Imagine If Everyone Had To Start From Scratch And Reinvent The Wheel Every Time They Wanted To Build A New Car?

from the not-a-recipe-for-innovation dept

So, a couple of weeks ago, our submissions were slammed by a whole bunch of you with submission subjects along the lines of “Gizmodo is losing it” or “Gizmodo fails” or “Gizmodo doesn’t get innovation” (all actual submissions). senshikaze got the first submission in, though, and so gets the credit. From the summaries, it was clear that Gizmodo had published a pro-patent post, and specifically a pro-Apple patent post, written by Jesus Diaz. Figuring that it was a long and thorough defense of Apple and patents, and knowing I had a crazy busy few weeks, I actually set aside the post to wait until I had a nice block of time to read it and think about it. I always like thoughtful pieces that disagree with my general outlook on things, because they often make me think and reconsider my viewpoint. Unfortunately, this piece was not that, and I shouldn’t have bothered waiting. This was claptrap.

The entire crux of the argument is in this sentence, which says that we should celebrate the complete dismissal of any product that has any element of an idea from someone else:

Because they are a cheap bag of lazy, unimaginative bastards, that’s why.

Yeah, according to Diaz and Gizmodo, the point of the patent system is that everyone should reinvent the wheel every time they want to build a new car:

Those rivals, like Google, Samsung, or HTC, just said “oh fuck this, let’s all do the same” and came up with devices that are mostly copies of what Apple put out in their first iPhone. Sure, they added some stuff of their own and sure, Apple’s user interface has some aspects that are not original. But mostly the iPhone’s competitors are clones that show no imagination, no better ways to do things.

Of course, seeing as some of Apple’s recent “innovations” actually copy directly back from Google, Samsung or HTC, should we say the same thing about Apple?

Sometimes we’ve seen similar arguments in our comments, and it’s ignorant of history, of economics and of innovation. Innovation is all about building on the backs of others, taking what works, but improving and changing in other areas. Apple’s second big hit, the Macintosh, borrowed liberally from the graphical user interface designed at Xerox PARC (which itself borrowed liberally from the work at SRI). But it added key innovations on top of it and around it. And that’s how real innovation works. It’s not in starting from scratch and reinventing. It’s from building on what else is there, and making it better and more compelling, or tweaking it for a different market. None of that precludes doing something entirely new, but making everyone start from scratch to do something entirely new is ridiculous and anti-innovation.

Hell, let’s take Diaz’s argument to it’s insane logical conclusion. Motorola invented the first handheld mobile phone. Thus, really, shouldn’t Apple be working on something different than a mobile phone? After all, by making a mobile phone, all it’s really doing is being “a cheap bag of lazy, unimaginative bastards.” Instead, Apple should have come up with a totally new way of communicating.

And, really, the specifics of Diaz’s post are even more ridiculous. In it he praises the fact that Samsung’s devices may get blocked out of the EU entirely because they have a “swipe to unlock” feature — a tiny feature among thousands of features on a mobile device today. And, if we really broke down all of the possible features on a standard iPhone or iPad today, how many do you really think were first invented by Apple? According to Diaz, Apple should have come up with brand new ways of doing all of that. They shouldn’t have email (done by someone else). No web browser (someone else did that too). Apps? I mean, come on, how derivative can they be?

Innovation is the process of improving on what came before, and part of that is taking what came before and building on it. Sometimes it will involve something entirely new, but that’s exceptionally rare. In most cases, it’s a minor tweak. Hell, one of the most famous “inventors” in the world is Thomas Edison, and really, when you look, almost all of his “inventions” were really minor tweaks on work others had done. But if the Diaz/Gizmodo view of the world held true, Edisons “minor tweak” to make a lightbulb actually work, would have been a waste because, you know, someone else already had created the lightbulb.

Innovation involves copying. Out of that copying come improvement and new ideas. Complaining about something just because it involves some element of copying is not complaining about a lack of innovation. It’s complaining about some artificial useless standard.

