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Patents a virtue for IBM

Big Blue hauled down 3,288 patents in 2002, the 10th year in a row the company has claimed the top spot. Budgets aside, research fellow Ravi Arimilli credits the giant's philosophy.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
IBM will announce on Monday that it was the top recipient of U.S. patents in 2002.

Big Blue was awarded 3,288 patents during the past year, making it the top recipient among private sector companies for the 10th year in a row, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Canon ranked second during in 2002 with 1,893 patents.

IBM has generated just over 22,000 patents during the last 10 years, but those patents have changed with the times, IBM researchers said.

Many of the company's newest patents are related to servers; grid computing; and self-healing, or autonomic, computers and how to better put them to use for customers. Most of the new patents also fit into the framework of IBM's computing on demand initiative, announced late last year, said Ravi Arimilli, an IBM research fellow.

"The patent process has a lot to do with what customers are thinking about or where IBM wants to go into the market," Arimilli said. "The new technologies we're pursuing are for where we see growth in the (information technology) industry."

The computing on demand initiative seeks to provide self-organizing, self-healing computer networks that IBM or its customers can use to provide computing power like a utility. Many of the patents cover related technology.

Arimilli himself had 78 patents awarded during 2002. The technologies his patents cover went into IBM's Power4 processor for servers--as well as into its eventual successor, the Power5--and into the p690 server, which is built around the Power4.

"I'm kind of like the thread that crosses all these different technologies and then produces an architecture that IBM goes to market with," Arimilli said, of working with various teams inside the company to develop new products.

Arimilli is part of a small army of employees IBM calls "inventors," who contribute patents.

Big Blue, which spent $5.5 billion on research in 2001, has a cadre of about 3,000 researchers, though about 5,000 people across the company contributed to its 2002 patent total.

This year's patents came from several areas around the company. Although a large chunk--600--came straight from IBM Research, about 1,200 patents were awarded for work done by IBM's Technology Group, which includes the company's Microelectronics Division. Microelectronics is responsible for processors like the PowerPC.

IBM's server group, which stewards the Power4, contributed nearly 600 patents to the total. IBM's software group had 470 patents in 2002.

Meanwhile, Canon, with 7,300 researchers and engineers, spent 218,616,000 yen, or about $1.66 million, on research and development, according to its 2001 annual report.

IBM's nearest competitors, NEC, Hitachi and Hewlett-Packard, were ranked fourth, fifth and ninth, respectively.

One reason IBM is so prolific, aside from its large budget, lies in its philosophy, Arimilli said.

"We have a lot of young engineers at IBM. We give them big responsibilities," he said. "When we did Power4, (Intel engineers) were doing Merced (Intel's Itanium chip). We probably had one quarter of the people working on the microprocessor as they did.

"We said (to the young engineers), 'You've got to break these barriers. You've got to be better than these guys.' The mode is almost the underdog approach of trying to be better, and you'd be amazed with the results. They seem to respond to the challenge...It's really neat watching this happen."