Richard Lloyd

Late last week Intel marked the 40th birthday of its first x86 microprocessor with a blog post from the company’s general counsel, Steven Rodgers, and Richard A. Uhlig, director of systems and software research. The pair explained the significance of the x86’s birth; it paved the way for modern PCs and, as they wrote, “literally changed the world”.

It was certainly a landmark worth noting. But what stands out from the pair’s post and got parts of the tech press all aflutter was the company’s warning that it was more than prepared to use its IP to stage a stout defence of its market position against encroaching rivals.

“Intel invests enormous resources to advance its dynamic x86 ISA, and therefore Intel must protect these investments with a strong patent portfolio and other intellectual property rights,” they wrote.  Few patent owners would quibble with that sentiment, but the pair then went onto make it clear that rivals might be infringing or in danger of infringing the company’s patents.  

“There have been some reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorisation,” wrote Rodgers and Uhlig. They went onto stress that the company welcomes lawful competition, but then added: “We do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights. Strong intellectual property protections make it possible for Intel to continue to invest the enormous resources required to advance Intel’s dynamic x86 ISA, and Intel will maintain its vigilance to protects its innovations and investments.”

According to numerous news outlets it is Qualcomm and Microsoft that Intel is likely to have in its sights (although it did not name either). Last December the pair revealed a new partnership which would see Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips power Windows 10 devices. Last month they announced the first devices that would benefit from the new relationship.      

Of course, Qualcomm and Intel are fierce competitors with the former reigning supreme in mobile and the latter jealously guarding its long-established lead in the PC space. Not surprisingly, any sense that Qualcomm might now be challenging that PC lead has not been taken lying down by its chief rival.

But the spat also underlines the current dynamic nature of the semiconductor market as new entrants from Asia challenge the established order, consolidation in the sector creates more disruption and patent portfolios change hands. IP enforcement is clearly one way that competitors are looking to gain an advantage or ensure that they have freedom to operate, and the shifting nature of the market appears to be giving rise to more litigation.

Last week this blog reported on a widening of the dispute between Broadcom (itself the subject of a recent merger with Avago) and a number of rivals, which has seen one of the defendants, Mediatek, launch a countersuit in a Chinese court. Meanwhile in March, we also revealed that Microsoft had been bolstering its stockpile of semiconductor patents with the acquisition of a package of close to 100 assets from troubled Japanese conglomerate Toshiba. That acquisition now looks particularly significant in light of Intel’s post.

While the centre of gravity in the semiconductor market has shifted east, patents from Asian manufacturers look to be particularly prized. As one keen observer of the patent deals market commented to me in light of Intel’s recent pronouncements: “Unlicensed Japanese and Taiwanese semiconductor patents have just gone up in value." Any possible spat between Intel, Qualcomm and the wider tech industry will add another layer to what is an already complex game of patent chess being waged in the chip-making market.