Antenna Wars, The

A historical IP battle between cellular telephone makers, where patents were used in a manner that ultimately proved pyrrhic for many of the companies involved, often used as an example of the benefits of patents spurring ‘design-around‘ innovations.

Early cellphones used either long rubber coated “whip antennas” or tubular telescopic antennas.  The long whip antennas had the drawback that they made the phone hard to carry, while telescopic tubular antennas are notoriously fragile and prone to be being bent or broken.

One set of patented solutions was to make the antennas out of a springy material like super-elastic alloy, which is what an early market leader, Motorola did – but refused to license.  In response Ericsson, then a fairly small player developed a patented solution which allowed for a short stub antenna, roughly 1-2 cm long and protruding only a little from the cellphone.  This was immediately extremely popular and Ericsson became a leading cellphone manufacturer, gaining market share mostly at the expense of Motorola and others who had refused to license Ericsson their earlier, inferior antenna designs.

Into this situation came a then obscure Finnish paper making and industrial products company named Nokia. It also aspired to make cellphones, but could not secure a license to Ericsson’s stub antenna; Nokia was thus forced to come up with a design around and succeeded in developing an antenna that was both remarkably compact, and more significantly completely internal to the device – with no external protrusions – and patented it.  This was not just more attractive – it put an end to the common scene of women dragging out much of the content of their handbags caught on the antenna when trying to answer a call, or the phone getting snagged in men’s pockets by the antenna.  The “antenna-less”  Nokia phones were hugely popular and catapulted Nokia from obscurity to become in a few years the world’s largest cell-phone manufacturer.