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42According to Douglas Adams in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, that’s the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

Many theories abound as to why Adams chose that number. 101010 is 42 in binary code; light refracts off water at an angle of 42 degrees; light requires 10-42 seconds to cross the diameter of a proton. Adams dismissed them all. “The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do'. I typed it out. End of story.”

Of course in 1978 when Hitchhiker’s Guide was written, the world was a very different place. The transition from typewriters to PCs was in its infancy, phones were still connected by wires and washing machines were still largely of the top-loading, twin-tub variety.

Today, we live a digital life. The hardware and electronics sector is completely integral to virtually all our waking activities. At home, our food is cooked on induction hobs and in microwave ovens, our clothes are washed by intelligent machines that adjust according to the size of the load, our TVs are smart. We drive to the station in our mobile entertainment centres guided by our talking sat-nav system to catch the driverless train into town. In the office, our computers hold multiple millions-of-times the computing power of the early IBM PC, our photocopiers also print, scan and e-mail, our phones follow us from desk to desk, we sit in conference with colleagues in different continents sitting virtually in front of us across the desk. Our wearable health monitors tell us how many steps we’ve done today. And how would we survive without our smart phones which allow us to interact with each other and our environment at any time of the day or night across the planet.

All this is made possible by the tremendous advances in hardware and electronics technology.

The latest State of Innovation report, “The Future is Open” (available at the State of Innovation website), shows that the two most active technology sectors of the twelve sectors analyzed are in the hardware and electronics space - information technology and telecommunications, with 30% and 13% the total volume of patented inventions in 2014, respectively.

Within information technology, the computing subsector dominates. IBM may top the list of US patents year-on-year, but globally they come second to Samsung. Asia leads the way in this sector with four of the top five companies by volume of patents in 2014 from that region (Samsung, Canon, Ricoh and State Grid Corp of China).

Samsung also heads the list of companies in the telecoms sector with over 4,000 inventions in 2014 followed by three further Asian companies (Huawei, LG and ZTE). The leading US company (Qualcomm) comes in at fifth with around half of Samsung’s inventions.

Underpinning all of these developments is the semiconductors sector. This is also led by Asia with again four of the top five companies from that region (Samsung, LG, BOE Technology, Toshiba)

That Asia is dominant in the hardware and electronics space is hardly surprising – think consumer electronics, think Samsung, LG, Sony, Sharp, Toshiba, Panasonic. What is surprising is the level of innovation as measured by patents underlying that dominance. Samsung alone has over 14,000 patents across the Hardware & Electronics space in 2014. But take a little closer look within one specific sub-sector of consumer electronics, and something interesting appears to be happening.

Consumer electronics

In the fast-moving field of consumer electronics, by the time products start hitting the shelves, the base technology underlying them has been largely developed and patents secured so that we see a characteristic slowing of innovation more often associated with a maturing technology. Inventors are already moving on to the next emerging technology.

As an example of this, take a look at the trend in smart phone patenting:

(SOURCE: Thomson Reuters DWPI on Thomson Innovation)

Innovation has returned to levels of ten years ago and appears to be flat, verging on declining.

Another trend is also clear – the increasing popularity of multi-function devices which is eroding sales of single-function devices like cameras and audio entertainment is also dampening innovation in these conventional, stand-alone technologies:

(SOURCE: Thomson Reuters DWPI on Thomson Innovation)

Taking 2005 levels as the base (normalised to 1.00), relative patenting rates from 2005-2014 show that digital camera and audio recording/playback innovation have dropped below the level of smart phone innovation.

Smart phones have also been an area of intense litigation with cases like Apple v Samsung only recently being settled after years of action and counter-action. Looking at litigation across several sectors for comparison, we see that litigation in the Hardware & Electronics sector (as represented by Computer Hardware) is also slowing down after peaking during 2012-2013 and has now been overtaken by Pharma.

(SOURCE: Thomson Reuters Litigation Monitor)

After the frenzy of the past decade, are we witnessing the beginning of a more orderly innovation eco-system in the hardware & electronics space? Time will tell.

Looking a little in to the future, what can we expect from another key area in consumer electronics?

Internet of Things

We hear a lot about the Internet of things, but where are we with actual implementation? Companies like Whirlpool are busy innovating and building patent portfolios to realize returns on their investment. One such patent is US8040234B2 to Whirlpool granted 18th October 2011: “Method and apparatus for remote service of an appliance”.

Cutting to the chase, this patent protects a method of delivering instructions from your mobile phone to household devices via the internet as one of the drawings illustrates:

As it turns out, this is not just an abstract idea – Whirlpool has recently launched a front-load washer with “6th Sense Live” that looks awfully similar to the patent:

The ‘234 patent also describes how other household appliances can be serviced including refrigerators, microwave ovens, clothes dryers, dishwashers and trash compactors, and counter top appliances such as waffle makers, toasters, blenders, mixers, food processors and coffee makers. It looks like Whirlpool at least is taking the Internet of things seriously.

Another interesting thing - as of the time of writing, since the beginning of last year, the number of inventions for washing machines that Whirlpool are seeking patent protection for is …. 421.

1 Results from Thomson Reuters Thomson Innovation Search History.

Which brings us back to why the number 42 is the answer to ordinary life, the universe and everything. For me, I prefer the theory that there are 42 laws in the game of cricket. According to Stephen Fry, a friend of Adams, he claims that Adams told him "exactly why 42", and that the reason is "fascinating, extraordinary and, when you think hard about it, completely obvious." As a huge cricket fan, