Apple Inc. is today what The Walt Disney Co. was when I was very young: a brand so ubiquitous and successful that its activities are interesting to everyone, and the next product of its creative hive is speculated upon and anticipated, and marveled at even without much concern for the inherent value or success. Disney might release a so-so movie every once in while, but that did nothing to alter the confidence in the brand, nor the appreciation of children and their parents. Now, Apple can tease its devoted followers with the limited availability of its latest must-have devices, or confound observers with the necessity or utility of a new wrist fixture, and so merely raise the intrigue over what this means and where it will lead, and what we must do to have more of that experience.
I’m inclined to a bit more skepticism toward Apple than most of its customers, and not because I find any fault with its products. My regard is shaped by the sense that commercial enterprises have a fiduciary responsibility to their customers, a warrant of product quality and performance that will bring the customer back for more on his or her own terms, not when the device or service suddenly has been become obsolete or simply passé. And this attitude applies to others too – all the large enterprises that in addition to my money seem to want my devotion.
So, perhaps I am a little too skeptical reading the list of 36 patents recently acquired by Apple, from which it’s possible to anticipate how the IT behemoth plans to infiltrate our lives in its coming iterations— “Apparatus, method, and computer program for controlling a target device using instant messages,” “Apparatus and methods for provisioning subscriber identity data in a wireless network,” and “Electronic device circuitry for communicating with accessories.”
It’s also possible to read the list with wonder at the possibilities that await Apple’s users, including “Intelligent text-to-speech conversion,” “Locking and unlocking a mobile device using facial recognition,” and “Methods and apparatus for performing coexistence testing for multi-antenna electronic devices.”
But, the last entry on the list was a quasi-revelation that arrested my browsing, and set my thoughts racing: “Cold chamber die casting of amorphous alloys using cold crucible induction melting techniques.”
I doubt Apple is preparing to become a diecaster, but anything is possible, at least according to the true believers. For me, though, this reveals again the assimilationist approach that characterizes every large commercial enterprise, and how we must accommodate them or be marginalized. They crave information, and we must supply it. The minutest details about our past or our preferences are not above their scrutiny and evaluation. They need it, they’ll explain, in order to provide their invaluable experience.
And so, I assume Apple is claiming the knowledge for forming some particular alloys in some particular way in order control its selection of suppliers, and in that way the cost of acquiring cast parts. Diecasting suppliers will conform to Apple’s requirements, and the patent will have been means, if not the basis, for securing that business.
The technology is thus not as relevant as the transaction, and Apple is not alone in this approach; General Electric is conducting a series of design “challenges” in which suppliers or potential suppliers propose alternatives to current production methods, in a subtle way betraying their process skills and insights in order to attract GE’s interest, to GE’s financial advantage.
Is there so much yet to be discovered about metallurgy and forming that such manufacturers must prey on potential innovators this way? Yes – and that is the reason for such methods. Intellectual property is the basis of wealth in our age. Accumulating greater and greater volumes of it is a latter-day gold rush. Guard what you have, because it is the basis of someone’s fortune.
That ideas and innovations should be seen as capital is a credit to human ingenuity, and a testament to human progress. That civilization has progressed to a time when every man and woman, based on intellect, truly has something that can be recognized as valuable is a marvelous revelation. The effort to convert this value into financial advantage is evidence that we remain vulnerable to our own impulses and curiosities. About that, who can wonder?