WAP standard threatened by GeoWorks' patent claim

Just when everyone in the mobile industry thought it was safe to unite on a wireless standard -- the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) -- GeoWorks is claiming infringement on its intellectual property rights.

GeoWorks, a provider of mobile services and content, asserts that its patent for a "flexible user interface for mobile communications devices (US Patent #5,327,529)" includes the essential technology used by WAP.

The notification of patent infringement names the WAP specification as well as for the Wireless Markup Language specification, used by the WAP transport protocol to format content for hand-held devices.

GeoWorks is seeking a licensing fee or royalties for every use of the WAP standard. Currently WAP is used on handheld devices and mobile phone as well as on network servers that deliver the content down to the devices.

Members of the WAP Forum currently deploying WAP-enabled products include all of the major handset manufacturers such as Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola as well as handheld-operating-system companies Microsoft, 3Com's Palm Computing, and Symbian. Most hardware manufacturers are also licensing WAP, including Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Intel.

Even if there is no lawsuit, the threat of one raises a cloud over the technology and can slow down development, according to one analyst, who recalled what happened with Apple Computer's FireWire specification for high-speed serial connections, which formed the basis of the IEEE's 1394 standard.

"The slow pace of development for (IEEE) 1394 was a result of Apple requesting a fee for every implementation of 1394," said Rob Enderle, senior analyst at Giga Information Group, in San Jose, California.

If the GeoWorks' claim has merit the major industry players will either look elsewhere for technology or will move to get access to the technology, Enderle said.

"The easy fix is to buy GeoWorks," he added.

However, it is doubtful if companies will ever be willing to pay a fee for each device using WAP.

"GeoWorks will have a fight on their hands," said Enderle.

In a prepared statement, GeoWorks announced that research indicates that 52 million WAP handsets will be shipped in the US by 2004.

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