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Comments on “Imagine If Everyone Had To Start From Scratch And Reinvent The Wheel Every Time They Wanted To Build A New Car?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The wheel question is misleading, because you are many years past the point where the wheel can be patent (by millennia).

It is a strawman comparison, because < 20 years from now, all that you bitch and whine about today will be out of patent and freely in use. One might, in 2030, ask the wheel question about App stores or rounded corners.

Time has a way of solving all of your problems.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You might want to move that App Store date forward a bit, because I remember the same experience on my Palm Pilot, where I bought apps from the Palm store, and they appeared as icons on my launcher screen.

You are also involved in deep non sequitur. The Gizomodo claim was that any kind of copying was lazy and unimaginative (L&U). But your answer is that, after some arbitrary 20 year period, then copying someone’s work is no longer L&U? So copying old ideas is not L&U, but copy anything fresher than 19yrs 364 days is L&U. How does it suddenly become OK?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Marcus, you are truly an ass. If I used the same methods to make a point, you would spend the rest of the day nit picking on it. Why should I not apply the same standard to Mike?

There are two things here:

First, time seems long only when you are right there in it.

Second, while the “whee” may be locked under patent, there is no patent for the “ball” or the “track” or other solutions. One of the great things about true innovation is that we are not trapped by a single “solution” to issues.

App store locked up? Whatever – open a widget store.

I would rather have 5 different solutions vying to be the best over time, which can be settled out at some point in the future (say 20 years from now). Rather than being slaves to a single solution (aka, all having Iphones or their “clones”), we can have dozens of solutions.

True innovation always wins. Innovation by paint color loses.

bjupton (profile) says:

There is still this ridiculous notion that things are invented with that ‘bolt from the blue’, completely independent of what came before.

Ridiculous. Everyone is standing on another’s shoulders. Sometimes you are standing on the shoulders of someone who is standing on yours…to really strain that metaphor. 🙂

We build this notion into our intellectual property schemes. It is all part of the mythology which is used as a reason for strengthening these laws. Protect innovation!

They wouldn’t know real innovation if it hit them square in the face.

DannyB (profile) says:

Enforce Diaz's ideas against Apple

Then see how Diaz likes it.

Computers had keyboards prior to the Apple II, Apple ///, Lisa and Macintosh. Apple should be sued to recover damages from all of those past computers. By using keyboards instead of inventing something original, Apple is just a cheap bag of lazy, unimaginative bastards.

Mobile phones had color LCD screens prior to the iPhone. Apple is just a cheap bag of lazy, unimaginative bastards.

Other phones and handheld devices displayed icons in a grid before Apple built the iPod or iPhone. Apple is just a cheap bag of lazy, unimaginative bastards.

Other companies made mp3 players before Apple’s iPod. Apple is just a cheap bag of lazy, unimaginative bastards.

Other computers had color displays before the Macintosh II (1987) had color. Apple is just a cheap bag of lazy, unimaginative bastards.

Using the standards of Diaz, it would be easy to put Apple out of business.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Enforce Diaz's ideas against Apple

Actually, there was a time Apple really did innovate. For years starting with the Lisa, Apple was way ahead of the rest of the industry. There were so many Apple firsts it was embarrassing. And then when the PC using world copied Apple ideas, they did it so poorly it was laughable. I won’t enumerate them here, but believe me the list is very long and I could go on and on.

Somewhere in the mid 1990’s, Apple lost its way. Gradually, I lost interest in Apple. By 2000 I was using Linux.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Enforce Diaz's ideas against Apple

Danny, your argument would be amusing if the keyboard wasn’t an old invention long since past it’s patent days.

Color screens? I think you need to look back 40 or 50 years for color TV.

I could go on. Your rant is amusing, but it sadly misdirected and entirely missing the point.

out_of_the_blue says:

Heh, heh. You're all Socialists, just won't see it.

Yes, Apple got their ideas from existing social milieu, same as all but a few, are only incrementally improving. — So why should Jobs or Gates get rewarded so much for their minor efforts? More than all the generation of computer scientists and engineers who enabled them to cash in? — That’s the basis of limiting incomes: NO ONE is worth more than a few million a year. Wealth is a social product, not much due to particular individuals.

