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Jobs Inventor In More Than One Out of Ten Apple Patents Since 2000

Last week I wrote about potentially missing prior art in Apple's multi-touch patent. The entire exercise got me wondering more about the company's patents and invention process. Interestingly, the facts suggest that potentially losing Steve Jobs may be more of a fundamental problem than would be the case for other CEOs, because he's listed as an inventor on literally more than one out of ten patents Apple has received since 2000.

When doing the research on the multi-touch patent, the number of inventors -- 25 -- was strikingly large, particularly given the relatively small number (20) of claims. First on the list was Jobs. It's fairly unusual for the CEO of a good-sized corporation to be listed as an inventor on a patent, because generally the head of the company has many other things more pressing. Depending on whom you ask, Jobs has been known as a "hands-on" or "micro-managing" leader, so it's not inconceivable that he might be involved in the look and feel design of devices. Furthermore, a patent can be challenged if the list of inventors is inaccurate, so placing Jobs onto the list would be dangerous if he had no involvement.

However, this raises an important question. People have debated the ultimate importance of Jobs to Apple and how well the company could continue without him. I, for one, have agreed that were he actually indispensible, that alone would be evidence of the company's mismanagement, and that is hardly what I'd expect.

Instead of considering Jobs as the touchy-feely visionary who demands perfection, consider him as more deeply involved in invention and product development than perhaps any other CEO. I did some research on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office databases, searching for patents that listed Apple as an assignee and Jobs as included among the inventors. Here, by decade, are the number of patents that Apple received and the number naming Jobs as an inventor:

Decade Apple Patents Jobs Patents
80s 63 0
90s 1241 2
00s 1233 133
What smacks you in the face is how his involvement seemed to race along starting in 2000 -- or, given the time it takes to get a patent, problem from virtually the first day he rejoined Apple in 1997. At this point, he is seriously involved in over ten percent of all patents granted to Apple. That is far beyond being demanding or even setting a vision for the company. It means that much of the design, from physical appearance to the workings of user interfaces, which drives Apple's sales is intrinsically tied to Jobs. And it may just be that as he pulls away, a singularly important, and possibly irreplaceable, influence will go with him.
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