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A History of Apple & Innovation: Defining innovation; is it a matter of perspective?

Many of Apple’s “innovations”, namely the iPad and Apple’s other touch screen devices, have successfully integrated within the consumer market after having gone through a lengthy product evolution that draws influences from science fiction, previous products and existing technologies. So are Apple’s latest generation of touch screen devices truly innovative or are they a timely and intuitive combination of existing ideas, concepts and technology? Should something only be considered an innovation once it can be formalised with a patent or become available to a mass audience? Or had the true innovation of Apple’s mobile touch screen devices occurred some years ago?

To draw an analogy, consider the clay tablets used by Babylonian scribes to transit information across time and distance. Essentially the underlying motivations involved in writing, sending and storing the Babylonian clay tablets, are the same as many of the functions iPad claims to have introduced. Innovation as a concept depends very much on the perspective adopted by the observer, in this context historical. The innovation of the idea or the proposed use of a tablet device for storage of data occurred centuries ago; however the tangible product innovation we see today in the form of the iPad or equivalent devices can be seen as a step forward or an innovation of a pre-existing concept or product, however basic its predecessors in form.

Consider innovation from a science fiction perspective; one could contest that famed social theorist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke could be considered to have originated the idea of satellite broadcasting from stationary orbit, but he didn’t introduce the physical innovation, only theorised over the concept. Science fiction is in a sense a reification of the impact of evolving technologies and their actual and possible impact on cultural expression. Innovation often requires concrete realisation to be considered credible by society. From a legal perspective this often requires being the first to publish and/or patent an idea or product. In Clarke’s final hours he was interviewed and questioned on the subject of geostationary satellites and commented that;

“I’m often asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, “A patent is really a license to be sued.” Clarke couldn’t pinpoint the exact reference that got him thinking about geostationary satellites. “One of the moons of Mars, Phobos, is always in a stationary orbit,” he mused. “That probably got me thinking.” He had discussed his ideas with his friends in the nascent British Interplanetary Society but didn’t get many comments, he reminisced. “I never received any additional input, so it was all my own work in the end.” - (Spectrum: Inside technology, 2008)

These comments from Clarke make apparent the link between science fiction, ideation, innovation and the legality of the patent system. In this context Apple are famed for their tactical and efficient use of the patent system. The following provides compelling arguments that support both the notion that Apple are indeed at very least product innovators and highlights how the legal relationship between innovation and the patent system can in fact serve to further drive future innovation rather than causing it to stagnate;

Apple is also a perfect example of how the patent system is intended to work. Patents are strong, but waste over time because technology grows stagnant. To continue to reap the benefits of a patent portfolio you must continue to innovate and continue to protect that innovation. Patent are fragile because if you obtain a patent I could obtain a patent on an improvement, thereby blocking you, the original patent owner, from making, using and selling the improved version of your own invention. For that reason, when you get a patent on a valuable product you must immediately start to innovate again, improve, push the envelope and obtain additional patent protection so as to prevent competitors from blocking you.” - (IPWatchdog, 2010)