As anyone out there’s who’s looked at an Apple patent knows, the name Steve P. Jobs often appears as a listed inventor on some of Apple’s most important patents. Famously, Jobs is a college drop out who even without any formal training in computer science, engineering, architecture, and UI design was able to lend his hand and expertise to a number of Apple’s more revolutionary products and initiatives.
But Jobs’ design prowess extends far beyond the iPhone and the Mac. Indeed, Jobs’ hand is evident in nearly all of Apple’s endeavors, right down to the spiral glass stair case used in many Apple retail stores. Don’t believe me? Well, take a look at the patent for that staircase design and you’ll find Jobs’ name emblazoned right at the top of the list.
Miguel Helft of the NYT yesterday took a look at the number of varying products that Steve Jobs helped work on. From the white plastic power adapters on new Macs to the lanyard used on iPod headsets all the way down to the cardboard packaging on an swath of Apple products, Jobs was intimately involved in the design/creation of all of these.
“Mr. Jobs’s say over the minute details of Apple’s products is legendary in Silicon Valley, Helft writes. “The patents that carry his name, for these products and others, offer a glimpse into the range of his influence at Apple. And they paint a picture of a roll-up-your-sleeves chief executive whose design choices reached into every corner of the company.”
In other words, Jobs’ role at Apple was much more involved than that of a simple ‘visionary’ as he was listed as an inventor on 313 Apple patents and as a principal inventor on 33 of those. By way of comparison, Bill Gates only has 9 patents to his credit while Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have less than 20. Though to be fair, that patented search algorithm that forms the basis for Google is quite the valuable piece of code.
So what gives?
How does Jobs have 300 some patents while in-arguably more technically proficient CEOs like Gates and Page don’t even have 30 between them?
Is it possible that Jobs’ legendary ego is why his name is so prominent across Apple’s listed patents?
Helft points out,
But patent experts say Apple was not likely to have added Mr. Jobs’s name simply for public relations purposes.
“If you put someone’s name who didn’t participate, your patent could be invalidated,” said Mark Lemley, a law professor at Stanford University.
Of course, how would anyone really disprove Jobs’ involvement in a patent unless it pertained to some hardcore software algorithms or the like.
The real takeaway from the frequency of Jobs’ name across Apple patents has nothing to do with Jobs’ skill or taste as a designer, but rather his passion and involvement into every last detail of everything pertaining to the products APple churned out.
The patents also show how frequently Mr. Jobs huddled with the industrial design team, led by Johnny Ive, to hash out every last detail of a product. Mr. Jobs shares more than 200 patents with Mr. Ive and other members of that team, underscoring the importance he placed on design.
Shortly after the iconic iMacs came out in 1998, Mr. Gates took a swipe at Apple, which was still struggling to survive. “The one thing Apple’s providing now is leadership in colors,” Mr. Gates said. “It won’t take long for us to catch up with that, I don’t think.”
Colors was an easy thing to catch up to. But the iPod is what really cemented Jobs’ return to Apple while illustrating the wide gap in design and ease of use between Apple products and the competition. Hell, by the time the Microsoft Zune even came out the MP3 wars were over. And then there was the iPhone which Microsoft and almost every other handset manufacturer on the planet is still trying to dethrone.
It’s easy to scoff at design, and say stuff like the iMac was just a computer with a gimmicky color. That, however, unfairly simplifies things.
As Steve Jobs has explained a multitude of times before,
“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”