Stories, moments, people and ideas of interest from within the worlds of innovation and design, spotted and written about by Helen Walters, design writer, editor, and ideas editor at TED. Attitude, errors and opinions obviously all the writer's own.
Ask me anything
November 19, 2012
"Our engineers and scientists actually go and build their own prototypes and test the rigs themselves. And the reason we do that—and I don’t force people to do that, by the way, they want to do it—is that when you’re building the prototype, you start to really understand how it’s made and what it might do and where its weaknesses might be. If you merely hand a drawing to somebody and say, “Would you make this, please?” and in two weeks he comes back with it and you hand it to someone else who does the test, you’re not experiencing it. You’re not understanding it. You’re not feeling it. Our engineers and scientists love doing that."
Sir James Dyson, he of bagless vacuum cleaner fame, talks innovation, design, and entrepreneurship with Wired’s Shoshana Berger in How James Dyson Makes the Ordinary Extraordinary. I loved his description of the hands-on working environment he fosters at his company (above), while I also liked his take on patents, namely that they’re critically important when used correctly:
If you really want to improve technology, if you want things to work better and be better, you’ve got to protect the person who spends a lot of effort, money, and time developing that new technology. But you can’t patent something that another skilled engineer in the field could have calculated or done with his basic knowledge.
"When a person can’t make a living by coming up with new material, that’s when you have to wonder about the system."
The Honor System is a beautiful piece of writing by Esquire's Chris Jones. It's a quasi-profile of the former Raymond Teller, now legally known merely as Teller, also known as, with Penn, one half of one of the world's best-known magician duos. But it's also the story of an industry struggling for survival among the copycats and trolls, as Teller works to sue a man he feels has been ripping off his work. The quote above comes courtesy of “one of the greatest inventors of magic,” one Jim Steinmeyer, who licenses tricks to magicians throughout the world, which is an idea I had simply never considered before. Sadly, seems like other would-be magicians aren’t too bothered about the provenance of their tricks: Jones reports that while 100 magicians licensed directly from Steinmeyer, another thousand “have bought knockoffs built by a man in Indiana, and a guy in Sicily, and a team of reverse engineers in China.”
Here’s more Steinmeyer:
A great trick, like a great song, should be an inspiration… It should lead you to other things that are also wonderful. That’s what happens in literature, and it happens in music, and it happens in art. But in magic, they don’t do that. They just take it. You would hope that what you do inspires, but instead it just inspires theft.
It’s not exactly heart-warming that the world of magic is undergoing the same drama and trauma that has beset industries from music to journalism. But somehow I found it utterly fascinating, and a glorious profile of a really interesting man, to boot.
"The IPA is a new way to do patent assignment that keeps control in the hands of engineers and designers. It is a commitment from Twitter to our employees that patents can only be used for defensive purposes. We will not use the patents from employees’ inventions in offensive litigation without their permission. What’s more, this control flows with the patents, so if we sold them to others, they could only use them as the inventor intended."
Lots of approving buzz for today’s launch of the Innovator’s Patent Agreement by Twitter. Patents are a hotly contested tool of innovation, with patent trolls and high-dollar lawsuits stifling and impeding the flow of ideas necessary for a thriving economy and its flourishing businesses. This aims to act as a counter force. In this post, Introducing the Innovator’s Patent Agreement, Twitter’s VP of engineering, Adam Messinger, concludes:
Today is the second day of our quarterly Hack Week, which means employees – engineers, designers, and folks all across the company – are working on projects and tools outside their regular day-to-day work. The goal of this week is to give rise to the most audacious and creative ideas. These ideas will have the greatest impact in a world that fosters innovation, rather than dampening it, and we hope the IPA will play an important part in making that vision a reality.
"The general trend of the industry toward being a lot more litigious somehow has just been—it has been a sad thing. There is a lot of money going to lawyers and things, instead of building great products for users. I think that companies usually get into that when they’re toward the end of their life cycle or they don’t have confidence in their abilities to compete naturally."
— Google CEO, Larry Page sounds off about innovation and patent-trolling in a rare interview with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Stone. Doesn’t really share too much you didn’t already know, though I confess I enjoyed reading his barely veiled digs at competitors such as Yahoo (see above; ouch) and Facebook. On the latter, he says: "Our friends at Facebook have imported many, many, many Gmail addresses and exported zero addresses. And they claim that users don’t own that data, which is a totally specious claim. It’s completely unreasonable." Our friends, indeed.
My friend and former editee Bill Buxton has a nice column in Fortune this week. Steve Jobs’ Patents: A Vital Lesson for CEOs unpicks the real insights to be gleaned from the recent report that Jobs was cited on 313 Apple patents, most of them design patents. As Bill writes, “Pretty interesting for someone with no formal design or technical training, much less the CEO of a major corporation.”
