The biggest tech giants of today were once nothing more than an idea which someone believed in. It took them years to evolve from garage-run business into multinational conglomerates that asserted a strong monopoly over their respective industries. And this transformation, at times, had a game-changing innovation as its foundation. From a simple camera harness to a complex data storage system and everything in between, here are some of the most important intellectual property patents filed by tech companies that have accelerated their scale to become industry leaders.
Today, all e-commerce platforms enable customers to buy something with a single click using their pre-filled identifying, billing and shipping information. The patent for this ‘1-click’ feature — named ‘Method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network’ — was filed by Amazon.com in 1997 and granted in 1999. Since then, any internet platform, including Apple’s iTunes, that makes use of a one-click checkout has had to pay Amazon a royalty for licensing the technology. Incidentally, this key patent will expire on September 11 this year.
Much of Dropbox’s immense success in the online file sharing market is attributed to a patent filed by its co-founders Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi in 2010. Granted in 2014, this patent detailed the synchronisation of folders shared between multiple clients on a host network. The technology allowed clients to make changes to folders and their contents which could be viewed instantly by other clients who had shared access to the files. The ability to offer their clients instant access to the latest iteration of a shared file is one of the prime reasons why Dropbox rapidly gained popularity in its nascent stage.
Zynga, the maker of wildly popular social media games like FarmVille, Zynga Poker and Mafia Wars to name a few, filed a patent for ‘asynchronous gaming challenge’ in 2008. The method described how characters, either individuals or teams, could be pitted against one another based on their characteristics such as abilities, defences, or performance levels. The patent helped Zynga become the key player in social and casual multiplayer games on both desktop and mobile.
Few companies have dominated an industry the way Google has done with internet search. And it all began with the famous PageRank patent. Filed by Larry Page in 1998, the invention described a method of valuing a webpage based on how many other pages linked to it. By assigning priority ranks to nodes in a linked database by calculating the ranks of documents citing it, Google was able to drastically improve the quality of internet search results. The method proved to be so effective that not only is Google the most widely-used internet search engine today, it has become a verb for internet search itself.
One of GoPro’s most important patents was not for a robust, high-performance camera but rather for a harness that offered its customers an unparalleled convenience in using one. GoPro founder Nicholas Woodman filed a patent in 2004 for a wrist/arm harness that facilitated convenient carry, access, and secure use of a camera during participation in physical activities — even volatile ones like surfing, rock climbing and para-sailing. This invention solved a long-standing problem of hand-held cameras and made GoPro’s cameras the go-to product for anyone interested in action photography.
FireEye is a cyber security firm founded by former Sun Microsystems engineer Ashar Aziz in 2004. In 2005, Aziz filed a patent under the name ‘System and method for detecting computer worms’ — a technology upon which the company built its flagship FirstEye Malware Protection System product line. Capable of detecting computer worms, identifying them and repairing the damage caused by them, the technology proved to be immensely important in the IT sector and in 2016 earned FireEye a whopping 79 per cent of its $714.1 million revenue through subscription and service fees.
While the enterprise storage needs of today are met by cloud computing, a little more than a decade ago, tapes were used for secondary or backup storage. In 2002, a year-old-company called Data Domain filed a patent for a technology that made disk-based storage, which was then more expensive and had lesser space than tape-based storage, a viable alternative. Granted in 2005, the patented technology made use of a pivotal target-based deduplication technique to enable data backups onto disk via a network. Not only did this innovation change the way data backups were made then, it effectively paved the path for cloud-based data backup that is used today. The company thrived on the back of this invention and was eventually acquired by EMC in 2009 for $2.4 billion.
In 2002, Isilon Systems filed a patent under the literal, and rather lengthy, name ‘Systems and methods for providing a distributed file system incorporating a virtual hot spare.’ This was essentially an intelligent distributed file system that enabled the storing of file data among a multitude of smart storage units accessible as a single file system. The technology eliminated the “need for idle, additional storage units, servers or spare disk drives — dramatically reducing the cost and complexity of a customer’s storage environment.” Granted in 2006, the patent led Isilon to sell one of the most successful distributed storage systems in the industry and the company was eventually acquired by EMC in 2010 for $2.25 billion.
Technology has been evolving at such a pace today that any one of these patents could be rendered obsolete by an innovation within a few years, if not months. And when that happens, perhaps we will witness the rise of the next great tech company.