Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft and the founder of Intellectual Ventures puts a back-spin on the auction and aquisition of the Nortel intellectual property and patents.
“Instead, the stalking-horse offer set in motion unprecedented scheming and counterscheming among strange bedfellows. Companies that normally fight one another, such as game-console rivals Microsoft and Sony and smart-phone rivals Apple and Research in Motion Ltd., pondered whether they hated the prospect of a patent-powerful Google even more. Investment companies like mine, which had been interested in Nortel’s portfolio for its potential financial return, decided the bidding was too rich for our blood, and dropped out. As the auction neared, rumors flew about who was teaming up with whom and how high the bids would soar.
Then, as the auction began, Google unveiled one more surprise. Its bids were numbers like $1,902,160,540. That’s a billion times Brun’s constant, which appears in the mathematics of prime numbers. And its successive bids were other mathematical constants, including one for pi billion dollars ($3,141,592,653).
Math geekiness, it turns out, doesn’t guarantee victory. A consortium of six other companies — Microsoft, Apple, RIM, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB and EMC Corp/Massachusetts — won with an astounding $4.5 billion bid.
The result effectively retains the status quo. Google still has no strategic weapon to compensate for the patent liability inherent in Android, so the lawsuits will continue. Some in the industry think Google acted brilliantly; the company is no worse off than it was before, and it cost its competitors $4.5 billion. Others argue that Google was somehow snookered by Lazard into a disastrous strategy that has left its competitors better armed for the fight — and more than a little angry. You don’t pay $4.5 billion for assets and then let them sit on the shelf.
More importantly, this sale validates the notion that patents will be a fundamental tool in the tech industry. They had been moving toward that position for years, but the magnitude of Nortel’s sale shows that they have arrived. Patents virtually define the pharmaceutical and biotech markets, and in the future they could play the same role for tech.
What’s next? The history of mergers and acquisitions suggests one possibility. Once upon a time in the clubby atmosphere of corporate America, hostile takeovers were rare; gentlemen just didn’t do such things. Then, in the 1960s, the hostile takeovers came to be accepted as a legitimate business tool. Similarly, the strategic use of patents now appears to be accepted in the technology industry. If that’s true, then Nortel is just the beginning.”