Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Problem With Patents

Way back in 2002, a company called Handspring completely transformed the way you and I view cell phones, by releasing the first real smartphone.

The company, a spin-off of PDA pioneer Palm Computing, developed the Treo smartphone. And it was revolutionary.

Unlike the BlackBerries of the time (which were glorified pagers), the Treos had a real OS -- the Palm OS. They were little portable computers that you could carry around in your pocket, and which had full access to the cellular networks of the era.

On Sprint's voice and data network, Treo really came to life. Now, e-mail and web browsing was something you could have on the go. And Palm so clearly saw the potential of the technology that it brought Handspring back in-house.

The result was one of the greatest innovations of the last decade -- the high-powered modern smartphone. The Palm Treo had (and has) everything that defines a smartphone today:

1) Applications installed from online stores (like Handango);
2) A touch-screen interface (with easily the best mini-keyboard ever made below it);
3) E-mail on the go;
4) Synchronization with a PC via a data-cable and sync software;
5) Replacing media players with its own media playing and music software;
6) A robust developer community;
7) The famous "Palm ringer switch" that allowed you to switch it to vibrate mode without using software;
8) Web browsing on the go.

In 2007, five years later, Apple released its iPhone.

iPhone was a very good copy of the Treo, with some new innovations. However, the basic iPhone model was an iteration of the Treo design. Apple replaced the hardware keyboard with a (difficult) software keyboard, added in some eye candy, and made the screen bigger and in glass, but the most striking thing about iPhone was how similar to Palm it worked.

The Apple device's applications menu was a prettier version of the "classic" Treo's. It served as a media player, could check e-mail, and browse the web. It synchronized with the PC via a USB cable and sync software. Just like Palm's original Treo, it presented text message conversations in a "threaded" chat-style manner, rather than in the common non-linear model of every other phone on the market. And it had a dead ringer (ha ha) for the ringer switch that Palm invented on the Treo. Later, Apple copied Handango and added a (much more restrictive) Application Store feature.

Palm's reaction was not to sue Apple, but rather, rush to compete. It released the Centro, which was a consumer version of the Treo that cost around $50 but offered all the same power in a smaller form factor.

It released the Treo Pro, a new Windows Mobile phone that is slick.

And it announced, at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the completely new Pre smartphone.

Pre includes an improved version of Palm's touchscreen, a newer, more comfortable keyboard and also includes a totally new OS, dubbed WebOS, that connects your corporate and personal information together into a single interface using a slick paradigm Palm invented called "Synergy." It allows you to run multiple applications at the same time using Palm's new "card" interface. It updates over the air, so there's no need to use USB connections to plug it into your PC anymore. It even charges wirelessly via a charger called the Touchstone.

In short, Pre is so far beyond anything on the market, including Apple's now aging iPhone, that it makes the iPhone appear a bit stale (much like the iPhone did to the Palm Treo in 2007).

Apparently, Apple is worried about maintaining its existing lead with the iPhone. But rather than prepare with a blockbuster knockout product of its own, Apple has rumbled about suing Palm over patents it holds for touchscreens.

So small but nimble Palm, which invented the touch-screen smartphone category (and most of the user interface conventions Apple borrowed for the iPhone) did nothing when Apple showed up on the scene. But now that Palm is offering a phone with significantly more features and innovation than Apple's present product, out come the patent threats. And given Palm's diminutive size compared to Apple, Apple's threats could undermine Palm's viability and prevent Palm's competitor from ever coming to market.

Someone explain to me, again, how the government monopoly that is a patent "protects innovation?"


G Rex said...

Apple's just pissed that the Newton never caught on the way Palm did. Remember those things? Neither does anybody else!

And the point of patents is to protect intellectual property, not to either promote or stifle innovation - indeed without the patent there would be no reason to innovate, as any new idea would instantly be stolen, and the inventor would make no profit from his toil. There's a movie that came out a while ago about the guy that invented the modern windshield wiper motor, only to have it stolen by the big three. I haven't seen it, and I can't even remember who was in it...Jeff Bridges? No, that was Tucker. Anyway, he has to fight the wolf pack of corporate lawyers to get his idea back.

See, patents aren't the problem, it's the damn lawyers!

Brian Miller said...

Well, patents haven't stopped the "bad guys" from stealing legitimately patented ideas.

They do seem to be very useful for two classes of people:

1) Large enterprises seeking to terminate a smaller competitor;

2) "Patent troll" firms that don't develop any products but exist solely to produce patents to extort money from real companies.

G Rex said...

Ah, but these are two examples of how the patent system can be abused, not how the patent process is inherently oppressive. Sounds to me like you should be calling for a patent law reform that tends more towards enforcing the spirit of the law, versus the letter, especially in the case of patent trolling.

Stop me if you've heard this one: Bill Gates gets a phone call from the marketing department, informing him that there are 100 million people in China using Microsoft Vista. The bad news is that they only sold one copy of it.

Brian Miller said...

Sounds to me like you should be calling for a patent law reform that tends more towards enforcing the spirit of the law

I'm a Libertarian.

I understand the Law of Unintended Consequences and am a strident believer in it.

No law, ever passed, enforces its "spirit." It is immediately turned into a tool to benefit the connected and powerful at the expense of everybody else.

So "farm subsidies" that were "in spirit" designed to preserve family farms end up going largely to agribusiness conglomerates like ADM.

And "enterprise zone tax credits" intended to revitalize "failing neighborhoods" end up going to condo developers in New York's hottest locales.

And "defensive wars to liberate Iraq" turn into clusterfucks.

And on and on it goes.

Bill Gates gets a phone call from the marketing department, informing him that there are 100 million people in China using Microsoft Vista. The bad news is that they only sold one copy of it.

Another way to underscore why patents and such IP law, in the long term, doesn't work.

Innovators will ALWAYS be ahead, even if someone else steals their ideas.

If you're coming up with new innovations, it takes a long time for your competitors to match them -- at which point, you've advanced beyond, leaving them high and dry.

Brilliant tech companies understand this. Those that settle back on their laurels relying on the "protection" of government end up like Commodore, Wang and Kaypro -- names of companies that were once innovators and now gone.

Alan Coffey said...

I am going through the patent process now. Mostly so I don't get MY ass sued in the future, not primarily to keep other people off my stuff. Amazing.

tom said...

For those of you who believe that patents serve a valid purpose in protecting IP and thereby fostering innovation, there are basically three things that need to happen in order to "fix" the system so it works as intended:

1) Shorten the term. Seventeen years may have been appropriate in the pre-Industrial Revolution, agrarian united States when most inventions were easily copied, the cost of bringing an invention to market was high, and the pace of innovation was slow; but in today's world it is absurd. Somewhere in the 2-5 year range would probably be good, possibly flexible and based on type of invention.

2) The guidelines for rejecting a patent application as "Obvious" must be broadened dramatically.

3) It needs to be much easier to prove "Prior Art" and have a patent voided.

tom said...

I forgot this:

4) Inventions developed with the aid of taxpayer funded grant money can not be patented.

Anonymous said...

G Rex:

"And the point of patents is to protect intellectual property, not to either promote or stifle innovation"

Um, no. According the Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

See that? The intent of patents and copyright is to promote innovation ("progress"). The current patent system, however, stifles innovation and needs to be abolished.