JMT says:

Re: Heh, heh. You're all Socialists, just won't see it.

“So why should Jobs or Gates get rewarded so much for their minor efforts?”

This comment is so ridiculous that I’m sure you’re just playing Devil’s advocate, but since you asked…

The “minor effort” you refer to is but one tiny aspect of the what Gates and Jobs brought to their respective companies. They got rewarded for, amongst other things, taking the financial risk of bringing products to the market that they hoped people would want, and then building on that success.

But you knew that…

Bryan says:

Apple and Patents and Lawsuits Oh My!

You know, Apple uses lawsuits to stop competition and for no other reason. The reason they go through all the effort, is because a LOT of people really like phones like the Nexus, Galaxy S and the Galaxy SII, you know why? They are innovative, high performance handsets, have better displays, and they have really good software (finally!). Many also like them because they ARE NOT from Apple. Many, including myself, do not appreciate the closed, micromanaged, Apple philosophy about their products. If you like it, good for you, I am glad you enjoy your nice iProduct. But Apple sues when other people exercise choice, and they do that when there are better products out there. I mean, how can Apple claim to they invented a rectangular smart phone with a button, really? It looks like Samsung and HTC really listen to their customers and provide LOTS of choices, and that is working as a business model, go figure. Apple doesn’t like this and pulls out the dirty tricks book. Apple provides ONE choice, and if you don’t like it there must be something wrong with you. The iPhone is a nice phone, but it is hard to say they are state of the art with a straight face. If you can’t compete, sue the pants off ’em!

blaktron (profile) says:

Re: Apple and Patents and Lawsuits Oh My!

iPhone4 has about 40% of the raw computing power of a modern android handset, and is accelerating at a slower pace due to being forced to innovate in a linear patter (ie, they have to do the chip innovation, then once thats done they can write software for it, etc. Not happening all at once like competition breeds) so this is the only way they can possibly survive long term without the iPhone becoming the 90’s Macs.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

Go watch Connections or The Secret Life of Machines. Virtually all of the inventions covered are derived from other inventions, and virtually all of them were made to solve a problem, or simply to harness or measure natural forces. IBM punch cards came from the Jacquard loom which was just a way to automate existing technology. Jacquard didn’t invent the loom itself, and cam systems had been around for centuries. The internal combustion engine was a combination of many things, including cannon barrel manufacture, scent spray atomizers and a gadget Volta had created for testing swamp gasses. (And the wheel. Let’s not forget that.)

When I went to school they taught me a number of existing, known techniques for programming different problems. Decades later I still use those techniques because they work, and they’re applicable to the problems I’m trying to solve. Does it make me a cheap, lazy, unimaginative bastard for not trying to come up with a new way to do something instead of using an old, proven way of doing it, every single time I have to sort data?

People discover things and then pass them on to other people so they don’t have to re-discover them; instead, our knowledge and technology base accelerates because we start from a foundation of previously learned knowledge, experience, ideas, failures, techniques, understanding, technology, science, art, you name it. This is why we have schools. This is why people teach. This is why people study. It’s to understand the knowledge of the past in order to apply it to the future.

Creativity is about applying knowledge, not ignoring it. Jesus and his ilk want us to win a relay race by having each runner dash back to the starting line and start the race over. How does that even make sense?

(BTW you can spend a lot of money on Connections, but The Secret Life of Machines is free for download. Legally.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Motorola invented the first handheld mobile phone.”

There was a handheld of sorts that predated Motorola’s work, and it was a part of a battlefield communication system developed for the US Army by Martin Marietta back in the late 60’s. Since Martin Marietta was not in the commercial telephony business, the technology (including patents) was transferred some years later to Motorola. The same was also done with respect to pagers.

BTW, the word “innovation” seems to be being used on this site with multiple meanings. In previous articles I have understood it to mean taking something from inception to market. Here it is used in a much more limited sense, i.e., improving a product.

blaktron (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Everytime you hear in the next few years that ‘Motorola invented the cellphone’ they will be referring to 1 of 2 things (and probably confusing them both).

