A great New York Times article this morning (link below) details ways in which the patent system gets used as both an offensive and defensive weapon, with billions of dollars of collateral damage to start-ups, consumers (see the “patent tax”), and innovation in general. The victim in the opening Vignette (Vlingo, a voice-recognition software start-up) might have been saved by a simple change in the rules: make the losers of patent lawsuits pay the legal costs of the winner. It turns out that it’s rather easy to kill small firms (or force them to sell to you) by launching a patent lawsuit against them that bleeds them dry with legal fees. You don’t have to win — you just have to force them to fight until they no longer have any money. Vlingo ultimately won the patent lawsuit that had been filed by a much larger rival, but had to loot its own meager coffers to pay the legal fees of doing so. Vlingo slumped home with its patent lawsuit victory and shut its doors for good. If losers of such battles paid the legal fees of winners, such fights might both be less common, and less likely to be fatal.
The article also points out that software patents have proven particularly dangerous because they are prone to protecting vague claims like “a software algorithm for calculating online prices,” thereby granting the patent holder vast tracks of technological real estate. An interesting talk by Tilo Peters at the Strategic Management Society conference yesterday points to another useful tool for rationalizing some of this misuse of the patent system: Strategic disclosure. If, for example, you decided to publish a manifesto about all of the things you might do with software in the reasonable future (remember patents have a “usefulness” condition so you’re not allowed to claim something deemed non-feasible), you might be able to essentially proclaim that technological territory as unpatentable. It wouldn’t prevent competitors from developing in those areas, but it could keep them from patenting in those areas. In essence, it transforms a space in which property rights may be allocated into one in which property rights may not. I’ve left out some details but you get the idea.
Now it occurs to me that a fair amount of strategic disclosure in the smart phone space took place in the form of Star Trek episodes. I’m going to go look for references to prior art…
“I am not that surprised that an academic of entrepreneurship (are you kidding me?) would lead a story about one of the world’s best innovators and CEO’s about that he actually and in fact ! OMG had body odour as a teenager because of his diet, not to mention the rest of your embarrassing piece. Forbes would be best sticking with writers that are inspired by such great entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs, and not with writers such as this, who are unhappy they have not had the courage to ‘live the life they love and not settle’ and so sit in front of their computer with not much else to do but trying to bring others down. Shame on you Mr Vermeulen”.
This is just one of the comments I received on my earlier piece “Steve Jobs – the man was fallible” (also published on my Forbes blog). Of course, this was not unanticipated; having the audacity to suggest that, in fact, the great man did not possess the ability to walk on water was the closest thing to business blasphemy. And indeed a written stoning duly followed.
But why is suggesting that a human being like Steve Jobs was in fact fallible – who, in the same piece, I also called “a management phenomenon”, “fantastically able”, “a legend”, and “a great leader” – by some considered to be such an act of blasphemy? All I did was claim that he was “fallible”, “not omnipotent”, and “not always right”, which as far as I can see comes with the definition of being human?
And I guess that’s exactly it; in life and certainly in death Steve Jobs transcended the status of being human and reached the status of deity. A journalist of the Guardian compared the reaction (especially in the US) to the death of Steve Jobs with the reaction in England to the death of Princess Diana; a collective outpour of almost aggressive emotion by people who only ever saw the person they are grieving about briefly on television or at best in a distance. Suggesting Princess Diana was fallible was not a healthy idea immediately following her death (and still isn’t); nor was suggesting Steve Jobs was human.
We are inclined to deify successful people in the public eye, and in our time that certainly includes CEOs. In the past, in various cultures, it may have been ancient warriors, Olympians, or saints. They became mythical and transcended humanity, quite literally reaching God-like status.
Historians and geneticists argue that this inclination for deification is actually deeply embedded in the human psyche, and we have evolved to be prone to worship. There is increasing consensus that man came to dominate the earth – and for instance drive out Neanderthalers, who were in fact stronger, likely more intelligent, and had more sophisticated tools – because of our superior ability to organize into larger social systems. And a crucial role in this, fostering social cohesion, was religion, which centers on myths and deities. This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is yearning to come out and be satisfied, and great people such as Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Lady Di serve to fulfill this need.
But that of course does not mean that they were infallible and could in fact walk on water. We just don’t want to hear it. Great CEOs realize that their near deification is a gross exaggeration, and sometimes even get annoyed by its suggestion – Amex’s Ken Chenault told me that he did not like it at all, and I have seen that same reaction in Southwest’s Herb Kelleher. Slightly less-great CEOs do start to believe their own status, and people like Enron’s Jeff Skilling or Ahold’s Cees van der Hoeven come to mind; not coincidentally they are often associated with spectacular business downfalls. I have never spoken to Steve Jobs, but I am guessing he might not have disagreed with the qualifications “not omnipotent”, “not always right” and, most of all, “human”.
As a student, at Reed College, Steve Jobs came to believe that if he ate only fruits he would eliminate all mucus and not need to shower anymore. It didn’t work. He didn’t smell good. When he got a job at Atari, given his odor, he was swiftly moved into the night shift, where he would be less disruptive to the nostrils of his fellow colleagues.
The job at Atari exposed him to the earliest generation of video games. It also exposed him to the world business and what it meant build up and run a company. Some years later, with Steve Wozniak, he founded Apple in Silicon Valley (of course in a garage) and quite quickly, although just in his late twenties, grew to be a management phenomenon, featuring in the legendary business book by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman “In Search of Excellence”.
But, in fact, shortly after the book became a bestseller, by the mid 1980s, Apple was in trouble. Although their computers were far ahead of their time in terms of usability – mostly thanks to the Graphical User Interface (based on an idea he had cunningly copied from Xerox) – they were just bloody expensive. Too expensive for most people. For example, the so-called Lisa retailed for no less than $10,000 (and that is 1982 dollars!). John Sculley – CEO – recalled “We were so insular, that we could not manufacture a product to sell for under $3,000.” Steve Jobs was fantastically able to assemble and motivate a team op people that managed to invent a truly revolutionary product, but he also was unable to turn it into profit. Read the rest of this entry »