Patents role in Apple’s success

Now the master of new consumer technologies, Steve Jobs, announced his resignation on Wednesday as Apple CEO, attention is also given to the intellectual property aspects of Apple’s success. Mr. Jobs’s say over the minute details of Apple’s products is legendary in Silicon Valley. A look at the patents that carry his name, for these products and others, offers a glimpse into the range of his influence at Apple. NYT did just that, worth a read:

(see original publication in NY Times August 25 edition):

When people in the technology industry speak of Steven P. Jobs’s knack for design, they often have Apple’s iconic products in mind: the early all-in-one Macintosh computers, the first iMacs with their brightly colored and translucent cases, and more recently, the various iPods, iPhones and iPads. But what about the striking glass staircases in many of Apple’s stores? Mr. Jobs led their design — and has his name on two patents Apple received for that design.

The white plastic power adapters in newer-model Macintosh computers? Mr. Jobs helped to design them too, according to patent filings.

And he also had a hand in the final look of a startling number of products, including the seemingly insignificant and those that have proved central to Apple’s success: the lanyard for some iPod headsets, the plastic clasps that hold cords in place, the cardboard packaging for scores of iPods, and model after model of desktop and laptop computers, monitors, mice, keyboards, mobile devices and media players.


As Mr. Jobs steps down from the chief executive role, his deep involvement in so many aspects of Apple’s products also brings into sharp focus the question of whether the company’s streak of innovation can continue over the long term without his hand to guide it.

Mr. Jobs appears as the principal inventor or as one inventor among several on 313 Apple patents. Most are design patents that cover the look and feel of a product, rather than utility patents, which may cover a technical innovation like a software algorithm or computer chip.

Still, the number of patents is far larger than those granted to most other technology company chiefs, including those whose technical breakthroughs and inventions were instrumental to their companies’ success. Just nine Microsoft patents carry the name of Bill Gates, who was a co-founder of the company and its chief executive for more than two decades before stepping down in 2000. And little more than a dozen Google patents carry the names of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, according to a search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office Web site.

“That’s Steve,” said Mitchell Kapor, a veteran Silicon Valley technologist and investor who founded the Lotus Development Corporation in 1982. “He has an eye and a genius for design that cuts across disciplines. He was never formally schooled, but he has always had that sensibility.”

Some technology analysts and Apple veterans say the number of patent filings in Mr. Jobs’s name may have been lifted, in part, by the company’s efforts to further bolster the image of the visionary chief executive.

“Apple may have reasons for wanting to have Steve’s names on patents,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School who has studied the technology industry for decades.

But patent experts say Apple was not likely to have added Mr. Jobs’s name simply for public relations purposes.

“If you put someone’s name who didn’t participate, your patent could be invalidated,” said Mark Lemley, a law professor at Stanford University.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Lemley and others said Mr. Jobs was likely to have had an especially prominent role in patents where his name appears first. There are 33 of those, including the two related to the glass staircase. One of those covers the look of the staircase and its structure, describing “a monolithic glass member for supporting loads.”

The patents also show how frequently Mr. Jobs huddled with the industrial design team, led by Johnny Ive, to hash out every last detail of a product. Mr. Jobs shares more than 200 patents with Mr. Ive and other members of that team, underscoring the importance he placed on design.

Shortly after the iconic iMacs came out in 1998, Mr. Gates took a swipe at Apple, which was still struggling to survive. “The one thing Apple’s providing now is leadership in colors,” Mr. Gates said. “It won’t take long for us to catch up with that, I don’t think.”

But Mr. Gates never put as much focus on design, and Apple has since rebounded strongly, surpassing Microsoft as the world’s most valuable technology company.

“It is foolish to argue with success,” Mr. Kapor said.

published in New York Times, August 25

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