When the gods dance...

Saturday, May 21, 2011


by Mike Masnick from the indeed dept on Friday, May 20th, 2011 @ 6:26PM

A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell penned a fascinating piece for the New Yorker, dealing with the fact that nearly all major technological and scientific advances tend to be "invented" by multiple, totally separate, people at the same time. This seemed like pretty good fodder for recognizing that patents for such things often don't make sense, since the evidence suggests that they were the natural progression of the state of the art, and giving one a monopoly would significantly punish the others who came up with the same concept (and may have even done a better job). Yet, oddly, Gladwell used the piece to play up how wonderful giant patent troll Intellectual Ventures was. It seemed like a weird disconnect. 

In his latest piece, Gladwell goes a step further in his exploration of innovation, in writing about the difference between invention and innovation, picking apart the classic story of Steve Jobs seeing the GUI/mouse combo at Xerox PARC and "copying" it for the Macintosh. Gladwell points out that the lessons that some take from the story aren't really correct. Specifically, one of the standard lessons is the idea that Xerox had the personal computer revolution in its hands and let it slip away. But Gladwell points out that this isn't really true. While PARC showed Jobs that idea (much of which was copied itself from Doug Engelbart and his famous work at SRI), it really was the implementation that mattered, and Jobs and Apple (along with Ideo) had to work quite hard to take the idea of the mouse -- which cost hundreds of dollars and was fragile in the Xerox version -- and make it cheap, reliable and easy to use. 

It's that part of the story that often gets overlooked. It's that part of the story that matters, which thankfully Gladwell points out:

[The] striking thing about Jobs's instructions to Hovey is that he didn't want to reproduce what he saw at PARC. "You know, there were disputes around the number of buttons--three buttons, two buttons, one-button mouse," Hovey went on. "The mouse at Xerox had three buttons. But we came around to the fact that learning to mouse is a feat it and of itself, and to make it as simple as possible, with just one button, was pretty important. 

So was what Jobs took from Xerox the idea of the mouse? Not quite, because Xerox never owned the idea of the mouse. The PARC researchers got it from computer scientist Douglas Engelbart, at Stanford Research Institute, fifteen minutes away on the other side of the university campus.... 

The same is true of the graphical user interface that so captured Jobs's imagination. Xerox PARC's innovation had been to replace the traditional computer command line with onscreen icons. But when you clicked on an icon you got a pop-up menu: this was the intermediary between the user's intention and the computer's response. Jobs's software team took the graphic interface a giant step further. It emphasized "direct manipulation." If you wanted to make a window bigger, you just pulled on its corner and made it bigger; if you wanted to move a window across the screen, you just grabbed it and moved it.... 

The difference between direct and indirect manipulation--between three buttons and one button, three hundred dollars and fifteen dollars, and a roller ball supported by ball bearings and a free-rolling ball--is not trivial. It is the difference between something intended for experts, which is what Xerox PARC had in mind, and something that's appropriate for a mass audience, which is what Apple had in mind. PARC was building a personal computer. Apple wanted to build a popular computer.

It really is a pretty succinct description that highlights how the idea is only a small part of things, and it's the actual execution and implementation that matters.

It's interesting to see that the modern day PARC has responded to the story directly, pointing to some key "lessons learned" that are demonstrated by the article, and with some additional background -- including the fact that Xerox didn't just create a mouse, but had actually explored a bunch of different pointing mechanisms, before settling on the mouse after doing extensive research. 

The PARC blog also talks up the importance of "open innovation," and sharing ideas outside of a company, recognizing (frequently) that others may be better able to take an idea and run with it by creating something really powerful on top of that. 

Tragically, the Gladwell piece never happens to mention how patents get in the way of all of this -- though it does quote Myhrvold a bit just about the nature of research. It's really too bad, because the world could use a deeper explanation of how patents quite frequently get in the way of this whole process.

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