Build a better mousetrap

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” as Wikipedia informs me Ralph Waldo Emerson never quite said. The point – that real innovation sells itself – remains true today. Indeed it could be argued that the average consumer is more engaged with the heartbeat of technological innovation now than ever before, with software releases making headlines among the more traditional stories of war and celebrity.

Emerson’s non-quote does raise a question, however. How do we identify technology which is better? With mouse-traps there are some fairly obvious metrics relating to mouse mortality and cheese preservation, but not all inventions are as easy to benchmark. The last few weeks have seen anouncements of upgrades to the world’s two most commonly used smartphone operating systems: Apple’s iOS (version 5) and Google’s Android (version 4). Each brings a raft of new features, although in both cases it has to be said that these new features are no longer as core to the operation of the device as innovations in earlier versions. Voice-operated search and facial recognition are nice, but hardly essential elements of a mobile computer, at least for now. Perhaps lost in the combative comparisons deployed by proponents of each OS is the fact that a genuinely key ability – web browsing – is implemented on both platforms using essentially the same code: the Web Kit open source project. While newer functionality is added by Google and Apple to differentiate the competing products, it pays them to cooperate on key, unavoidable elements of their offerings. Given this, it’s fair to repeat the question – how do we identify real innovation? The newer differentiating features appear to be the cutting edge of endeavour, but their very newness is a demonstration that – up to now at least – they have not been essential elements of the technology in question. Some of them will die away despite their novelty, having never truly improved the invention that they embellish. Like a cheese grater on your mouse trap, it’s possibly a nice idea and undoubtedly novel, but how useful is it really? Only time will tell, and in the meantime better springs, and better browsers, are being developed.

So perhaps the question needs to be: “looking back at innovations that have proved to be key, how do they tend to develop?” Using the answer to this, we might be able to form some techniques for looking at our cutting-edge-but-possibly-pointless innovations and making guesses about their eventual utility. We might even be able to identify over-arching strategies for conducting and rewarding innovation…

Here we get into an argument that flared up earlier this month, when a video of Francis Gurry, the Director General of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) back in June was discovered by the internet commentating community. Gurry was speaking to sum up his views on a debate which had just taken place on ‘Accelerating Growth and Development’ in relation to invention and intellectual property. Gurry’s argument was seemingly  summed up by the headline on the BoingBoing article which drew it to the internet’s attention: “WIPO boss: the Web would have been better if it was patented and its users had to pay license fees”. Reading the article, though, even the quote that BoingBoing had pulled failed to use that emotive word ‘better’:

Intellectual property is a very flexible instrument. So, for example, had the world wide web been able to be patented, and I think that is a question in itself, perhaps the amount of investment that has gone into or would be able to go into basic science would be different. If you had found a very flexible licensing model, in which the burden for the innovation of the world wide web had been shared across the whole user community in a very fair and reasonable manner, with a modest contribution for everyone for this wonderful innovation, it would have enabled enormous investment in turn in further basic research. And that is the sort of flexibility that is built into the intellectual property system. It is not a rigid system.

Reaction to the video from proponents of open content and open source across the internet was voluble and aggravated. Gurry was accused of being ideologically indoctrinated and blinkered, tied to anachronistic models of IP registration and exploitation even in the face of the incredible growth and success of the web largely without the intervention of these models. In fact though, the most that Gurry says is that the web would have been ‘different’. Taken in the context of the statements which preceded it (and which you can hear by downloading the video), in which the value of the traditional IP systems had been questioned repeatedly, Gurry’s statements do not really support the distillation they were given, and which caused so much anger. He is trying to argue that the web could have grown within more traditional licensing structures. Whether he is right about this or not, he is not claiming here that it would have been ‘better’ under those circumstances.

The anger and confusion here are natural, though. The battle lines between proponents of the traditional and the more ‘open’ approaches to innovation (and here we should note that the buzz phrase ‘open innovation’ often itself refers to deeply traditional IP exploitation patterns) have long been drawn, and the forces on both sides are keen to tackle and destroy the arguments of their opponents wherever they see them. The web is often perceived  – with much justification – as a triumph of innovation outside the traditional IP exploitation framework. To hear someone perceived as being part of the old-guard even discussing it can seem presumptuous to some ears. Yet in reality the implied dichotomy here is simplistic. The open licensing movements themselves are underpinned by the arcane operations of traditional licensing and exploitation. While they may give these operations an innovative twist, they could not be enforced or defended without them. Conversely, Gurry’s example of why  the patent regime is beneficial fails to address the criticisms of openness proponents. He points to the publication framework implicit in the current patent system, and makes the comparison between the saxophone – which has fully documented design documents available thanks to its having been patented – and the violin – where many secrets of producing the greatest instruments have been lost through secrecy and the passage of time. This critique – while interesting – is almost wholly inappropriate as a defence of the current system in opposition to more open models. In the modern case, both models involve complete publication – the distinction lies in how benefits are reaped from exploitation and by whom.

Given the frequent failures of either side in this debate to engage with what the other is actually saying – illustrated by this sad tale –  it’s not surprising that telling which innovations are better remains hard. While ideology is important, it can often obscure our view of what actually matters to most people: how many mice are killed (or indeed captured).