Apple’s real innovation: a gesture made with two fingers

Douglas Rushkoff nails my unease at the patenting of gestures, a critical front in the commercial war being waged through intellectual property. At stake is how far governments should grant monopoly rights over something that belongs to all of us: our shared language of words and gestures.

US Patent #7,812,826, though limited and not at stake in the latest Samsung judgement, grants Apple rights over pinch-to-zoom.

What if they had Patented the Alphabet? Rushkoff demands to know. I’d take it further. Patents on gestures take us into the same territory as those on human genes, and on flora and fauna. These are our shared commons; natural attributes that may be discovered and used, but never invented nor enclosed. Opposable thumbs! They’re part of what it means to be human.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that all the focus on Apple’s patents obscures the true reasons for the company’s runaway success in mobile. The mythology around Steve Jobs paints him as heir to Edison, a wizard presiding over a school of invention and creativity. True innovation is not like that and never has been; it’s about much more that just building a better mousetrap.

My favourite definition of innovation is not the usual pat phrase about “making new stuff”, or even “making new stuff useful”. Those focus too much on the outcome at the expense of the process. Instead consider this throwaway line in Bruno Latour’s Aramis:

“a project is considered innovative if the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

That is to say, innovation is the act of cajoling diverse, contradictory and competing interests – eternal human needs, new technologies and entrenched commercial structures. And that is where, in the congealed mobile value chain of the mid-Noughties, Apple deserves some credit.

Mobile had – and still has today – a complex web of interdependent business models. Crouched at the centre were network operators which had risked billions of other people’s money on radio spectrum and infrastructure. They aimed to recoup this investment by distributing heavily-subsidised devices tied to lengthy airtime contracts.

In such a situation, end users could easily become peripheral. Device manufacturers came to see operators, not consumers, as their customers. They became adept at pandering to the operators’ many and varied whims:

  • Multimedia messaging which few people used
  • Front-facing cameras in the hope of a video-calling bonanza
  • Operator-specified applications designed to wring a little more revenue out of their users.

Consumers were baffled by the terminology, sceptical of the benefits and fearful of unpredictable extra charges. And yet the manufacturers and operators remained locked in an arms race to give people more of the wrong things.

Apple, fresh from playing a similar game with the music industry, used its muscle in the market to bulldoze past all that, to appeal over the heads of entrenched interests to end users themselves.

With a high-end device as under-specified as that first iPhone, any other brand would have struggled to get onto operators’ ranges at all. But for Apple? No 3G? No multimedia messaging? No apps (they only came later, remember)? No problem, and throw in a special unlimited data bundle for good measure.

The best thing about the first iPhone was not the satisfying gravitational bounce when you scrolled to the bottom of a screen – there must surely be prior art for that somewhere. What was amazing was the product development process that prioritised that bounce over implementing MMS.

By sticking to its guns, Apple transformed mobile for ever. But that kind of innovation is impossible to patent because it’s about what you have the guts to leave out, much more than what you’re able to squeeze in.

Rev. Dr. Priestley in the Library with the lead type

“Si j’etais bien en fonds, j’achèterais une presse !” – French Revolutionary Camille Desmoulins

The role of the printing press as transformational communication technology is a commonplace so powerful that it is frequently invoked as a parallel to the Internet.

We think of it in terms of the spread of ideas, of bibles hitherto copied laboriously by monks now churned out for the newly literate middle classes of the Reformation; of cheap-as-chips chapbooks spreading gossip and popular culture in Pepys’ London; and of the great Enlightenment figures, such as Joseph Priestley and Tom Paine, able to disseminate their works of science and politics halfway across the world in a matter of months.

But listening to a lunchtime talk by Geoffrey Forster of the Leeds Library I was struck by another way of thinking about the press, as a tool for group formation and organisation.

Forster is the 18th Leeds Librarian, a role dating back to 1768 when a group of 105 founders, of whom Priestley was the fourth, came together to establish a private subscription library. Each paid a guinea to join, a substantial sum in those days, but books were dear: a copy of Priestley’s 700-page The History and Present State of Electricity could cost as much.

