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Government Intervention in the Marketplace: Policies for Access or Politics? (Interviews with Semiconductor Industry – Part 4)

Posted by Maggie Huang at Dec 26, 2014 02:34 PM |
This is the last of a four-part blog series highlighting findings from a small sample of interviews with fabless semiconductor industry professionals in Taiwan. These industry insiders was approached for the intent of understanding expert knowledge on the process of integrated circuit design. However, the conversations resulted in leanings far beyond that scope. This post explores the tension between market forces and governmental intervention in providing access to mobile technology.

Following conversations regarding the trends and changes in computing usage models, process of chip manufacturing, and challenges with the current patent system, CIS wanted to understand these chip manufacturers' thoughts on the smart phone patent wars' implications on access to mobile technology, and how government regulation and intervention could perhaps resolve some the legal battles.

Although it seems there is an overabundance of litigation and patent wars amongst smartphone manufacturers, most recently culminating in India between manufacturers Xiaomi and Ericcsson,[1] it was of one interviewees' perception that these legal battles was simply a natural result of market forces in the technology industry. Although companies do indeed want to protect their intellectual property, the lawsuits are more often motivated by business interests to slow down ones' competitors. Litigation requires a massive investment in time and resources, and ultimately, the courts are just another avenue where market forces are at play. Naturally, with or without patent wars, prices will go down with competition.

The interviewee provided the example of Microsoft and Intel who had drove the computer industry who were making 75-80% of the products with profits only going to them. But as the market grew, prices slowly went down as more companies came out with new products. This was a "natural, organic development", and "perhaps if the industry had dropped prices earlier it would have been slightly better for consumers", but one interviewee "doubt it would have made much of a difference."

In the past there have been instances where governments have regulated markets to prevent anti-competitive behavior and predatory pricing, as exemplified by the antitrust claim filed against Microsoft in the United States, [2] or Intel being sued by the European Union for monopoly control.[3]

In China, Qualcomm has been under investigation, and is risk of being fined up to 10% of their most recent annual revenues because the government believes they are monopolizing the market. More recently, there have been talks of a possible investigation by the European Union for the same.[4] However, the interviewee expressed his disagreement that these really resolved the problem of high costs.

" Everyone always complained about software costs...that Microsoft was too expensive, that PCs were too high. But then with mobile, for years Microsoft was trying to do Windows... but then Google came along and offered Android for next to nothing. Suddenly the market's changed."

What really resolved the problem of high costs of personal computers according to this interviewee was mobile phones, which merely came with a bit of patience with the market. There seemed to be a general lack of faith in government intervention, and a sentiment that government imposed an overly top-down management of the industry.

Another example given of poor government intervention was the Aakash tablet in India, which one interviewee noted was a "disaster" because the government initially announced a retail price of USD $60 without accurately taking into actual costs of production. Having been considered as one of the potential suppliers for the tablet, this interviewee noted a later announcement of a retail price of USD $28, which taking into account the physical cost of hardware would have been impossible to manufacture. The interviewees' company was requested to reduce their prices given an anticipated high stock order, but ultimately the partnership never went through as it would have resulted in a significant loss.

Initially the Aakash tablet was conceived to be 'made-in-India', but our interviewee cited a bit of "naivety" on behalf of the government. At a meeting with the Aakash planners, he explained how the manufacturing of each part - the screen, motherboard, small connectors, supply busts - required billions of dollars in infrastructural investment.

"Suddenly you're not talking about one factory, you're talking about 30 factories. It's just not going to work. It's too complex. And this is why Shenzhen is going to do very well in the next 10 years. Because they have done this."

Given the Pervasive Technologies project covers the territories of China and India, and attempts to evaluate potential policy levers to enhance access for both geographies, this was a useful insight which led to further questioning about the experiences of working within various jurisdictions. In particular, we were interested in the experiences of these companies operating in different geographic markets, and asked specifically about comparative experiences between the United States and Europe which generally has more stringent enforcement, with our countries of focus - India and China.

One of the interviewed companies which provided turnkey chip set solutions explained how their reputation in China had evolved since the ease of use facilitated the manufacturing of counterfeit products, particularly at a time when the Chinese government did not seem to care too much about infringement. Although there has been increased enforcement measures, these company's products are still often found in gray markets and in shanzhai technology through unauthorized resellers despite not knowingly selling chip sets to illegal companies.

Another interviewee perceived that the Chinese and Taiwanese market required much more effort in general for foreign companies to operate in due to lack of transparency and multilingual access, compared with the North American and European market. The indigenous standards China is pushing, like the TD-SDCMA standard within the telecom industry, one interviewee noted that it puts more of a burden on companies to have multiple standards, and felt it was more so a political demonstration of Chinese power. Other analyses cite this as a strategic method to set these standards for enhancing development of local research and development, and use indigenous standards as a bargaining tool to reduce royalty rates. 9

Regardless of the motives, another interviewee noted that the Chinese market was big enough with opportunities worth pursuing that developing products according to China's standards made sense as a business. Following the market means pursuing demand, and according to this interviewee, although China requires a bit more investment, it is justified if it is what customers are asking for.

Despite increased foreign investment in the Chinese manufacturing sector, local smartphone manufacturers from China like Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE, and Xiaomi provide smartphones at an extremely affordable cost - for USD $50-60, or about RMB 300-400. Other marketplaces like Taobao also sell cheap smartphones in the mass market. There are difficulties of operating in India due to lack of reliable infrastructural support, which results in a need for increased investment and risk. However, a development of indigenous Indian tech industry can be done, perhaps developing the hardware first in China, setting up some local manufacturing while focusing on software development in the meantime.

This small sample of interviewees seemed to express a general perception that less governmental regulation and intervention in the technology industry was better for access. However, it can be reasonably well-argued that the reason China's mobile market is so successful is due to government-imposed standards which prevented reliance on expensive foreign patents. After explaining in brief the proposal of a compulsory licensed patent pool for standard essential patents, the interviewees responded that it may be something the government is trying to do with good intentions, but could have unintended side effects.

When asked for suggestions on how policy makers could help facilitate access to technology and an overall more innovative market space, answers included increased hardware education through encouraging openness for more sharing and learning within the industry, and outside to hackers and makers which could encourage 'outsourced research and development'. Although other interviewees seemed to disagree that openness would encourage access, the overriding consensus was the need for policy makers to prevent the possibility of behaviour like patent trolling and the unnecessary protection and locking up of innovative technologies from arising in the first place - done via a global standardized restructuring of the patent system.