From Tim Lee writing at Forbes:
Apple (Mostly) Isn’t to Blame for the Patent Mess
Way back in October, I wrote a post for Forbes arguing that it’s a good thing that Google“stole” some key user-interface concepts from the iPhone and incorporated them into Android. Users benefit from this kind of copying because without it it would be impossible to buy a smartphone that incorporated the best features from across the industry.I was planning to do a follow-up post exploring the flip-side of this question: whether Apple “stole” ideas from previous innovators. That wound up being a much bigger project that I ultimately pitched to Ars Technica and finally published here on Thursday. I encourage you to read the whole piece, but to sum up: many of the key innovations we associate with Apple—capacitive multi-touch screens, gestures like “pinch to zoom,” touchscreen-only phones—were pioneered by other companies or researchers long before Apple brought them to the commercial market.
The story sparked a lot of discussion among Ars readers. We’re already over 500 comments with no signs of slowing down. I’ve been fairly disappointed with the response. A lot of Apple fans seem to be interpreting the piece as an anti-Apple hit piece, which wasn’t the point of the piece at all. The iPhone was indisputably a major advance over the mobile devices that existed previously, and I didn’t mean to minimize the accomplishments of those who created it.
Rather, the point of the piece was to point out the degree to which even for a revolutionary product like the iPhone, the process of innovation is incremental and cumulative. For many consumers (including me) the iPhone interface Steve Jobs showed off in January 2007 was unlike anything we’d ever seen. It’s not hard to imagine that the US Patent Office could grant Apple a patent on “the iPhone” and demand that competitors get permission before copying it.
The problem is that once you have the full context, it’s surprisingly difficult to draw a line between ideas Apple “invented” and already-existing ideas that Apple merely put to use in a new context. For example, NYU’s Jeff Han demonstrated a set of sophisticated multi-touch applications at a 2006 TED Talk. Apple’s genius was largely to recognize that these same multi-touch gestures could be usefully translated to the form-factor of a cell phone. So was Apple’s application of Han’s techniques to the cell phone context a new invention or just a relatively obvious translation of Han’s work to a new form factor?
For more on Apple, including its hypocrisy:
Apple years ago: Steve Jobs: “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas”
Apple now: Tim Cook: “We just want people to invent their own stuff.”