The founding subscribers – Nonconformists, Anglicans, one Roman Catholic, four 13 of them women joining in their own right – modelled their library on that at Liverpool, established 10 years earlier, and were part of a movement that saw subscription libraries across the country.

They had responded to an advertisement in the Leeds Mercury, a newspaper re-established in the city only the previous year, and the founding 105 were named in a prospectus listing the first titles that the library would acquire.

They set out to accumulate an ever-growing catalogue, buying regularly from a suggestions book kept by Priestley, their secretary. By 1772 they had 1200 volumes at the Kirkgate library. 243 year later there are 140,000 books housed in a purpose-built Victorian building on Commercial Street, above shops whose rents help to finance the library to this day.

In The Invention of Air, and latterly Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson tells the story of Priestley’s discovery of oxygen, after a chance visit to Jakes and Nell’s Brewery on Leeds’ Meadow Lane. Priestley chewed over his discoveries with his friend Ben Franklin, who according to Forster almost certainly visited the Kirkgate building, now a branch of Superdrug. Johnson talks about the importance of leisure-time and literacy in enabling 18th Century geeks like Priestley to develop their ideas, and coffee shops as venues to share them.

To this now I think it’s worth adding Forster’s theory, that the printing press enabled for the first time large-scale associations like the Leeds Library to function.

In a city without a press, someone proposing to start a library had first to attract the interest of fellow citizens. He or she might write letters, laboriously by hand, requesting their attendance at a public meeting. Supposing they could be gathered together, those people would need prospectuses, membership cards, notices and minutes of annual meetings, all things impractical to write out repeatedly in long-hand.

Through its natural associations with booksellers, newspapers and printers, the Leeds Library had ready access to technology to automate all these dull but necessary functions. The press was not just a means to spread ideas, it was an organisation tool through which groups of people could make stuff happen together.

In the medium of ink on paper, Joseph Priestley and his fellow citizens were pioneer social networkers.

Watt versus Murray, some open questions

Last Wednesday’s Ignite Leeds gave me a perfect excuse to reprise my talk, How to Get Ahead in Business the Boulton and Watt Way.

As ever, I’m grateful to Imran Ali and Craig Smith of O’Reilly for making the event happen, and to the audience at the Rose Bowl for giving me five minutes of their time. If you missed the event, all 15 presentations are now on Slideshare and there are reviews by Phil Kirby on the Culture Vulture and Sarah Harley on Guardian Leeds.

The way James Watt Junior tried to sabotage Murray’s steam engine start-up never gets old. Indeed its issues of openness in business and the rights of wrongs of intellectual property seemed especially relevant to the Ignite audience.

I want to do more with this story, but first I have some more research to do. For instance:

  • Where was Matthew Murray living when Watt’s employees visited him in 1799? His famous steam-heated house Holbeck Lodge, or “Steam Hall”, on Holbeck’s railway triangle is dated to about 1804 so it may not have been there.
  • Where were the cottages from which Watt attempted to steal the letters of defecting staff? Later in the 19th Century there were workers’ cottages on the edge of the Round Foundry complex, roughly on the corner now occupied by Out Of The Woods, but were these completed when Watt was visiting the City?
  • Why was Murray so much better than Boulton and Watt at green sand foundry work? Can we get some green sand and try it out?
  • Who was E. Kilburn-Scott, the engineer who in the 1920s sought to restore the reputations not just of Murray but also of Leeds’ cinematic pioneer Louis Le Prince? Can we take his account at face value or was he too clouded by civic loyalty to give the Birmingham firm a fair hearing?

When I can find the time between my dayjob and other outside interests I plan to spend some time in the library tracking these things down. In the mean time if, dear reader, you have either answers or questions, please let me know.

Finding Lizzie Le Prince

Cutting edge artists have always looked to advances in science for new materials and techniques. But where our innovations centre on digital media and information technology, the crossover science of the Victorian era was chemistry. We owe today’s rich visual culture to the pioneers who mastered the interactions of chemicals, minerals, ceramics, celluloid and light.

