Innovation: focus on the future, not the past

30 April 2012 - 02:09 By Toby Shapshak
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Image: Times LIVE

Are patents killing innovation? It's the question that every tech and business publication has been asking since a spate of patent lawsuits began last April when Apple sued Samsung over its iPad.

"Settling this massively escalated, planet-spanning dispute will be a Herculean task," said Florian Mueller, a patent specialist who has been following this intensifying tit-for-tat conflict.

But the simple answer is no. Patents have existed for a long time. They're an unavoidable legal necessity, but shouldn't be a hinderance, except with patent trolls.

Nickola Tesla was arguably one of the greatest minds of the 19th century and the man who invented alternating current, the AC in AC/DC. DC, for direct current, was invented by Thomas Edison, for whom Tesla worked and both men later become fierce enemies.

Tesla, the original mad scientist with increasingly eccentric behaviour, owned a batch of patents through the years, selling some and ending up in several bitter legal disputes.

He believed his more powerful business partners bought his patents to stifle him, and he attributed a fire at one of his laboratories to sabotage, meant to set back his experiments.

Interestingly though, Tesla never let any of this stop him. He simply carried on working and came up with new ideas and new patents.

He was the ultimate example of one of the favourite aphorisms of entrepreneurship and the current tech start-up culture: that failure is necessary to succeed.

It's a salient lesson now. In a few years' time, when the war over who owns which patent for which tablet design - or how to click on a hyperlink - is finally over there might be a whole new set of technologies that someone else has come up with.

I certainly hope we're not still relying on patents from decades ago when we're using radical new technology 20 years from now.

If Tesla had the willingness to just move on, why doesn't this generation of innovators?

As wonderful as the technology we have is right now, that's probably what the Victorians thought about steam trains, or the early computer pioneers thought about their keyboards in the 1970s before the mouse was popularised.

The greatest innovations happening right now are not happening at the level at which Apple and Samsung are fighting - neither are the $1.1-billion patents Microsoft bought from AOL (then offloaded half to Facebook for $550-million) or what Google bought with Motorola Mobility for $12.5-billion.

The new frontiers are in bioscience, genetics and the human genome, stem-cell research for cancer, vaccines for Aids, quantum computing, solar and other alternative power sources; and the kinds of things we're using in this age of horse-drawn carriage internet (compared to what must surely come).

Just think what a leap forward using a touchscreen smartphone is over the alphanumeric keypads of feature phones.

It enabled tablets to appear, ushering in an era of finger-based computing; freeing us from the input triumvirate of keyboard, mouse and monitor.

The youth of today sniggers at using e-mail, for instance; smartphones have effectively replaced desktop computers and are most people's primary device. We're all going mobile. Innovation occurs because of necessity.

The refinement of existing techniques is all good and well, but where would the world be if Henry Ford devoted himself to making a more comfortable horse-drawn buggy?

Patent holders protect their interests because, well, they're a very convenient way of making money - especially when my lawyer is bigger than your lawyer.

Innovation, like invention before it, means taking risks. The place in which these risks are taken is not Silicon Valley - where elaborate improvements on current technology are happening. It's here in the developing world, especially in Africa, where there is no alternative, that the risks, and rewards, are occurring.

Like Tesla, we need to forget the past and focus on the future.