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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