Lizzie Le Prince was the daughter of Sarah and Joseph Whitley of Leeds. She trained under Carrier-Belleuse at the Sèvres pottery in France, and in 1869 she married Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, also a student of pottery. Louis had been instructed by Louis Daguerre, inventor of the Daguerreotype, and specialised in applying photographic techniques to pottery and brass.

The Le Princes settled in England where Louis started work for the Whitley family brass-founding business. It’s clear that the marriage was a true partnership. They both joined the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Together they ran the Leeds Technical School of Art from their townhouse in Park Square, providing training in materials which were literally the new media of their age. Lizzie records that in Park Square Louis began experimenting with “moving photographs” and the best materials for films.

In 1881 the couple moved to New York where Lizzie taught art at the Institute for the Deaf. Louis is said to have projected his first moving pictures on the walls of that building. Lizzie is described as “a splendid helpmate”. In October of 1888, back in Lizzie’s parents’ garden in Roundhay, was recorded the world’s oldest surviving motion picture. The dating is precise because the pictures show Lizzie’s mother who died just a few weeks later.

By 1890, the Le Princes were ready to go public with the invention, well ahead of rivals including the Lumière brothers and American Thomas Edison. Lizzie had by this time founded the New York Society of Ceramic Arts and held regular meetings in Manhattan’s Jumel Mansion. Assisted by her son Adolphe, she began preparing for a public unveiling in New York. It should have been a grand occasion securing Louis’ place in history as the inventor of the the cinema.

But Louis never arrived back in New York. He was last seen at Dijon, boarding a train to Paris. Wild rumours surrounded his disappearance and Lizzie suspected foul play. She believed competitors including Edison himself had wanted her husband out of their way.

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Thomas A Watson: An Apology

About this time of year, this blog gets a peak in search hits for Thomas A Watson of “Mr Watson, come here. I want you” fame.

Somewhere out there, I imagine, is a teacher who sets the same class assignment every year, and whose students flock obediently to Google in search of information and images. I applaud that teacher. Alexander Graham Bell’s collaborator is not as well known as he should be. While Bell had the big ideas, it was Watson’s talents as an electrical engineer that saw them successfully realised. He was one of the original hardware hackers.

So every year I feel a twinge of guilt that I’m somehow letting down my audience, given the flippancy with which I invoked Watson’s name in a post that contains little meaningful information about the man himself.

To make amends, I have tracked down a copy of Ted Clarke’s wonderfully titled biography “Thomas A. Watson: Does That Name Ring A Bell?” which paints a picture of a true Renaissance man.

Here are 10 cool things about Thomas A. Watson. Nine of them are actual true facts from Mr Clarke’s book. The other one is a barefaced lie made up by me to add a little piquancy for the Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V squad. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

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Brought to book: some subtleties of social interaction

It’s a pleasure to see – at risk of sounding like a Key Stage One Literacy Coordinator – that reading is hot right now.

Into this maelstrom come the Mag+ concepts from BERG for Bonnier. If you haven’t seen the video you should watch it now. Beyond the thoughtful work on the interaction within the user interface, I like the thinking about “how the device might occupy the world.”

And separately, Christian Lindholm has some interesting ideas about linearity as a low-involvement user experience, perfectly suited to mobile.

Everyone’s talking about how it feels to be the reader – how he or she will be empowered to enjoy the best aspects of printed and digital media rolled into one wafer-thin device. It’s all very user-centred.

But I think to succeed eReaders must not only meet the needs of the direct user, but also of those around them, the friends and family who may not welcome their loved one’s absorption in this exciting new media. They are the “next largest context” within which the new device must win acceptance.

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We choose the Moon (without the moan)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited as the next guy. I even bought the t-shirt. But listening to Norman Lewis’ thought-provoking talk at TEDxLeeds, I worried that the narrative around the Moon landings is in danger of plunging us into a crater of dusty nostalgia, and doing down some of the amazing things that are happening in the 21st Century.

Norman’s hypothesis is that John F Kennedy’s commitment to the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” within a decade represented a kind of big picture leadership now lacking in the world. On his blog Futures-Diagnosis, he argues that:

this is the time to develop bold new arguments for why we need

  • more long-term investment in research (as opposed to the short-term funding of development);
  • more experimentation and less emphasis upon predictable outcomes driven by narrow ROI considerations; and
  • more failure to build success.

