IBM has emerged , yet again, as the United States' patent king  for 2010. It's the 18th straight year it's topped the list for the most new patents, and it actually grew the number it owns by an impressive 20%. That wasn't the fastest growth, however: Apple was tops in that category.
In its press release about the news, IBM is proud to blow its own trumpet and notes this is the 18th consecutive year it's "topped the list of the world's most inventive companies." And while it's a bit of a stretch to equate patent awards with inventiveness (especially given the increasing controversy about the U.S. patent system, driven by excessive patent trolling), it's unquestionably impressive. IBM also became the first company to be "granted as many as 5,000 U.S. patents in a single year," with 5,896 awarded in 2010--a stark contrast to the 50 years it took IBM's engineers to mark their first 5,000 total patents following the company's 1911 founding.
IBM's figure last year is 20% higher than in 2009. While that's less than the overall growth of the patent archive--there were 31% more patents added in 2010 versus 2009--it isn't a bad sign for IBM at all, since the 31% growth in patent awards is the largest on record for the USPTO.
Remember that IBM spends enormous amounts on patents that seem to extend far beyond the business domains you may be familiar with--it's responsible for a scanning-tunneling microscope breakthrough that gave us the world's smallest logo, in just a few atoms (shown above).
So what did Big Blue patent last year? An extraordinarily wide range of things--from a medical data analysis system that provides "more effective diagnoses of medical conditions," to a system for predicting traffic based on short-range wireless data. There's a fascinating patent (number 7,693,663) that uses data from the motion-sensors in computer hard drives to "accurately and precisely conduct post-event analysis of seismic events" to help with better emergency responses in the aftermath of earthquake disasters. In a field that's more classically IBM-ish, the firm also won patent number 7,790,495, which is for an "optoelectronic device with germanium photodetector." This represents the culmination of 10 years of research into integrating electronic and optical communications tech onto one single slice of silicon chip--an advance we've covered  several times , and which represents a step toward the future of optical computing.
While the growth in patents could be seen as a sign that the economy is (finally) on the upswing, and IBM's in the lead here, there are indications that IBM's lead may be under threat in the long term. In second place in patent growth was Samsung, with 4,551--up 26% on 2009. And while Apple's patent tally only jumped up by 563 new patents, this represents a growth of 94% over the previous year--if Apple chooses to spend more of its tens of billions of dollars of cash reserve on deeper research over the next several years, it could easily begin to challenge the leaders on the patent winners list.
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