Call it the war of co-founders of two of today's technology giants, if you will between Steve Wozniak, Apple's colourful and often quirky co-founder, and Paul Allen, Bill Gates' BASIC-coding roommate at Harvard. Wozniak has admitted publicly in multiple sources, including his own autobiography "iWoz," that he had (according to himself) strong ethical principles he inherited from his parents, and tended to avoid the business side of things - he was best with engineering and coming up with new ideas. He left the businessman trickery to his old friend, Steve Jobs.
So it's no surprise that Wozniak came out blasting Allen for being a "patent troll," and criticizing the United States Patent and Trademark Office for harbouring such abuses of innovation at his keynote speech at the Embedded System Conference Silicon Valley taking place this week at San Jose, California. Wozniak's hatred of patent trolls is personal, and surprisingly, it has little to do with today's war of brands between Microsoft and Apple.
As The Register reports, Wozniak had a personal story to share from his early days of conceiving the Apple II which illustrated what he saw large companies do: assemble teams of "patent-seeking" engineers, make them come up with an idea that they cannot come up for the time being, then get a patent assigned to their idea. They would then wait until someone else comes up with a working implementation of their idea, and the company would then demand royalties for being the "inventors" of the idea, regardless of a working implementation. This happened to Wozniak when he came up with a working implementation to output characters to a television set on the Apple II:
And then we find out RCA has a patent on a character generator for any raster-scanned setup. And they patented it at a time when nobody could have envisioned it really being used or anything [...] and they got five bucks for each Apple II, based on this little idea that's not even an idea. Y'know: store the bits, store the bits, then pop in a character on your TV.I don't know any other way you could do it – anybody would have come up with that with the same approach.
Wozniak criticized the American patent system for allowing patent trolls to hoard patents and sit on ideas that "any fifth-grader could come up with the same approach." And so for Paul Allen, who is currently suing a number of companies over patents he purchased, Wozniak's response to his actions was simple.
The other night Paul Allen was speaking at the Computer History Museum and I had four tickets. And I decided at the last minute not to go, because I remembered he's suing all these companies like Apple and Google – but he's not suing Microsoft – because he bought all these patents. [...]So I had dinner with friends rather than go see Paul Allen.