… and

… the US Space Program (despite being rooted in the politics of the Cold War) provided a bold vision and impetus to the generation of ground-breaking new research and innovation. The research created new industries while NASA provided impetus for the formation of thousands of new companies and product innovation. It is this kind of boldness that is so noticeably absent in our society today.

Really?

The Moon landing was almost the opposite of pure research. It was a development effort with a very practical, specific, measurable and timebound goal, which was met with just months to spare until the end of the Sixties. At just over eight years from inception to completion, the project was significantly shorter than, for example, bringing a new pharmaceutical product to market today.

Neither was it some swashbuckling escapade. America could doubtless have put a man or woman on the Moon even quicker had it not been for the “safely back to Earth” stipulation. Kennedy rightly and explicity included health and safety in the brief from the outset.

And as Norman acknowledges, and Tom Morgan develops further in his thoughtful review of TEDxLeeds, the motivation for the Moon expedition was far from idealistic. It was geopolitical, and possibly even colonial. Maybe we’d have been back more often if those samples of moonrock had proved to contain readily extractable supplies of gold, diamonds or oil.

All that would be an  interesting historical footnote were it not for the way the Moon landing is held up as some sort of benchmark against which early 21st Century people are supposed to fall short.

A trip to Mars would be a cool thing, even one-way as proposed by Paul Davis. Yes, I think we should have a go. But it seems a rather literalistic interpretation to say that, having done the Moon, we’ve lost our bottle as a society if we don’t go on to tick all the other boxes in the I-Spy Book of the Solar System.

It’s not as if humanity has been idle in the intervening 40 years. I think it’s also quite bold to:

These things may not have the same instant appeal as three men journeying to the Moon (and the estimated 500 million who stayed at home to watch them on TV) but they seem to me equally capable of generating massive and unforeseen innovation and benefits.

By all means have reverence and respect for the past. Be inspired by the Moon landing. But don’t let that stop you marvelling at the things our own generation is set to accomplish.

Why I took part in Ada Lovelace Day

Last month’s Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology, was based on the insight that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones. I was pleased to help meet that need in a very small way, with a short post about 18th Century venture capitalist Elizabeth Montagu.

At the time I tried to keep my personal pontification to a minimum. It’s hard for men to address this topic without sounding patronising. Anyway, on the day itself many others were making the case for higher visibility of women in technology far more eloquently than I ever can.

But this post from Paul Walsh, trailing a Techcrunch Europe panel on the subject of women and start-ups, prompted me to speak up more directly. In Paul’s opinion:

… the books of males vs females doesn’t need to be balanced in favour of more females. Why? Well, because there are plenty of females in tech and those that aren’t, don’t want to be. Ok, so there might be a small percent who would like to be in tech, but don’t make it. But can’t the same be said for any industry?

Are we trying to balance the books to encourage more males to become nurses?

To which I reply the following (originally posted as a comment on Paul’s blog):

Of course there are some very talented and successful women in our industry. That’s not in doubt. It’s not so much that there are too few women in the tech sectors as that there are too many men! Look around you at most tech conferences and you’ll see mainly male audiences listening mainly to other men.

This is not just bad because women are missing out on opportunities (though I believe some are) but also because, in the words of David Ogilvy, “diversity is the mother of invention.” We are all missing out on the creativity and customer-centricity that a more diverse culture would engender. Think, for example, of how long the games industry remained stuck on the demands of a small power user niche while the needs of the much bigger casual user segments went unmet. What other business opportunities might be there for the taking right now?

The nursing analogy is an interesting one. Why not doctors, one might ask, and how much by nature, how much by nurture? (And yes, I do think men should be encouraged to consider nursing as a career!) Either way, if, as I think [Paul is] suggesting, there are deeply engrained differences between men and women then there’s a clear imperative for us to capitalise on those differences.

