatshwayo, no order was made.

However, Mr Kuhuni said the legal wrangle is not over as the matter will be heard in court in due course.

Africom also had an internal bruising battle with two of its directors Messrs Simbarashe Mangwende and Farai Rwodzi after it announced that they had resigned from the Africom Holdings board in December 2011.

This led to boardroom squabbles that were later on resolved. On the international scene Apple took on Samsung over patents in what was dubbed the mother of all tech battles.

The patent disputes began when Samsung released its Galaxy smartphones in 2010. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs vowed before his death last year to wage "thermonuclear war" to prove that phones run on Google's Android operating system copy the iPhone.

In August, Samsung was then slapped with a US$1,05 billion fine after a jury found that it had violated Apple's mobile patents.

The verdict was that Samsung had violated six out of seven of Apple's patents in question, three of which cover familiar touch functions made possible by Google's Android software.

In the wake of the ruling, Apple wasted no time in pinpointing eight Samsung phones it wanted banned, but the bid was unsuccessful.

Among the features in dispute included Pinch to zoom: The iPhone was one of the first touchscreen gadgets to have the feature -- but the USPTO has ruled Apple's patent on the invention is invalid Samsung won a preliminary invalidation of Apple's "rubber-banding" patent in October that had the "bounce" feature.

The patent is for a feature which allows users with touchscreens to bounce back to the image on the screen if they attempt to scroll beyond the edge.

Instagram, which is now part of Facebook, got slammed with a US$15 billion class action suit from users who said that the social network was "improperly tracking the internet use of its members even after they logged out of their accounts". The case is still to be settled.

Google has dropped two patent lawsuits against Microsoft related to video compression technology in its Xbox 360 console.

Reports suggest that Google was forced to withdraw its legal complaint due to a US Federal Trade Commission ruling that the web giant must license out essential, or FRAND patents, at a fair and reasonable price.

Google had previously demanded US$4 billion a year in royalties for the patents, while Microsoft argued they were worth only US$1 million per year due to the essential nature of the patents.

The Oracle vs Google trial was not given too much scrutiny as the world's attention was focused on other Google's giant wars

Digitech Image Technologies was also reported to be suing Apple using a patent it received from Polaroid, a patent that Polaroid successfully used against Kodak in 1986 over the instant camera. including Sony, Toshiba, Motorola, Asus Computer, and others.

MobileMedia, a software patent holding company, won a jury trial against Apple in Delaware over three patents relating to smartphones and other mobile computing devices.

WiLan, a patent licensing firm from Canada also sued Apple, HTC, and Sierra Wireless in a Florida court for patents related to LTE technologies.

China is confirmed to have ordered Apple to pay US$165 170 to eight writers and two companies to compensate them for allowing unofficial ebooks to be sold on Apple's App Store in China.

Intel and AMD fought in court for more than a decade. While AMD generally won, Intel was never crippled and it's arguable that their focus on each other helped hand the tablet and smartphone markets to Nvidia and Qualcomm.

When Nokia filed a lawsuit accusing Apple of infringing patents, Nokia emerged as a clear winner from the fight, while Nokia announced that it is commencing patent litigation against HTC, Research in Motion and Viewsonic in the US and Germany.

RIM agreed to re-license patents from Nokia, putting an end to several lawsuits between the two companies. With the patent dispute nastiness now in the rear-view mirror, CEO Thorsten Heins and RIM can focus on their core business.

Will these legal battles have a long-term effect on progress and innovation? The precedent is now being set for what is legally defined as copying and what isn't.

After the bruising battles that were witnesses it seems that worst is far from over. The war continues.

The writer is the founding editor with TechnoMag.

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