Even though I'm the technophile member of our Motley Fool Rule Breakers team, I'm often wary of anything that claims to be the Next Big Thing. Maybe I've listened to Carry On Wayward Son from Kansas one too many times. Quoting:

Masquerading as a man with a reason
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man,
It surely means that I don't know

Translation: If I tell you I'm smart, I'm probably a moron. And anyone who tells you they've invented the Next Big Thing is probably as full of it as Fat Albert at a Vegas buffet.

Now, with all that ... I'm wondering if smartphones really are the Next Big Thing. There's certainly one company that thinks so.

Mastering the art of eating for free
Blame NTP, the royalty hunter that shook down Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) for $612 million last year and which is now suing the major wireless carriers -- including AT&T (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), and Deutsche Telekom's (NYSE:DT) T-Mobile -- for alleged patent violations.

It'd be easy to chalk this up as opportunistic arm-twisting. An oh-what-the-heck moment from a bunch of NTP lawyers camped in a suburban Virginia conference room. But I don't think the license leeches -- NTP's only identifiable assets are the 50 or so patents it reportedly holds -- are that stupid. I think they've been waiting for this moment for years.

They've been waiting for the smartphone market to really take off.

Thanks, Steve
It has, thanks to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and its sought-after iPhone. CEO Steve Jobs and his team have already sold 1 million of the devices. Apple expects to sell at least 10 million more next year. What if NTP were to earn a royalty from every iPhone sold?

Don't laugh. We know that NTP has an itchy trigger finger. Palm (NASDAQ:PALM) has been a target. So has privately held Visto. Apple could easily be next.

What's less clear is whether any of them will ever have to pay NTP a dime. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had invalidated several NTP patents during its original brouhaha with RIM. Then, in March, a judge stayed proceedings in NTP's case against Palm, citing a review by the USPTO.

Wireless unleashed
Nevertheless, what counts here is timing. Why is NTP suing now? 

Apple has shipped just 1 million iPhones, but nearly 1 billion mobile devices -- including both phones and personal digital assistants -- shipped during 2006, according to industry watcher ABI Research. Analysts there say the market will continue to grow at 10% to 12% in 2007, benefiting not just Apple but also Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Motorola, Microsoft, and others.

No wonder NTP is suing. If ABI is correct, there's a massive income stream up for grabs here.

I'm out of the office right now...
I think they're right. Why? Demographics:

  • Workers are more mobile than ever. A recent study from The Dieringer Research Group found that Americans are 65% more likely to work at home today than they were two years ago.
  • Kids don't call. Check out your local mall sometime. How many kids are texting their friends? How many more are emailing? Instant messaging? I see it everywhere. These are the soon-to-be 40-year-olds who'll be suing over BlackBerry Thumb.
  • Forget leaving work at the office. One of my closest friends recently left a job because each time he needed to be away from the office, his boss would say, "No problem, just make sure you're on email." If Dilbert is to be believed, he's hardly alone.

With each passing day our world gets smaller and we're increasingly allowing ourselves to be connected to it. That means email, Web access, SMS, and so on -- every bit of which is being built into the next generation of smartphones. You can bet NTP knows that as well as any of the so-called miscreants it's suing.

In short: Someone better slay this troll before it earns a billion doing nothing.

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Palm is a Stock Advisor pick. Microsoft is an Inside Value selection.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Nokia at the time of publication. Find Tim's portfolio here and his latest blog commentary here. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy, like the postman, always rings twice.