Ones and Zeroes, Ideas and Implementation

Scott Francis
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Jean-Louis Gassée, one of the best in the business when commenting on business or the business of Apple, penned a great blog entitled “Apple Never Invented Anything“.  It perfectly reflects one of my frustrations with patents: execution is hard, and is actually what differentiates ideas from products.

In theory, the patent system protects “implementation” not “ideas”.  But laymen get confused by this all the time.  And it doesn’t help that shell companies that never produce any products for the betterment of humankind so often successfully sue (and settle with) successful companies that do produce such products.

On the other hand, in the case of Apple, we have a company who clearly does produce the products they imagined, only to watch someone “fast follow” by copying all of their innovations.

And on the heels of that court case of Apple v Samsung, many people have come out and attacked Apple’s ability to innovate.  The problem here is that people mistake the “idea” of an innovation for the implementation.  The “idea” of a mouse, versus a marketable successful product based on the same idea.  The “idea” of a touch screen (thank you Bill Gates, Motion Computing, and others), versus the successfully implemented iPad.  Although iPhones and iPads are based on the foundations of many other ideas and inventions which are licensed, Apple also had to innovate to combine these ingredients into a product people will love to buy.

The argument really should be about whether those core innovations (for innovations they were) should be patentable or not- or whether the patent system should apply to software or not.

As Gassée says:

For thirty years, the industry had tried to create a tablet, and it had tried too hard. The devices kept clotting, one after the other. Alan Kay’s Dynabook, Go, Eo, GridPad, various Microsoft-powered Tablet PCs, even Apple’s Newton in the early nineties….they didn’t congeal, nothing took.
Then, in January 2010, Chef Jobs walks on stage with the iPad and it all becomes obvious, easy. Three decades of failures are forgotten.

How true. All of a sudden, all the clever innovations Apple invested in are “obvious.”  Which begs the question why no one else got it right for 30 years.

And if the product is not more than the sum of its parts, consider:

Drugged or sober, the proud iPaq owner falls into the following point: The basic ingredients are the same. Software is all zeroes and ones, after all. The quantity and order may vary, but that’s about it. Hardware is just protons, neutrons, electrons and photons buzzing around, nothing original. Apple didn’t “invent” anything, the iPad is simply their variation, their interpretation of the well-known tablet recipe.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Apple unveils on September 12th. Spoiler: it will be all zeroes and ones and atoms… so it won’t be anything new. Right?