By Harry McCracken | Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 1:46 am
Among the many uncanny parallels between Stephen Paul Jobs and Walter Elias Disney is this one: Very early on, both abandoned the work that in some respects might seem to define their careers. Walt Disney began as a cartoonist, but by the late 1920s he had nothing to do with the drawing of Disney cartoons and is said to have told folks that he couldn’t have held down an animator’s job in his own studio. And Steve Jobs held technical positions at HP and Atari at the dawn of his time in Silicon Valley, but his contributions to Apple have never been those of an engineer.
And yet, as I browsed Apple patents in recent months for stories like this one, I wasn’t surprised to discover that Jobs’ name is among the inventors listed on dozens of Apple filings over the past thirty years (with a thirteen-year gap in the middle during his absence). It doesn’t feel like glory-hogging, either: Anyone want to make the case that major Apple products would be pretty much the same if Jobs hadn’t contributed ideas and refinements? And Jobs’ name is typically one of several or many on a patent, usually along with that of Apple design honcho Jonathan Ive and other, lesser-known colleagues. (Most Jobs patents relate to industrial design; some are for software; none are for circuitry or other under-the-hood technologies.)
Rummaging through Google Patent Search‘s records of patents credited in part to Steve Jobs is an absorbing way to reflect on some of his accomplishments and failures–and maybe even to learn some new things about what makes the man tick.Yes, his name is on the patents for most of the iconic computers, MP3 players, and other gizmos sold by Apple from 1998 to the present. (I’ve written about some of them before.) But you know what? It’s not the famous, obvious stuff that I find most interesting–it’s the sidelights, loose ends, and mysteries. I’ll look at ten of those in a moment.
First, let’s get a bunch of icons out of the way with a group shot, shall we? Guys, c’mon in…
Applause, applause; thank you, thank you.
Okay, let’s move on. Here are ten other Steve Jobs patents to chew on–none of them landmarks, but all of them interesting:
When I started doing stories comparing the cost of Windows PCs and Macs, I used to include Apple’s power adapters–which are unusually compact and sport magnetic connectors, an optional extension cord, and little wings you can wrap the cable around–as a point in Macs’ favor, until I got sick of Windows fans snickering. I shouldn’t have caved. The fact that the CEO obsesses over even mundane necessities such as power bricks is one of the things that makes Apple Apple, and makes Macs worth more money than garden-variety Windows boxes. If you’re not sure if you’re a candidate to buy a Mac, here’s a simple test: If the notion of a really well-designed AC adapter excites you, you’ll probably be very happy with a Mac. And if it doesn’t, you won’t. The one shown here is from a 2001 patent filing that credits Jobs and eleven others.
I haven’t been to every major Steve Jobs product unveiling, but I’ve been to more than my share–starting before there were such things as Macs–and I can’t think of anything I saw Jobs reveal that seemed to tickle him more than the Apple Remote, which debuted at an October 12th, 2005 event and is shown here in a drawing from a patent filed five days earlier. He showed a slide contrasting the Remote’s six options embedded in two unmarked controls against a Windows Media Center remote completely covered by fifteen zillion buttons, and just stood there and beamed. I think that the Apple Remote is merely very good–I prefer the Vudu box’s thumbwheel driven model–but it’s as striking an example of Jobsian restraint as you’ll find. If most consumer-electronics companies set out to build the simplest remote ever, they’d still end up with three times the buttons, and half of them would have incomprehensible labels.
A surprising percentage of the Apple patents that carry Jobs’ name involve one basic idea: desktop computers with the guts in one box, the display in another, and some form of articulated arm in between. Apple only made such a machine for about two and a half years–the iMac G4, produced between 2002 and 2004. Yet the U.S. Patent Office holds plenty of evidence that Jobs was smitten with the idea, including this patent for boxy a snake-arm iMac that was filed just weeks before Apple stopped shipping the more rounded G4. I’m not sure if Jobs has ever spoken publicly about the brief life of the “desklamp” Mac, but I’m betting that it was with at least some degree of regret that he retired it in favor of more conventional, less fanciful iMac designs. I’m also not sure if it means anything that some of these patents are among the few in which Jobs’ name precedes that of any collaborator.
