Patent, IP Abuse Poses Hurdle in Tech Evolution

Opinion: Those who build on top of an earlier invention-the people who fine-tune it or provide a practical implementation of it-are usually just as innovative as the original inventors.

Lately Ive been thinking a lot about innovation. To a large degree, this has been due to the 30th and 10th anniversaries of, respectively, Apple and Palm—two companies generally considered to be innovators.

As I was going through old issues of eWeek (and PC Week, as we were formerly known), gathering all the reviews that the Labs has done on Apples and Palms products for online retrospectives (see "Apples 30th anniversary" and "Ten years of testing Palms"), I certainly saw many products that seemed innovative. But just how truly innovative were they?

Apple certainly gets a lot of credit for being an innovator—of everything from the GUI to handheld computing to trackpads to the iPod.

Of course, Apple critics will laugh at the idea of Apple being an innovator, saying that the company stole most of its ideas from true innovators such as Xerox PARC and Creative Labs. But, really, it all depends on how you define innovation.

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Certainly no one would argue that the original inventors of something arent true innovators. However, I contend that those who build on top of an earlier invention—the people who fine-tune it or provide a practical implementation of it—are usually just as innovative as the original inventors.

Ted Nelson was a true innovator when he created hypertext, but it took Tim Berners-Lees work with hypertext to create the World Wide Web. And even the most rabid anti-Apple critics will admit that Xerox PARC was never going to do anything with the GUI—it took Apples vision to create the modern computing GUI.

I think most people would agree with the notion that innovation happens throughout the entire life of an idea, not just at the first iteration of it. But this is yet another area where our system of patents and intellectual property protections serves to hamstring rather then enhance true innovation.

This is especially true in software development. In fact, I cant remember the last time I saw a truly new software technology. For the most part, all new software trends represent something that existed before; the new stuff just puts a different spin on things: Portals are basically Web sites that are more data-aware. SOAs are basically Web services with more structure. Anti-spyware products are simply a tweak on anti-virus products. And so on and so on.

But as patent and IP portfolios continue to get larger and broader in scope, these fine-tuning innovations that we all rely on will become less and less likely.

I just know that, somewhere out there, a developer has a great idea to tweak an existing but stagnant technology, making it into something that will benefit many companies and people. But that developer knows it will be impossible to create the new product without drawing fire from the company that holds the patents on the original technology.

And even going to that company with the new idea may not work, as many large companies dont like to toy too much with core products. Indeed, companies are actually often afraid to innovate and arent inclined to build an enhanced product, or sometimes companies are more or less just a bunch of lawyers hoarding patent ideas (the most likely option).

Think about it. What if Apple hadnt been able to innovate on the GUI? What if there had been aggressive patents covering hypertext? I guess theres a chance we might have better technology today, but I think its much more likely that we would be stuck in the computing Stone Age.

As Ive said before, a shift in attitudes toward patents—especially in software—does appear (finally) to be happening. But its going to be a very slow shift, as there are just too many strong forces that like the system as it is today.

Thats why all of us need to continue to point out not only the obvious mistakes and abuses of the patent system but also the advantages we currently have that wouldnt have come into existence in the current patent environment.

Because innovation happens in a lot of ways. And I think technology today could use a lot more innovation "thieves" like the old Palm and Apple.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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