Within about two months time from the publication of this post, the patent for the portable computer is going to expire. Considering the proliferation of laptops, and the amount of patents involved with the manufacture of one, it's hard to predict whether this change is going to affect the industry to any extent. However, this does illuminate clearly the point in time we're in within these early stages of the age of information. It's well known that the patentability of software was established within the U.S during the early 90's, and that they've been growing in numbers ever since. This is important for us, because these days the first few batches of computer related patents are being released for free use.
It is the unique character of this industry that makes this advancement un-newsworthy, because of a perceived pace of progress under which nothing of 20 years of age could be of any worth. Anyone who's been around that long, though, knows this to be untrue. Innovation works much the same as a pendulum, moving from one extreme to the other. Such is the way Anil Dash describes the move from mainframes to the personal computer as a revolution of sorts, only to be followed by a swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction with the proliferation of the cloud. The same could be claimed with regard to IDEs, visual programming languages, imperative programming paradigms, and many other aspects of technology that we consider as innovative.
Today's world of technology is without a doubt on the move forward, but much of the conceptual foundations of today's inventions were already laid out in legal speak in a previous turn of the wheel. This has the dual effect of allowing us to move forward in fronts that were blocked from extensive (as opposed to intensive) progress up to now, and also, limiting the possibility of a future appropriation of these innovations.
When speaking of an extensive progress that weren't possible up to now, one can imagine a world of smaller and smaller manufacturers, much like the way every town had it's own bread makers and shoe makers at some point in time. This might seem counter-intuitive with regard to a common rationale of centralized manufacturing that can cuts costs, but this isn't really the case in most industries. Nike has centralized manufacturing, but their products cost a fortune, because they have vast expenses for the purpose of brand building, and because there's enough of a demand to make it worthwhile. The telecommunications equipment industry is another kind of example. A few manufacturers like Cisco have vast expenses in R&D and they aim for the higher end of the market. However, most of the consumers are service providers in developing nations, where infrastructure has yet to be deployed. In these markets there seems to be a clear preference for smaller manufacturers that provide cheaper goods.
Another result of the same process could be better kinds of free software alternatives to existing products, and in particular a preference for maker alternatives or pretail variations that could replace the mass-manufactured goods of today's world. The rise of 3D printing and maker culture saw an instantaneous reaction from IP aficionados that claimed for the need to implement IP protection mechanisms within printers, even for non-commercial use. But the expiration of patents for much of the technologies that are simple enough to be of relevance to makers would change the balance of power in these regards.
The Future Of Patents
Today's innovative sphere is advanced in two parallel trajectories. On the one hand are entrepreneurs, hackers and makers, and on the other, a narrow oligopoly of tech giants. In a recent talk with Israel Twito, CEO of New-tone Patent Search ltd., it was noted that the same balance of power between big manufacturers that prevents smaller players from being able to compete, has the double-sided effect of forcing these same companies to continue the arms race forward, with intensive R&D, as well as through the constant acquisition of smaller players. When passing criticism over an exits-focused startup culture, one has to keep this state of affairs in mind. Some industries are blocked from entry to anyone that isn't deep-pocketed enough to join into an arms race that's already under way. On the other side of the market are big players that need sources of producing new IP, with little or no regard to the cost - both the financial one, and the one that has to do with the damage to innovation and to clients of acquired ventures.
This saddening state has an upside as well, one that will only begin to show within the next few years. The tech giants are arming themselves with patents for their own ends, but are also making the patent system obsolete by way of doing so. With the realization that a patent's strength lies in the abstractedness and generalization of its phrasing, and with the constant swings of the technological pendulum, we'll see more and more areas where the field for innovation is ironically already covered by existing, expired patents. With that process underway, the tech giants of today will be forced to create products of such sophistication that their target audiences will narrow, much like Cisco's does today.
An End Note
The grinding of the patent system by economically motivated and heavily funded players requires new and better tools to help us understand what opportunities lie before us. A survey of U.S patents that are about to expire within the next year shows interesting things like cloaking systems, software protection machanisms, electric car chargers, pen-based computer inputs, home networking, and a lot of the technologies around cellular communications. Crossing that information with patent lawsuit databases shows that not a lot of today's expiring patents are inhibitors to innovation (or competition), but that's going to change at some point in time, and we best be prepared.