Here’s a “handheld portable computing device” from a 2007 patent filing, credited to Jobs and a dozen others, that looks like an early iPod Nano with some sort of touchstrip control rather than the iconic clickwheel. Apple has yet to make such a device. (The 2007 Nano turned out to be the squart, square variant–and it came out less than three months after this filing.) But did it seriously consider doing so? Or is this something else? Maybe even an Apple product which was released which I’m somehow not recognizing?
The iPod Nano box, to be exact. Although with the consistent design aesthetic of everything Apple, it sometimes seems beside the point to distinguish between the product and its packaging: An iPod’s box is pretty much part of the iPod that you happen to remove during use. If Apple doesn’t go entirely to recycled, biodegradable packaging at some point, it wouldn’t startle me to see it introduce a unibody aluminum iPod box with an Apple logo that lights up.
This we know about patents: They’re permanent and unflinching, recording embarrassing failures just as definitively as they do history-making successes. So this drawing of a 1998 “cursor control device“-better known as the original iMac mouse–preserves for all time the fact that Steve Jobs and his team inexplicably chose to make a mouse that had nothing to do with the shape of the human hand. What we don’t know is whether the ten people credited with its creation (who also designed an amazing array of brilliantly functional products) all suffered a simultaneous bout of bad judgment, or whether some of them sort of knew deep in their hearts that mice shouldn’t be round and flat. Later Macs returned to mice that were less distinctive but far more useful.
This would seem to be the towering glass staircase at the Apple Store in San Francisco’s Union Square, a set of steps I’ve trod up and down dozens of times since the store opened in October, 2005. (My most memorable trip up it? With out a doubt, the one on the evening of June 29th, 2007, when I ascended it to buy an iPhone on the first night they were available. Bathed in light and applauded by an army of Apple employees for my good taste, I felt like I was entering paradise.) Microsoft, having taken note of the Apple Stores’ great success, plans its own chain of retail outfits, but let’s just say it: There’s absolutely no chance that Steve Ballmer is going to roll up his sleeves and help design the fixtures. It’s hard enough to envision him rolling up his sleeces and helping to design Windows 7’s fixtures. I’m not saying that that’s good, and I’m not saying that it’s bad–just that it’s a defining difference between the Two Most Important Steves in Tech.
[UPDATE: Commenter "Duck" says that he or she thinks I'm wrong about what this is, and it's a CD icon formerly seen in iTunes. Which may well be right--looking at the other frames of animation in the patent, it looks like it. Please disregard musings to follow in this item.] It’s not quite the Blue Screen of Death, but OS X’s spinning beach ball is never the bearer of glad tidings–it’s there to tell you that you’re trying to do stuff so fast that your Mac can’t keep up, and it’s been known to do its rotating for abnormally long times and/or be the first warning sign of a crash. (I get paranoid when I see it or any other animated status indicator, and brood about the computational cycles that are being wasted on needless animation.) Apple filed a patent for the festive status indicator in January 2001, and Jobs was one of two designers to receive credit (Me, I would have tried to deny responsbility.) It’s one of the few examples of an Apple patent on something that we’d all be just as happy to never see again.
I don’t even think of iPod and iPhone cases as something Apple gives much though to—other than cheerfully selling gadgets that scratch easily, then turning around and selling us protective cases from a thriving throng of very small companies–let alone a matter that occupies many of Jobs’ precious brain cells. But in 2002, Apple filed patents for a couple of iPod cases, including this one which claims Jobs and ten others as its inventor. From all evidence, it’s nice, but not extraordinary. (If you know what qualities would cause an iPod case to be extraordinary, please let me know.)
Most of the many Apple patents that the blogosphere discovers and takes as evidence of amazing gadgets to come have one thing in common: Steve Jobs’ name isn’t on them. He tends to show up on patents that show real Apple products in more-or-less final form. This one is an exception: It’s a 2004 filing for a touch tablet computer of some sort, credited to Jobs and fourteen others. Apple has released no such product to date, and the drawing at right is about as close as the filing gets to explaining how one might work. But in recent months, the world has pretty much decided that Apple is building a tablet for release this year or next. If it does–and there are still no guarantees–anyone who paid attention to this patent had the news first. Sort of.
Anyone want to read things into these patents that I didn’t?