An interesting dissenting voice among the chorus hailing the "genius innovator" in Jobs is New Yorker staff writer Malcom Gladwell. In a recent article in the New Yorker, he makes the point that Jobs did not really innovate, so much as tweak other people's innovations. He didn't invent the mouse and the windows-based UI for PCs; Xerox did, in the 70's. He didn't engineer the first cellphones, or imagine the first 3D movies, or produce the first tablet. The technology underlying all of Jobs' breakthrough products was already there before he came in. His genius, Gladwell argues, consisted in:
[T]aking what was in front of him —the tablet with stylus— and ruthlessly refining itThis view has echoes in the recent growth literature. Gladwell is actually taking his cue from research by Meisenzahl and Mokyr. The authors look at a sample of mechanics and engineers from the British Industrial revolution; they find that a majority of the sample did not contribute to "macro" innovations, that is, the invention of new products and techniques. Instead, they produced "micro" innovations, that is, tweaks and iterations of the other, groundbreaking but imperfect "macro" innovations. Interestingly, 40% of the "tweakers" in their sample did not attend school, but were instead trained through apprenticeship at workshops, the techniques of which they eventually went on to improve on in their own workshops. The widespread amount of tweaking, and the presence of a big workforce with the technical skills to carry it out, was crucial in the Britain's take-off, the authors argue.
That is a stunning conclusion. Growth theory, both empirical and theoretical, has been arguing for quite a while that patenting and in general property rights were crucial in promoting long-run productivity growth, because they guarantee the right incentives for entrepreneurs to invest in Research and Development. Endogenous growth in Romer's (1990) model relies on the assumption that innovators are monopolists in the varieties they introduce; otherwise, under perfect competition, the present value of innovation benefits would be eroded down to zero, and any small research cost would drive entrepreneurs away from innovation. In that sense, copying is unambiguously bad for growth.
Lucas and Moll, on the other hand, argue that copying is good. Of course, these are very different models: R&D models of growth focus on what happens at the margin, while copycat models of growth focus on the average shift in productivity, but totally abstract from thinking of "where" the better ideas come from. Still, it raises the possibility that, after all, patenting and protection of innovation may not always be good things. This is something that I always thought was implicit in the law of, for example, industrial patents in France, that guarantee exclusivity only for a limited number of years. But it seemed to also have mattered during the British Industrial revolution. In the sample of Meisenzahl and Mokyr, 54% of the "tweakers" never deposited a patent. What's more, the authors show evidence that the tweakers actively engaged in the exchange and diffusion of their ideas. That begs the question of what the optimal amount of protection of innovators is optimal, in an economy where R&D costs coexist with "copycat" growth is. That question, to the best of my knowledge, is still open. (But my knowledge of this field is not very good).
One point, still: models of "copycat" growth are not really models of tweaking, in that there is no marginal contribution of the copiers to the innovation they replicate. Steve Jobs did, after all, improve on the dismally cluttered tablets of Microsoft, Lenovo and the like when he introduced the Ipad and its blinding simplicity of use. It's unclear whether allowing for tweaking in those recent "copycat" models would significantly alter their predictions - other than making the planner even more willing to incentivize copying. Still, the "Jobs" growth model hasn't yet been (completely) written. Yes, that was a terrible pun; but then again, it was just a tweak on the widely better, millions of jokes that Jobs' passing spurned.