Apple vs Microsoft vs Google – who has the strongest patent portfolio?

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Apple, Micosoft and Google are three of the mightiest technology innovators on the earth today. Apple created the personal computer, i-tunes, the iPod and touchscreen phones and tablets. Microsoft wrote the operating system that underpinned the mass up-take of the PC, and then developed the Office products that most of us use every day, including Word, Outlook, Excel and Powerpoint. Google invented the all encompassing search system, adword advertising and developed the Android operating system that underpins the majority of smartphones sold today. Like many others, I use products from all three companies on an almost daily basis.

In line with their commercial battles for marketplace supremacy, there has been litigation between these parties and at times even cooperation. Each has strong and growing patent portfolios. But who has the strongest patent portfolio?

There are a few ways to answer this question. The first, and most common way is to look at patent filings. However by itself this is a bit simplistic, as this does not take into account the quality of these patents. For this reason in this blog we look carefully at both the quality and quantity of patents filed by these three leading companies.

 

1) How did we find patents belonging to these three companies?

We identified patents belonging to these companies by accessing the Thompson Innovation patent database, and looking for all US patents where the DWPI assignee was listed as:

  • Apple Inc or Apple Computer
  • Microsoft
  • Google or Motorola (hereafter ‘Google’)

Because of the way Thompson Innovations manages assignee data, the resulting patent listing will include both acquired and self-filed patents.

 

2) Who is filing the most patents?

The figure below shows the filing rates over the last 20 years for the three companies:

AppleMicrosoftGoogle.jpg

Of note:

  • Microsoft filed very few patents until about 2005, after which patent filings increased dramatically, peaking at about 3000 per year in 2008. They now have almost twice as many patents as Apple, with Google sitting between the two.
  • Both Apple and Google have steadily increased fillings since 1999. Google had some earlier patent filings, which are almost certainly patents they acquired in the Motorola purchase.

 

3) What about patent quality? The value of the AmberScore metric

Hoewever merely looking at the number of filings does not consider the quality of the resulting patents. ‘Quality’ can be hard to define, but here at Ambercite we have developed AmberScore as a scoring and filtering metric.

AmberScore predicts the importance of a patent based on the number and strength of its forward, backward and indirect citations. Forward citations, particular recent forward citations, are given a higher weighting.  Overall AmberScore is a measure of the importance of a patent that takes into account not only the patent itself but also the patent activity in the immediate vicinity of the patent. Patent activity in turn can help find commercially important patents.

AmberScore has been normalised so that the average granted US patent filed in the last 20 years has a value of 1. Higher is better. We have seen some patents with an AmberScore value of 150 or more, but the vast majority of patents have AmberScore value ranging between 0 and 3. AmberScore values can change over time as new patents and citation connections are made.

 

a) Amberscore value distributions for the three companies

So what were the AmberScore values for the patents of these three companies? The results are summarised in Figure 2. To make it easy to compare, I have grouped the resulting AmberScore values into different categories.

Apple-vs-Microsoft-vs-GoogleAmberscore-companies_1995.jpg

 

These results show that:

  • In terms of the number of highest scoring patents (with AmberScore values greater than 10), Google (100) is a little ahead of Apple (84). And both are a long way ahead of Microsoft. Similar trends are seen for the number of patents with AmberScore values from 5 to 10, and from 2 to 5.
  • However Microsoft has many lower scoring patents. Does this means that lower scoring patents have less value? Not necessarily – another interpretation is that the value of these lower scoring patents has not been recognised yet. 

 

b) Cumulative AmberScore values

And across the portfolio, what about the total of AmberScore values? Apple and Google have a lot more high scoring patents than Microsoft, but Microsoft has many more patents, even if many are lower scoring. Do these different factors balance themselves out?

 TotalAmberScore-value.jpg

 

Overall, Google appears to have the strongest portfolio, ahead of Microsoft and then Apple. However, we should also consider the filing year. Almost all of the accumulated AmberScore for Microsoft has come from patents filed in the last 10 years. For these patents (the red bar), Microsoft has the strongest overall portfolio.

 

c) Average AmberScore values

It is also worth considering the average AmberScore values for the three portfolios. In this analysis only granted patents have been included. For the remaining patents, Apple had the highest average AmberScore value of 1.48 (the average AmberScore value for all granted US patents is 1.0). This is slightly ahead of Google, and twice as good as Microsoft.

 

AverageAmberScore-value.jpg

 

Are these average values lower than expected, being close to the overall average for AmberScore values? AmberScore values do tend to be higher for older patents, and the majority of the portfolio for all three companies is quite recent. As the table above has shown, all three of these companies do have some higher scoring patents.