That means taking active steps such as ensuring that girls can see strong female role models in our industry, as it seems they might in medicine. It means making work more compatible with family life (from which men also stand to benefit). It means changing our business culture so women’s voices can be heard, and their contributions recognised and rewarded equally with those of men.

The conversation will be more profitable as a result.

“Embellish your Country with useful inventions & elegant productions”

If, as David Ogilvy said, diversity is the mother of invention then the technology media and telecoms sector is missing out on untold opportunities to innovate, stuffed as it is with people who look like me, white and male. I’m proud to work for a company that wants to change this.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.

When I pledged to “publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same,” I wanted to reflect my interest in the history of innovation. It could so easily have been Rosalind Franklin or Marie Curie or even the Countess of Lovelace herself. The great Eleanor Coades (both of them!) came within a stone’s throw.

But as I Googled around the subject I was repeatedly drawn back to a woman who never, so far as I know, conducted an experiment or wrote a scientific paper in her life. I was a little worried about the thinness of her credentials, but then Suw’s brief for the blog post did say we could interpret technology “widely”, and that the woman in question could be dead.

Besides, my subject was a powerful force in 18th Century London society, a financial backer of remarkable businesses in a remarkable time and place, and a woman who understood how the arts and sciences were inextricably linked.

Introducing Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, the Queen of the Blues

Born Elizabeth Robinson in Yorkshire in 1718, she married the banker Charles Montagu. At her “blue stocking” gatherings she played host to writers, actors, philosophers and inventors. And taking on the family business after the death of her husband she funded start-ups including that of Matthew Boulton, one of Birmingham’s “Lunar Men.”

After a visit to Boulton’s Soho Works in 1772, she wrote of his enterprise as a force for good in a wartorn world:

“To behold the secrets of Chymistry, & the mechanick powers, so employ’d, & exerted, is very delightful. I consider the Machines you have at work as so many useful working subjects to Great Brittain of your own Creation: the exquisite Taste in the forms which you give them to work upon, is another National advantage. I had rather see my Country in continual contention of arts than of arms. The Victories of Soho, over every other Manufacture, instead of making Widows & Orphans, as happens even to the conquering side in War, makes marriages & Christenings…”

She concludes in a phrase that prefigures William Morris by 100 years:

“Go on then Sir to triumph over the French in taste, & to embellish your Country with useful inventions & elegant productions.”

Elizabeth Montagu, Georgian venture capitalist, social networker extraordinaire, with a social conscience and a feel for the combined force of art and science.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

The history of Leeds: What every geek should know

It was a privilege to present at this week’s GeekUp Leeds on a topic close to my heart, the amazing industrial heritage of Leeds and why it should be an inspiration to those working in the technology sectors today.

Thanks to Deb and Rob for organising another great event, and to the GeekUp participants for putting up with me.

A few people asked for more info so I’ve put together some pages with my slides, notes and lots of links.

The history of Leeds: What every geek should know – part 1 starts here

Abstract innovation

In the spirit of Chris Heathcote’s excellent abstract pointillist powerpoint toolkit, I spent a couple of happy hours putting together 20 slides about Leeds, its industrial heritage and why I find it so inspiring.

I was too late to submit to this week’s Ignite UK North event (but thanks, Imran, for the kind tweet in any case), so I’m sharing the slides here. Some are more abstract than others. Can you guess what each one is meant to be?

View on Slideshare

Update: I presenting on this topic at GeekUp Leeds on Wednesday 18 February under the title The history of Leeds: What every geek should know.

Reflections on Reading of Mr Joseph Priestley and M Antoine Lavoisier While Travelling by Air Plane Between Leeds and Paris

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air sparks a delightful reverie on the pivotal role of 18th Century scientist, non-conformist minister and poltical thinker Joseph Priestley.

Living in Leeds, I was vaguely aware of Priestley from local museums and the blue plaque at Mill Hill Unitarian Church on City Square. What schoolchild could fail to be impressed by the tale of Priestley inventing fizzy pop after studying the bubbles in a brewers’ vat on Meadow Lane? He open-sourced the method, leaving one Johann Schweppe to make a fortune.

