There are many examples of technological revolutions that have failed to achieve commercial success. The IEEE's Spectrum magazine recently focused on General Magic, whose 1990s "Magic Cap" operating system was a precursor to the ubiquitous smartphone revolution, in attempting to bridge the then mainstream PDA with the newer cellular networking technology.
The company was liquidated in 2004, with one commentator remarking that it "ran ahead of the technological capabilities". Nonetheless, Wikipedia notes that its legacy includes "many technical breakthroughs, including software modems (eliminating the need for modem chips), small touchscreens and touchscreen controller ASICs, highly integrated systems-on-a-chip designs for its partners' devices, rich multimedia email, networked games, streaming television, and early versions of e-commerce."
Much has been discussed about the failure of General Magic (including a documentary), but I wanted to focus on one small point: the value of their patents. I have seen it suggested that their IPO was largely based on their intellectual property, but if they indeed obtained key patents in any of the areas identified above, they appear to be difficult to locate now (I did look).
The General Magic story reminds me of two important questions I am often asked:
- When should I file a patent application? Filing a patent application too early can be a major mistake. If the invention is just an idea and is unlikely to be realized within a commercially reasonable timeframe or its implementation relies on some other technology that has yet to be invented, it may be difficult to get a patent or any patent achieved may have limited commercial value. At the same time, anyone involved in the patent process knows that filing a patent application too late can also have disastrous consequences.
- Is our patent portfolio right for our business? Regularly reviewing a patent portfolio, to identify both patents that are no longer of any value and gaps in protection, can pay dividends.
A strategic-minded patent attorney will keep these points (and many others) in mind when providing advice to ensure that patents provide value (magic?) to a business.
General Magic is considered a classic example of a Silicon Valley heroic failure.