 

Whose patents are attracting the most recent interest ?

How current are the patents filed by the three companies? Is their technology still relevant? We can assess this by looking at the number of recent patents (filed in the last 5 years) that are citing patents owned by these three companies. These results are more positive for Microsoft, as shown below.

 

Recent-forward-cites.jpg

Patents in the Microsoft portfolio have attracted more recent forward citations overall than patents from the other companies. However, there are more MS patents in any case, which is why we have also plotted the average number of recent forward cites per patent. On this basis (the right hand scale, red line) Apple is attracting 3.8 recent forward citations per patent, greater than 3.1 for Google and 2.6 for Microsoft.

 

What are highest ranking patents from each company?

The top three ranking patents (as ranked by AmberScore) for each company are listed in the table below. In addition we provide some other values that help describe the patent, including the average AmberScore value for the direct network (forward and backward citations).  

 


Patent number (filing year)


Patent title


# of forward citations


# of backward citations


Amberscore


Average Amberscore for  direct patent network


# of recent forward citations (filed in the last 5 years)


       


 


apple-logo.jpg 


 Top 3 Apple patents


 


US8479122 (2004)


Gestures for touch sensitive input devices


629*


(see comment below)


109


63


3.1


287


US7479949 (2008)


Touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics


402


49


30


1.5


287


US7653883 (2005)


Proximity detector in handheld device


358


113


34


3.4


184

       


 


Microsoft-logo.jpg


Top 3 Microsoft patents


  


US8094129 (20047)


Touch sensing using shadow and reflective modes


109


38


13


2.4


82


US8082517 (2007)


Application sharing viewer presentation


11


135


10


5.3


6


US8533440 (2009)


Accelerating parallel transactions using cache resident transactions


6


104


9


3.7


6


 


 Google-logo.jpg


Top 3 Google patents


 


US5948061 (1996)


Method of delivery, targeting, and measuring advertising over networks


1322


13


111


3.3


286


US7136875 (2003)


Serving advertisements based on content


376


26


36


3.4


120


US7716161 (2002)


Methods and apparatus for serving relevant advertisements


278


59


31


5.3


89

 

These results show that 

  • Apple’s top three patents are in the area of touchscreens
  • Microsoft’s top three patents are more of a mixed bag. The top ranking patent is for a touch screen, the second patent relates to having multiple applications open at once, and the third listed patent relates to e-commerce. 
  • The AmberScore values of the top three Microsoft are driven up by large numbers of backward citations rather than large number of forward citations. While forward citations do carry more weight in AmberScore than backward citations, we believe that both are important, and there are good reasons for this.
  • Google’s top three patents are linked to on-line advertising

 

Summary

This review of the US patent portfolios of Apple, Microsoft and Google(including Motorola) has suggested that

  • Microsoft has the largest patent portfolio, even if they only started to get serious about filing patents after 2004. However Microsoft is now investing heavily in patents and there are some signs that it is catching up to its two rivals in terms of the quality of its patent portfolio. For example consider the high number of recent patents that are citing these patents.
  • Google has the strongest overall patent portfolio.
  • Apple has the smallest patent portfolio, but a good number of high scoring patents meaning that it has the highest scoring patents on average, slightly ahead of Google.  

 

13th October update – How similar are these patents to each other? Do these patents overlap?

These are great questions – and we answer these in a subsequent blog we have just published.

 

PS – What about self-citations?

Some patent analysts regard the question and effect of self-citations as very important in these sorts of analysis. At Ambercite, we are neutral on the effect of self-citations, and so this data has not been adjusted to take these into account. The reason for this is as follows:

  • Some analysts regard self-citations as a positive sign of patent quality as the company itself should be a good judge of the importance of their own patents. Also while it might be possible to design around a single patent, designing around a thicket of patents filed by the same company can be exponentially harder.
  • Other analysts think that self-citations are ‘soft’ citations, and so should be ignored.

Who is right? That is a great question – and given these conflicting arguments Ambercite is neutral on this question. Nonetheless we intend to explore this question a little further in a subsequent blog – watch this space.

 

PPS how many forward citations does top ranked Apple patent US8479122 have?

At least one reader has noted that our top ranked Apple patent US8479122 is listed with 629 forward citations, while the likes of Google patent and RPX only list 55 forward citations. So why the contradiction?

Ambercite takes it data from Espacenet, which now lists slighly more forward citations than us. What Espacenet does, and what we agree with, is combine the forward citations from the published patent application US2006026521 (which Google lists as having 672 forward citations) as well as from the granted form of the patent. We think this is right because the application and granted versions of this same patent can be regarded as essentially the same record.

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