1) StarTac phones were the first truly portable, mass market cell phones and a lot of the miniaturization from the car phones of the 80s was done by Motorola.

2) They basically created the GSM standard, which solved the CDMA code breaking problem (could hack phone calls by spoofing another phones code) and gave us the modern cell phone network. Very big deals.

A lot of the MMI patents involve the miniaturization techniques developed for the creation of the first cell phones (and yes, for the battlefield communications of the day) and while not explicitly related to mobile communications, are probably very much applicable to almost any piece of consumer electronics today.

Interestingly enough, MMI would probably also own some of the patents originally used to create the first Macs…

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

I heard this described many years ago as the ?Popov Effect?. Every time you try to research a claim of the form ?X invented the Y?, you discover that there was someone W prior to X who came up with something rather like Y. And quite likely there was someone V before that as well. So you have to add extra qualifications: ?X invented the first true Y (or ?first modern Y? is another good one) that particularly did Z, which is what matters?. Or ?X invented the first successful Y?.

Ultimately, any justification for why the name X, rather than W or V, is the one primarily associated with Y, is little more than circular.

Anonymous Coward says:

Companies _don’t_ spend R&D to compete with themselves. Maybe that is a byproduct of R&D (i.e. no one buys their older models anymore) but not a reason to do it initially. Re-tooling, introducing new things that have new ways to fail, etc, all pose risk. If apple was the only one on the market that could have a touch screen phone, do you think they would put a new one out on the market every year? The answer is no. Inevitably they lose their incentive to create new products, because, believe it or not, they don’t do it _just because_. Things don’t happen _just because_ in business because of stockholders.

Whoosh says:

Re: Apple Settlement

The irony of the Gizmodo scandal was that many (but definitely not all) of Gizmodo’s editors were Apple fanboys and constantly wrote gushing articles about the latest Apple tech. That’s why Gizmodo bothered to spend money on the lost prototype.

Diaz has a reputation for banning commenters who call him out on his love of Apple and being petty and immature.

crade (profile) says:

” and sure, Apple’s user interface has some aspects that are not original”
Heh, this is the part that makes me think the whole thing must be tongue in cheek.. How can you right a statement like that and not realize that it’s completely subjective whether or not the “new” stuff that each guy adds on their product is important enough to fall into your “this is original” category instead of your “this is a copy” category.

Jed says:


I doubt anyone will read this but here goes.

First check your preconceptions at the door and then consider this for a moment. What is a loaf of bread? Obviously it is many things but the one I am concerned with is that to make a loaf of bread you are following a recipe that has been copied so many times that you couldn’t trace where it originally came from or what the original recipe was. If you want to improve the recipe you add raisins or some other additional ingredient. An existing idea or “invention” is like a recipe and when you add an “ingredient” (adding email access to a cell phone for instance) it improves it. Just like a recipe for cinnamon and raisin bread is not the same as a recipe for wheat bread even though they are both bread recipes. A cell phone and a cell phone w/ email access, etc. are not the same even though they are both cell phones. By improving a thing in any way it becomes something new, and it should be recognized as such.

Not a perfect analogy I know but you get the gist.

Vic Kley says:

Actually Edison invented "a" lightbulb

Mike when you are right, you are right!

Edison made a modest step forward for the light bulbs development, which in the end never became the main lightbulb of the world.
His innovation however (product and manufacturing facility) did lead the world into the light.

The very basic idea of passing current through some structure to emit light was done in the lab in the 1810’s (Davy’s lab I believe).

The key invention was the tungsten wire light bulb and the trick of creating a filament from this obdurate and brittle material. Edison did not invent the tungsten wire incandescent bulb although his bulb was incandescent.

The tungsten wire coming along at the turn of the century (1890’s) became the worlds lightbulb.

Edison also invented Edison as the Inventor of the Lightbulb by dint of PR and self-promotion. It worked for Colt, Edison, Edwin Land and the Steve’s whether any of them deserved it or not.

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