Steve Jobs, Patent Pending

(This article first appeared as one of my columns in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

The death of Steve Jobs gave us all an opportunity to reflect on the legacy and genius of the Apple co-founder. It would not be exaggerating to say that he reshaped six different industries — personal computers, music, phones, animated movies, tablet computing and digital publishing. Nor would it be a stretch to say that his work impacted the daily lives of billions of people.

He was just 25 years old when he filed for his first patent in 1980. Jobs and three others received patent No. D268,584 for the design of the Apple III computer. His latest patent (No. 8,032,843) was granted a day before he died on Wednesday. It’s for the row of icons on a Mac known as “The Dock.”

When he died, Jobs was named as the inventor or co-inventor on 317 patents, and he has eight more patent applications under review.

Browsing through those patent documents gives you a sense for both the breadth and depth of his contributions. They offer up a fascinating history of the evolution of technology over the last 30 years, and a reminder that not all of his ideas were home runs.

Apple TV, a digital video recorder, was never able to compete with TiVo, and the Newton — Apple’s first attempt at a tablet in the mid-1990s — never caught on.

Among the many legends about Jobs is the one about how he “stole” many of the ideas for the first Apple computer from Xerox. The mouse, the graphical user interface and the computer which powered them … all ideas that he saw during an afternoon visit to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, the company’s West Coast research facility.

It was the fall of 1979 and Jobs was the 24-year old co-founder of a small computer startup. He wrangled a deal with Xerox, offering to sell them $1 million worth of pre-IPO Apple stock in exchange for sharing some of the ideas they’d developed.

Among the inventions the Xerox engineers showed off that afternoon was the Alto, a device that was arguably the first personal computer. The Alto was never a commercial product, but it had a number of features that Jobs realized were revolutionary. While most computers of the era relied on a command line interface — where users had to type in instructions from a keyboard — the Alto had a graphical user interface. One could use a mouse, another startling new invention, to control a cursor on the screen, clicking on an icon to open a document.

Jobs was visibly excited by what he saw, and he returned with a whole list of ideas for his designers to get started on. In 1983 they released a computer called Lisa, which incorporated many of the concepts he had seen at Xerox, followed a year later by the Macintosh.

In the years that have followed, many pundits have suggested that Xerox should have been the one to capitalize on those inventions, and Jobs himself once opined that Xerox could have been “as big as IBM plus Microsoft combined — the largest high-technology company in the world.”

But the reality of that story is much different, and it helps to illustrate what it was that made Jobs so successful: his ability to take good ideas and turn them into actual products.

The idea for the mouse actually originated at Stanford University in the ’60s, where researcher Douglas Engelbart was studying human-computer interaction. In 1970 he received patent No. 3,541,541 for what he called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system.” His invention never really made it out of the lab.

The folks at Xerox were focused on building a graphical user interface, and that required a mouse or some other sort of non-keyboard interface. Their version of a mouse was better than Engelbart’s, but it was still clunky, hard to use and cost $1,000 to produce.

Jobs noticed that when the Xerox engineers were using it, they had to look at the mouse to figure out which of the three buttons they were pressing. He knew that for it to really work, users needed to have their eyes on the monitor. And for it to be viable as a commercial product, he needed to figure out how to build it for $15.

And that’s what he did, taking a crudely realized concept and turning it into to a commercial product. It wasn’t merely taking someone else’s idea, but improving on it. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an article for the New Yorker: “If you lined up Engelbart’s mouse, Xerox’s mouse, and Apple’s mouse, you would not see the serial reproduction of an object. You would see the evolution of a concept.”

Great research doesn’t always lead to great products, a fundamental truth all too familiar to Kodak watchers. Michael Hiltzik , a Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wrote about this dilemma in his book Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age.

“Engelbart’s self-defined mission was not to produce a product, or even a prototype; it was an open-ended search for knowledge,” Hiltzik wrote. “Consequently, no project in his lab ever seemed to come to an end.”

And therein lay Jobs’ true genius. He didn’t invent smartphones or tablet computers or MP3 players. But he knew how to make them better and more accessible to a mass market. He knew that by making things sleek, simple and intuitive, he could take a great idea out of the labs and put it into the hands of millions of consumers.

In an interview with NPR in 1996, Jobs explained Apple’s approach:

“I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers,” he said. “If you really look at the ease of use of the Macintosh, the driving motivation behind that was to bring not only ease of use to people … but it was to bring beautiful fonts and typography to people, it was to bring graphics to people, not for plotting laminar flow calculations, but so that they could see beautiful photographs, or pictures, or artwork.”

Jobs believed that everyone should be able to use computers, not just scientists, and that they could be used by everyday people in their everyday lives.

When you add up all of the patents Jobs received, you’ll see that they are all in pursuit of that goal.

Taken as a whole, his innovations changed the way we communicate, the way we consume media, the way we work and play.

Steve Jobs changed the way we interact with the world and with each other.