But until I picked up Johnson’s book I hadn’t grasped that Priestley’s years in our Northern English city included experiments that shaped scientists’ understanding of gases, plant and animal life, and ultimately our planetary ecosystem.

Johnson tells how, after various gruesome experiments resulting in the suffocation of spiders and mice by placing them in sealed containers, Priestley wondered how long it would take a sprig of mint to succumb to the same fate. (Mint grows like a weed in gardens round us!) To his surprise, the mint lived, thrived even. What’s more, a flame could be lit in the sealed container, something that had not been possible in the containers where animals had expired.

Priestley wrote of his discovery to his friend Benjamin Franklin who almost at once made the further leap that, “I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees…”

Serendipitously, I read this section of the Invention of Air on one of my increasingly regular flights from Leeds to Paris. Across southern England and the Channel, I was engrossed in Steven Johnson’s account of how Priestley made his experimental breakthrough, yet got the explanation wrong. He believed that the animals and flames emitted a noxious substance known as “phlogiston” and identified the gas “mended” by the plants as “dephlogisticated air”.

Then, literally as my plane broke through the clouds on the descent to Charles de Gaulle Airport, the action switched to Paris where the English hacker Joseph Priestley shared his discoveries with French aristocrat Antoine Lavoisier. It was Lavoisier who, after absorbing the implications of Priestley’s discovery, proposed a theoretical framework, correctly identified that a gas was used up in burning and respiration, and named that gas oxygen.

The English hacker, the French theorist, the combination of the two in innovation. The thought made my day, so apologies to the various colleagues upon whom I inflicted this convoluted story.

Sadly neither country was eternally grateful: years later Priestley was forced to flee to the United States after a Church and King mob burned down his Birmingham home and laboratory, while Lavoisier was beheaded in the French Revolution.

I can’t recommend this book enough. If there’s one criticism it’s that Johnson sometimes seems a little too pleased with himself to have hit upon a “long view” narrative linking Priestley with Northern England’s Industrial Revolution preeminance and atmospheric oxygen levels in the Carboniferous Era. But I guess I would be too, if I’d thought of that. It’s engaging, readable, and packed with thought-provoking ideas.

A final thought provoked: many people read while travelling, yet “airport” has become a perjorative term in relation to books. Can someone create a service that helps match reading to travel and create more srendipitous moments like mine? I’m looking at you, Dopplr bookcampers.

“Why can’t I see it now?” Or why it pays to listen to your most demanding customer


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Oh the impatience of youth!

The first time one of my sons pressed the button on a non-digital camera, he turned to me and asked “where can I see the picture?”

I knew at once it was a significant moment, but I was all wrong about the reason why.

How cute, I thought, he’s so steeped in the digital age that he expects the image to be displayed instantly, just like on our digital camera.

Yet it turns out that the expectation of photographic instant gratification was not the preserve of the digital natives at all.

The evidence is here in this vignette from the 1940s family life of Edwin Land:

… on a family vacation in California, Land took a picture of a burro for his three-year old daughter, Jennifer. When the little girl impatiently asked, “Why can’t I see it now?”

Clearly Edwin Land was no ordinary father. Where most would have dismissed the request as childish naivity, he set to work on a startling answer: and within an hour came up with a concept that seemed revolutionary to grown-ups the world over…

It took Polaroid scientists nearly five years to make Land’s vision into a reality. By the fall of 1948, the Land 95 camera, priced at $89.95, was ready for the public. On the day after Thanksgiving, a sales and demonstration crew arrived at Boston’s Jordan Marsh Department Store. As astonished customers witnessed the first instant photos being made, cameras flew off the shelves. The demonstration ended early when the entire stock of cameras sold out.

I love the story of the Polaroid camera because it makes me wonder. What other innovations are out there, under our noses, so blindingly obvious that it takes a three-year-old to demand, and an attentive parent to deliver?

The first Great Western

From Simon Thurley’s fascinating Buildings That Shaped Britain we learn that Isambard Kingdom Brunel had only once travelled on a train when he designed the gloriously non-standard Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Bristol.

Now that, for good or ill, is the difference between innovation and design.