Friday, May 29, 2009

The Patents of Steve Jobs

Ten unexpected inventions that add up to a portrait of Apple's CEO.

By Harry McCracken

Steve Jobs PatentsAmong the many uncanny parallels between Stephen Paul Jobs and Walter Elias Disney is this one: Very early on, both abandoned the work that in some respects might seem to define their careers. Walt Disney began as a cartoonist, but by the late 1920s he had nothing to do with the drawing of Disney cartoons and is said to have told folks that he couldn't have held down an animator's job in his own studio.  And Steve Jobs held technical positions at HP and Atari at the dawn of his time in Silicon Valley, but his contributions to Apple have never been those of an engineer.

And yet, as I browsed Apple patents in recent months for stories like this one, I wasn't surprised to discover that Jobs' name is among the inventors listed on dozens of Apple filings over the past thirty years (with a thirteen-year gap in the middle during his absence). It doesn't feel like glory-hogging, either: Anyone want to make the case that major Apple products would be pretty much the same if Jobs hadn't contributed ideas and refinements? And Jobs' name is typically one of several or many on a patent, usually along with that of Apple design honcho Jonathan Ive and other, lesser-known colleagues. (Most Jobs patents relate to industrial design; some are for software; none are for circuitry or other under-the-hood technologies.)

Rummaging through Google Patent Search's records of patents credited in part to Steve Jobs is an absorbing way to reflect on some of his accomplishments and failures–and maybe even to learn some new things about what makes the man tick.Yes, his name is on the patents for most of the iconic computers, MP3 players, and other gizmos sold by Apple from 1998 to the present. (I've written about some of them before.) But you know what? It's not the famous, obvious stuff that I find most interesting–it's the sidelights, loose ends, and mysteries. I'll look at ten of those in a moment.

First, let's get a bunch of icons out of the way with a group shot, shall we? Guys, c'mon in…

Apple Patents

Applause, applause; thank you, thank you.

Okay, let's move on. Here are ten other Steve Jobs patents to chew on–none of them landmarks, but all of them interesting:

1. A quiet blessing.

Apple Power Adapter PatentWhen I started doing stories comparing the cost of Windows PCs and Macs, I used to include Apple's power adapters–which are unusually compact and sport magnetic connectors, an optional extension cord, and little wings you can wrap the cable around–as a point in Macs' favor, until I got sick of Windows fans snickering. I shouldn't have caved. The fact that the CEO obsesses over even mundane necessities such as power bricks is one of the things that makes Apple Apple, and makes Macs worth more money than garden-variety Windows boxes. If you're not sure if you're a candidate to buy a Mac, here's a simple test: If the notion of a really well-designed AC adapter excites you, you'll probably be very happy with a Mac. And if it doesn't, you won't. The one shown here is from a 2001 patent filing that credits Jobs and eleven others.

2. A maniacal work of minimalism.

Apple Remote PatentI haven't been to every major Steve Jobs product unveiling, but I've been to more than my share–starting before there were such things as Macs–and I can't think of anything I saw Jobs reveal that seemed to tickle him more than the Apple Remote, which debuted at an October 12th, 2005 event and is shown here in a drawing from a patent filed five days earlier. He showed a slide contrasting the Remote's six options embedded in two unmarked controls against a Windows Media Center remote completely covered by fifteen zillion buttons, and just stood there and beamed. I think that the Apple Remote is merely very good–I prefer the Vudu box's thumbwheel driven model–but it's as striking an example of Jobsian restraint as you'll find. If most consumer-electronics companies set out to build the simplest remote ever, they'd still end up with three times the buttons, and half of them would have incomprehensible labels.

3. An apparent obsession.

Apple iMac PatentA surprising percentage of the Apple patents that carry Jobs' name involve one basic idea: desktop computers with the guts in one box, the display in another, and some form of articulated arm in between. Apple only made such a machine for about two and a half years–the iMac G4, produced between 2002 and 2004. Yet the U.S. Patent Office holds plenty of evidence that Jobs was smitten with the idea, including this patent for boxy a snake-arm iMac that was filed just weeks before Apple stopped shipping the more rounded G4. I'm not sure if Jobs has ever spoken publicly about the brief life of the "desklamp" Mac, but I'm betting that it was with at least some degree of regret that he retired it in favor of more conventional, less fanciful iMac designs. I'm also not sure if it means anything that some of these patents are among the few in which Jobs' name precedes that of any collaborator.


No comments: