The Patents of Steve Jobs

Ten unexpected inventions that add up to a portrait of Apple's CEO.

By  |  Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 1:46 am

Steve Jobs PatentsAmong the many uncanny parallels between Stephen Paul Jobs and Walter Elias Disney is this one: Very early on, both abandoned the work that in some respects might seem to define their careers. Walt Disney began as a cartoonist, but by the late 1920s he had nothing to do with the drawing of Disney cartoons and is said to have told folks that he couldn’t have held down an animator’s job in his own studio.  And Steve Jobs held technical positions at HP and Atari at the dawn of his time in Silicon Valley, but his contributions to Apple have never been those of an engineer.

And yet, as I browsed Apple patents in recent months for stories like this one, I wasn’t surprised to discover that Jobs’ name is among the inventors listed on dozens of Apple filings over the past thirty years (with a thirteen-year gap in the middle during his absence). It doesn’t feel like glory-hogging, either: Anyone want to make the case that major Apple products would be pretty much the same if Jobs hadn’t contributed ideas and refinements? And Jobs’ name is typically one of several or many on a patent, usually along with that of Apple design honcho Jonathan Ive and other, lesser-known colleagues. (Most Jobs patents relate to industrial design; some are for software; none are for circuitry or other under-the-hood technologies.)

Rummaging through Google Patent Search‘s records of patents credited in part to Steve Jobs is an absorbing way to reflect on some of his accomplishments and failures–and maybe even to learn some new things about what makes the man tick.Yes, his name is on the patents for most of the iconic computers, MP3 players, and other gizmos sold by Apple from 1998 to the present. (I’ve written about some of them before.) But you know what? It’s not the famous, obvious stuff that I find most interesting–it’s the sidelights, loose ends, and mysteries. I’ll look at ten of those in a moment.

First, let’s get a bunch of icons out of the way with a group shot, shall we? Guys, c’mon in…

Apple Patents

Applause, applause; thank you, thank you.

Okay, let’s move on. Here are ten other Steve Jobs patents to chew on–none of them landmarks, but all of them interesting:

1. A quiet blessing.

Apple Power Adapter PatentWhen I started doing stories comparing the cost of Windows PCs and Macs, I used to include Apple’s power adapters–which are unusually compact and sport magnetic connectors, an optional extension cord, and little wings you can wrap the cable around–as a point in Macs’ favor, until I got sick of Windows fans snickering. I shouldn’t have caved. The fact that the CEO obsesses over even mundane necessities such as power bricks is one of the things that makes Apple Apple, and makes Macs worth more money than garden-variety Windows boxes. If you’re not sure if you’re a candidate to buy a Mac, here’s a simple test: If the notion of a really well-designed AC adapter excites you, you’ll probably be very happy with a Mac. And if it doesn’t, you won’t. The one shown here is from a 2001 patent filing that credits Jobs and eleven others.

2. A maniacal work of minimalism.

Apple Remote PatentI haven’t been to every major Steve Jobs product unveiling, but I’ve been to more than my share–starting before there were such things as Macs–and I can’t think of anything I saw Jobs reveal that seemed to tickle him more than the Apple Remote, which debuted at an October 12th, 2005 event and is shown here in a drawing from a patent filed five days earlier. He showed a slide contrasting the Remote’s six options embedded in two unmarked controls against a Windows Media Center remote completely covered by fifteen zillion buttons, and just stood there and beamed. I think that the Apple Remote is merely very good–I prefer the Vudu box’s thumbwheel driven model–but it’s as striking an example of Jobsian restraint as you’ll find. If most consumer-electronics companies set out to build the simplest remote ever, they’d still end up with three times the buttons, and half of them would have incomprehensible labels.

3. An apparent obsession.

Apple iMac PatentA surprising percentage of the Apple patents that carry Jobs’ name involve one basic idea: desktop computers with the guts in one box, the display in another, and some form of articulated arm in between. Apple only made such a machine for about two and a half years–the iMac G4, produced between 2002 and 2004. Yet the U.S. Patent Office holds plenty of evidence that Jobs was smitten with the idea, including this patent for boxy a snake-arm iMac that was filed just weeks before Apple stopped shipping the more rounded G4. I’m not sure if Jobs has ever spoken publicly about the brief life of the “desklamp” Mac, but I’m betting that it was with at least some degree of regret that he retired it in favor of more conventional, less fanciful iMac designs. I’m also not sure if it means anything that some of these patents are among the few in which Jobs’ name precedes that of any collaborator.

4. A minor enigma.

iPod PatentHere’s a “handheld portable computing device” from a 2007 patent filing, credited to Jobs and a dozen others, that looks like an early iPod Nano with some sort of touchstrip control rather than the iconic clickwheel. Apple has yet to make such a device. (The 2007 Nano turned out to be the squart, square variant–and it came out less than three months after this filing.) But did it seriously consider doing so? Or is this something else? Maybe even an Apple product which was released which I’m somehow not recognizing?

5. A frickin’ box.

iPod Box PatentThe iPod Nano box, to be exact. Although with the consistent design aesthetic of everything Apple, it sometimes seems beside the point to distinguish between the product and its packaging: An iPod’s box is pretty much part of the iPod that you happen to remove during use. If Apple doesn’t go entirely to recycled, biodegradable packaging at some point, it wouldn’t startle me to see it introduce a unibody aluminum iPod box with an Apple logo that lights up.

6. A bad idea.

Apple Mouse PatentThis we know about patents: They’re permanent and unflinching, recording embarrassing failures just as definitively as they do history-making successes. So this drawing of a 1998 “cursor control device“-better known as the original iMac mouse–preserves for all time the fact that Steve Jobs and his team inexplicably chose to make a mouse that had nothing to do with the shape of the human hand. What we don’t know is whether the ten people credited with its creation (who also designed an amazing array of brilliantly functional products) all suffered a simultaneous bout of bad judgment, or whether some of them sort of knew deep in their hearts that mice shouldn’t be round and flat. Later Macs returned to mice that were less distinctive but far more useful.

7. A stairway to heaven, or at least the Genius Bar.

Apple Staircase PatentThis would seem to be the towering glass staircase at the Apple Store in San Francisco’s Union Square, a set of steps I’ve trod up and down dozens of times since the store opened in October, 2005. (My most memorable trip up it? With out a doubt, the one on the evening of June 29th, 2007, when I ascended it to buy an iPhone on the first night they were available. Bathed in light and applauded by an army of Apple employees for my good taste, I felt like I was entering paradise.) Microsoft, having taken note of the Apple Stores’ great success, plans its own chain of retail outfits, but let’s just say it: There’s absolutely no chance that Steve Ballmer is going to roll up his sleeves and help design the fixtures. It’s hard enough to envision him rolling up his sleeces and helping to design Windows 7’s fixtures. I’m not saying that that’s good, and I’m not saying that it’s bad–just that it’s a defining difference between the Two Most Important Steves in Tech.

8. Evidence of trouble.

Apple Spinning Beach Ball Patent[UPDATE: Commenter “Duck” says that he or she thinks I’m wrong about what this is, and it’s a CD icon formerly seen in iTunes. Which may well be right–looking at the other frames of animation in the patent, it looks like it. Please disregard musings to follow in this item.] It’s not quite the Blue Screen of Death, but OS X’s spinning beach ball is never the bearer of glad tidings–it’s there to tell you that you’re trying to do stuff so fast that your Mac can’t keep up, and it’s been known to do its rotating for abnormally long times and/or be the first warning sign of a crash. (I get paranoid when I see it or any other animated status indicator, and brood about the computational cycles that are being wasted on needless animation.) Apple filed a patent for the festive status indicator in January 2001, and Jobs was one of two designers to receive credit (Me, I would have tried to deny responsbility.) It’s one of the few examples of an Apple patent on something that we’d all be just as happy to never see again.

9. A commodity.

Jobs Case PatentI don’t even think of iPod and iPhone cases as something Apple gives much though to—other than cheerfully selling gadgets that scratch easily, then turning around and selling us protective cases from a thriving throng of very small companies–let alone a matter that occupies many of Jobs’ precious brain cells. But in 2002, Apple filed patents for a couple of iPod cases, including this one which claims Jobs and ten others as its inventor. From all evidence, it’s nice, but not extraordinary. (If you know what qualities would cause an iPod case to be extraordinary, please let me know.)

10. A possible sign of things to come.

Apple Tablet PatentMost of the many Apple patents that the blogosphere discovers and takes as evidence of amazing gadgets to come have one thing in common: Steve Jobs’ name isn’t on them. He tends to show up on patents that show real Apple products in more-or-less final form. This one is an exception: It’s a 2004 filing for a touch tablet computer of some sort, credited to Jobs and fourteen others. Apple has released no such product to date, and the drawing at right is about as close as the filing gets to explaining how one might work. But in recent months, the world has pretty much decided that Apple is building a tablet for release this year or next. If it does–and there are still no guarantees–anyone who paid attention to this patent had the news first. Sort of.

Anyone want to read things into these patents that I didn’t?


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49 Comments For This Post

  1. pond Says:

    Thanks for this intriguing post. Very interesting indeed.

    Sometimes Jobs’s relish for minimalism gets in the way of functionality. Like the current iMac and Mac Mini, hiding the on/off button ‘somewhere’ in back. (I’m expecting a future Jobs patent for a device that powers on and off by brainwaves, and does without ALL buttons!)

    In a similar vein there is the cult of thin-ness in design, that saw at one point Macbooks (maybe they were powerbooks back then?) doing without a burnable dvd drive for a few months, simply because Apple wanted to boast about the thinness of the laptop, and a burner would’ve added a fraction of an inch to its thickness. And the iPhone and current iPods are thin, but it means not having a removable battery or SD slot (I guess he dislikes ports and slots as much as buttons.)

    Around the time the Mac Mini was first announced, a story came out regarding the size of the case. In an early meeting, the engineers were in Jobs’s office and he asked them just how small they could make it. ‘Well,’ they answered, ‘if we want an optical drive it can’t be smaller than a physical CD.’ ‘Great!’ said Jobs, ‘that’s the size, then!’

    The engineers left cursing themselves for boxing themselves in to such tight restraints.

  2. tom b Says:

    The word “holistic” is over-used and very “crunchy-organic”, but it really describes Steve Job’s approach. And it’s a good thing. All Apple’s competitors find one “piece of the elephant” (the blind men describing the elephant based on the one part they feel) that may exceed Apple’s efforts– maybe Zen or Zune has more comfortable MP3 player earbuds, or something; I don’t know– but only Apple puts together a holistic, satisfying package.

    Having started on the Mac, in the 1980’s, don’t get me started on what I think of Windows, or cell phones– needlessly complex; needlessly buggy. Jobs– and I understand, as we ALL should– that time is something you can’t buy more of. I don’t want to save $50 on a computer and then LOSE 20 minutes or more of my LIFE every day fixing some stupid problem.

  3. Brian Says:

    Hidden sleep button on iMac? Yeah, for the first time you try it. Just grab the corner it’s right there, recessed so you can feel it. One of my favorite features. Do you actually think the on/off button would look good on the front? Bizarre comment IMHO.

  4. duck Says:

    I don’t think #8 is the spinning pizza of death. I think it’s the “CD Burner” widget that used to be in iTunes.

  5. Beeker Says:

    Remember, the original round mouse was paired with the all in one color iMacs. These were targeted for schools, and kids. Steve talked alot during the product introduction how indestructable they were, how chords were kept out of the way, jacks on front for headphones, etc.

    I think the hockey puck mouse fit nicely into small, elementary school shaped hands.

  6. Beeker Says:

    uh, that should be cords, not chords.

  7. Paul Dunlop Says:

    Just on point 8 you made, that isn’t a patent for the spinning beachball of death, it’s actually for the “Burn” aperture icon that used to feature on iTunes and other applications when you wanted to burn a disc. A far cooler and less dreaded UI element to say the least!

  8. Sean Fagan Says:

    Yes, #8 is the “Burn Disc” icon. That’s the closed-up version, which indicates no (burnable, at least) medium in the optical drive.

  9. Jack Says:

    9 is the original pack-in case from the high end 3rd Generation iPods – I have one that came with my 30GB unit. They also fit smartphones quite nicely.

  10. Wayne Says:

    Great article. This will entice me coming back for more. OK, you asked. Re: #9: I’ve had an iPhone for just about 9 months. It was a gift and the giver gave me a case with it. It’s a hard leather ‘case•mate’. I love the look of the ‘naked’ iPhone, but cannot bring myself to expose it to the inevitable scratches. The ‘perfect’ iPhone/iPod case would not be much larger than the phone itself (like my case•mate), incorporate a battery and a solar charger and a kinetic charger (like my Sieko watch). And it would be just as attractive as the iPhone/iPod. Apple could do this if they wanted to.

  11. Michael Says:

    I thought the iTunes CD burning image was similar to the bio-hazard symbol, with triangles?

  12. Daniel Sears Says:

    I’ve long felt the staircase in the SF Apple Store was based on another staircase from the NeXT era. In the late 90’s I worked at (now OpenWave). They had two buildings on Galveston in Redwood City that I had heard were formerly NeXT buildings. Inside one of these buildings was an elaborate glass staircase very similar to the one in the SF Apple Store.