A terrible sickness afflicts our world, the plague of “me-too-ism.” We are all guilty at looking at what other people have and fancying a bit of it for ourselves. In life, this generally leads to nothing more offensive than blandness as we blindly copy the most superficial attributes of the latest craze. When chief executives or senior management fall victim to this, me-too-ism can have rather more serious consequences. Think of Hollywood, world of weird elevator pitches (“it’s Predator meets Twins!”) or Sand Hill Road, where entrepreneurs bastardize good ideas in an attempt to get at the VC honeypot (“it’s Groupon meets Barbie!”) Or Apple, whose success executives everywhere are dying to emulate, without really understanding anything about what Apple has actually done.
That’s what Buxton nails in this piece. It’s not just attention to design, or the fact that Jobs was kneedeep in the invention process that has allowed the company to become so mega-successful. It’s that Jobs understood the big picture, the difficulty of managing design well (so he hired a senior design executive to engage with him and other senior management.) And because he was interested in the design himself, he also delegated other parts of the business successfully. As Buxton writes:
If one does want to learn from Apple, and emulate Steve, don’t emulate what he did with design (unless it is truly in your nature). Rather, study how he managed the delegation of those other aspects of the business while he was working with Jonathan and the design team. Then emulate that in managing the things that fall outside of your own personal comfort zone — such as design, for example.
All too often, we totally miss what’s truly important, ape the superficial and then wonder why we end up with such a hollow facsimile of the original. This piece is an important explanation of the phenomenon.
When Patents Attack is a wonderful piece of radio reporting digging into the murky world of patents, trolls and innovation. In particular, the two reporters highlight the business practices of Intellectual Ventures, a company I wrote about recently and which does not come across at all well in this piece. After much cajoling, Peter Detkin, co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, describes a “backend arrangement” with firms like Oasis Research, a Texas-based non-company that apparently exists solely to sue people for patent infringements. Detkin argues that the relationship between IV and such companies is merely business; they have no say over who gets sued for how much or when, and oftentimes they don’t like the aggressive litigation—but what can they do? This is neat, nasty logic, a case of Intellectual Ventures trying to smell of roses while standing neck deep in ordure. Listening to the piece, it’s hard not to wonder what might happen if the bright minds seemingly so intent on exploiting the letter of the law actually focused on something that might benefit the world at large. Stories like this remind us how unlikely that is ever to happen.
Former Microsoft CTO, cookbook writer and patent collector (the less generous might go so far as to use the term ‘troll’), Nathan Myhrvold wrote a controversial Bloomberg column this week, Patents Are Very Valuable, Tech Giants Discover. It’s pretty out there in its chutzpah. Riffing off Nortel’s sale of its patent portfolio for $4.5 billion to a consortium of companies that includes Myhrvold’s alma mater, he writes of the move as “a dramatic shift in strategy for technology companies. Suddenly these companies are acknowledging that patents are a strategic asset worth billions.”
Even if you overlook the idea that patents have suddenly, magically appeared on the radar of technology behemoths, which clearly isn’t the case, and even if you overlook the fact that publications these days regularly run articles by those with vested interests, Myhrvold’s article is incredibly, nakedly self-serving, one that details a very particular attitude towards a system that many consider to be an active obstruction to innovation. Perhaps the best response comes from Infectious Greed writer, Paul Kedrosky, who writes the amusing post, The Trouble With Nathan Myrhvold’s Pro-Patent Arguments. (One thing about SEO, it sure does take the fun out of headline writing.) Kedrosky’s conclusion:
This is an arms-dealer applauding the outbreak of hostilities, meanwhile pointing to people making war-like faces on the sidelines. (Whoa, watch out for those guys!) This is far, far from a disinterested observer of a fundamentally broken U.S. software patent system. Let’s end the deference.
"Lodsys didn’t even “invent” the idea. They purchased the patent and are now using it like a cluster bomb on the entire mobile app developer community. They are the iconic patent troll, taxing innovation and innovators for their own selfish gain. They are evil and deserve all the ill will they are getting."
Whoa. NYC-based investor Fred Wilson is spitting mad. His post, Enough is Enough, denounces the very idea of software patents, which he describes as “a tax on innovation.” This in the wake of the current Lodsys brouhaha, which sees the Texas-based company suing developers for both the iPhone and Android platforms. (Note: they’re not suing Apple or Google, which both licensed the necessary patents, but going after the smaller developers. The ones, Wilson describes, who can’t afford the lawyers needed to deal with a patent troll. He concludes:
The whole thing is nuts. I can’t understand why our government allows this shit to go on. It’s wrong and its bad for society to have this cancer growing inside our economy. Every time I get a meeting with a legislator or goverment employee working in and around the innovation sector, I bring up the patent system and in particular software patents. We need to change the laws. We need to eliminate software patents. This ridiculous Lodsys situation is the perfect example of why. We need to say “enough is enough.”