Why Mozilla’s innovation chief jumped to the world of patents

Credit:Mozilla via Flickr

Todd Simpson, formerly chief of innovation at Mozilla, just made an intriguing job change. From working at the community-driven organization on open source projects, Simpson has joined InterDigital, a company commonly accused of being a patent troll.

Simpson spent the last two years at Mozilla, during which the organization has been shifting focus to mobile. He was the spokesperson for Firefox OS, the browser-based mobile phone OS formerly called Boot to Gecko, when it was unveiled earlier this year. His teams developed all the phone-specific services that run on a phone for the Firefox OS project and also led the push for developers to use HTML5 for applications that will run on the phones.

His new position has mobile in common but it would appear that’s about it. He’s taken on the role of executive vice president running the InterDigital group called Innovation Partners.

His job will be looking outside of InterDigital to partner with other companies on new technologies. If that sounds vague, it’s because Simpson and the company say they plan to be “flexible” in figuring out how to better collaborate with outside organizations.

“The mobile space is big and moving fast,” Simpson said. “The company recognized that not all innovation can occur internally.”

Partnerships could come in the form of developing a product with another company or building a tie-in with a company that has a strong channel for a technology InterDigital is developing, he said.

He named Convida, InterDigital’s joint venture with Sony on machine-to-machine research, as an example of the kind of projects he could spearhead.

In addition to M2M, Simpson said he’s interested in looking at technologies around wireless video, wireless apps and anything that makes sense in relation to InterDigital’s existing body of work.

InterDigital has a heritage of developing technologies used in mobile phone networks. When it stopped commercializing products and started making headlines for initiating lawsuits, many people started calling it a patent troll. InterDigital argues that it isn’t a troll, since it doesn’t typically buy patents, instead developing its own technologies with a staff of about 200 engineers.

Still, its name is often mentioned in relation to lawsuits. For instance, earlier this year it sued Samsung, Huawei, ZTE and Nokia, charging them with infringing patents related to 3G and 4G technologies. (Read this excellent ReadWrite article for more background on InterDigital's business.)

So why would someone jump from the spirit of openness at an organization like Mozilla to one that has a reputation for being essentially the polar opposite? Simpson didn’t reveal much. “I was intrigued by the opportunity at InterDigital in that they do have this great pedigree in the wireless space and how openly committed to being more innovative” the company is, he said.

He said he’s also excited to be able to do his work in Silicon Valley. InterDigital’s R&D headquarters is in Pennsylvania with corporate headquarters in Delaware. With Simpson’s hire, the company is opening a Silicon Valley office that will also include development.

Simpson had good things to say about his time at Mozilla (as we publish, his bio is still on Mozilla's site). “Mozilla is a great project with a great community. Definitely the innovation at Mozilla was exciting. So there are aspects I’ll miss, but I was also looking to rejoin the for-profit world at some point and this was a great opportunity,” he said.

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