  13. CF Solomon Says:

    Thanks, Daniel. I remember interviewing at and that there was some connection to Steve Jobs – but I couldn't remember what it was. After reading your posting, I remember being given a tour of the building, and being told it had previously housed NeXT and those stairs!

  14. Lisa Padilla Says:

    I suspect Jobs also has a patent on futuristic gecko gloves so that during testing he misses the slipperyness of some of those products. Ahh, but the mesmerized eyes of shoppers in the Apple store…

  15. Jacques Says:

    ON point 9: This was the “free” case that came with the iPod up to the 3G, I believe. I remember getting it with my first iPod purchase and realizing that the most scratch damage the iPod was showing came from the case given to protect it.

  16. hefty Says:

    id rather sacrifice a well-designed ac brick for stellar audio quality.

    priorities. priorities.

  17. Saucey Says:

    The staircase debuted in the SoHo, NY Apple store, not S.F.’s.

  18. Luke G Says:

    I also disagree about power buttons located on the back of the box being a bad thing.

    In the late ’90s, a number of the PCs I had to work on (at a primarily a Mac-based prepress service bureau) had power buttons *right next to* the floppy disk eject button.

    It was real easy to reach down to the CPU below the desk to eject a disk and find yourself powering off the whole machine instead. Absolutely zero thought went into the design aspect of those PC boxes.

  19. The Tim Channel Says:

    I sent my Mac Mini overseas with the wife (family biz) so she would have a decent computer to Skype me with. Once there, she immediately went to the computer store and bought an external CD drive because she didn’t realize there was one already built in.

    Ex PC enthusiast. Now: total fanboy.

    MacMini Solo 1.5, Ipod Touch 2.0 8gig, Ipod Video 60 gig, Ipod Shuffle, Imac Dual Intel 2.4


  20. Tom Says:

    Michael: “I thought the iTunes CD burning image was similar to the bio-hazard symbol, with triangles?”

    IIRC, iTunes’ behavior has been a few things. I believe that at one point, one clicked ‘open’ the iris (which is what that is) and revealed the radioactive symbol; also I remember the radioactive symbol alone. That iris is the same one that is used to take a snapshot in iPhone OS, and also in iPhoto.

    Also, I liked the hockey-puck: the only things you need on a mouse are fingers; you can use the desk as a palm rest if the mouse is thin enough. It’s like pushing air. And what the hell is it with people complaining about the circle and not knowing which way is ‘up’? The cable being there at all is a big clue, and cables are always getting in the way _anyway_. I couldn’t help but know which way was up. (I pre-ordered the original, Bondi with-an-IR-port iMac.)

  21. John Says:

    I sometimes think some of the designs favour merketing a little too much.
    iPod and iPhone earbuds. If these were perfect, there would be no need for third parties to get in on the act, hoever it would be nice if instead of hanging out in front, they could wrap around behind the neck like most god buds, and a lapel clip to keep the cable from snagging on your collar and popping out of your ears. Other than the earbuds, I love my iPhone.

    Aluminium keyboard – yay, 2 extra USB ports, umm, why the hell aren’t they powered and USB2?? Oh, and the cable is pretty short too. I have to run mine to a USB hub, and then the hub goes to my Mini. Other than that, I love the aluminium keyboard.

    Mac Mini USB – nice, but I want to plug my USB thumb drive into the front, not the back, and the keyboard only offers unpowered USB1.and mic in – how hard is it to ad a powered microphone port?
    And would it have really been too much of a pain to put an access hatch in the bottom for upgrading the HDD and RAM like on Laptops, or offer e-SATA + 4xUSB2 instead of 5 USB ports on the new Mini? Other than that I love my Mini.

    Now with these problems I still find it hard to work out why I love these products so much. 8)

  22. Vince Says:

    Power button on the back is just fine by me; but what’s missing in the newer Apple keyboards – power button! The last few generations of keyboards have lacked that, and let me tell you, they were very handy to have. The button was recessed and not in an area you would accidently hit. It was so convenient but for some reason they stopped doing them.

    Also, another patent I am sure Jobs’ name is on – the power button on the Cube and 15″ matching LCD monitor. Both were touch sensitive buttons, not physical ones. You just waved your finger on an area, and the computer booted right up, or went to sleep. Unfortunately interference with 2-way radios made those buttons not practical in certain areas [like when a garbage truck would drive by one’s house!].


  23. Cam Says:

    We all know Apple designs some great things, the round iMac mouse was truly dreadful- very hard to know which way is “up” without looking down and rotating it.

    I’m a fan of the mag-safe power cord though.

  24. Big Mac and the Secret Sauce Says:

    There’s no question that Steve is an extremely creative guy. But in discussing his 50 patents (easily found with this search of the USPTO site:, it’s worth pointing out that all but one are design, not utility patents.

    This is an important distinction because when most people think about patents, they imagine inventions. That’s what utility patents protect and they last for 20 years.

    A design patent, by contrast, isn’t for an invention. It’s for a cosmetic feature, e.g., the ornamental design, configuration, decorative appearance or shape of an existing product that’s improved in style, but not function. Design patents last for 14 years.

  25. rizumus Says:

    My favorite has to be the stairway to heaven. Sounds like something fun to run up and down, lol.

  26. Harleigh Kyson Jr. Says:

    I am wondering, how much real input did Jobs have into these patents. Did he do all the work from scratch himself? Or was he like an orchestra conductor drecting his designers and engineers?

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  27. austinwyss Says:

    This inspires me to go invent something. I think I need some coffee now.

  28. Gary Says:

    Nice post. Steve Jobs is sure an increadible guy. To turn Apple into the consumer electronics giant it is is soectacular.

  29. jradke138 Says:

    Seriously I had no idea. Btw I thought walt disney still animated after that I had no idea about that ethier

  30. vagueperson Says:

    class staircase in Chicago, too

  31. Rafael E. Belliard Says:

    Wow. “A frickin’ box”. Go Steve.

  32. Tim Says:

    Speaking as an iPhone user rather than a foaming-at-the-mouth Mac fanatic I can only say that if Steve Jobs really took a ‘Holistic’ Approach I wouldn’t be looking forward to iPhone 3.0 so much because he’d already have included the software features that they’re finally getting round to releasing (soon, I hope – no ACTUAL date for release yet, though. It also appears, from what I hear about the Mac Mini and hardware problems, that he has recently decided to sacrifice quality for compactness. I’d LIKE to buy a Mac-Mini (mainly so I can develop apps for the iPhone) but the nightmare stories I’ve heard have put me off. All of which is a rather laboured way of saying Jobs is quite a good designer but he’s far from perfect.

  33. DTNick Says:

    @ Tim: Not sure what horror stories you’re referring to; I haven’t seen any in regards to the Mac mini. I have a Core Solo mini (circa early 2006) I use as a DVR and it’s been trouble-free.

  34. mlstac21 Says:

    What A great story, Hooray for Steve Jobs who saved us all from microsoft, once again Hooray!!

  35. Scikid Says:

    Which patents are eco friendly? Coment on the clean apple devices page on this site:


  36. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > Like the current iMac and Mac Mini, hiding the on/off button

    It’s hidden because you’re not supposed to use it. Same reason the AC jack is on the back, not the front. There’s almost no reason to push the on/off button. After an operating system update, a Mac will reboot itself. In between operating system updates, leave it running and let it sleep and wake itself in response to whatever you ask it to do. It manages itself now. It is more energy efficient to let it manage itself than to constantly power cycle it.

  37. Tuvie Says:

    the ipod sketch doesn’t look that good, but the final product design makes me go “wow…”

  38. Kira Says:

    I have a feeling this list will be expanding exponentially!

  39. joe Says:

    I am a Windows guy to the core (never even had an iPod) but after getting my iPhone 3g (a month before the new version came out, thanks again Steve Jobs) I would be ALL OVER a Mac Tablet!

  40. FelixES Says:

    Nice post.

    The first sentence for the patent 6 is too harsh 🙁 – listen to Albert Einstein:

    “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” or

    “The only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no new ideas.”

    ***I’ll be buying the tablet:)***

  41. Gil Says:

    It is funny to read the last one (10. A possible sign of things to come.) now that the iPad was released!

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  45. Coola spel Says:

    A patent for an escalator? Lol. Way to patent everything, Jobs!

  46. Sprinkler Buff Says:

    While very creative, all of his stuff is very similar in one way or another. I particularly liked the big, round, flat mouse patent. I think that looks pretty cool and they should give it another go! Don't you think? Better than the Nano Box!

  47. Anna isgro Says:

    Thank God – for Steve Jobs patenting the iPad… That had to have been the computing tablet in #10…

  48. LauraS Says:

    "Apple has released no such [tablet] product to date, and the drawing at right is about as close as the filing gets to explaining how one might work."

    Amazing how much three years can change everything…

  49. Chris Says:

    One of the greats… he was a genius who changed so many of our lives and the way we do things.

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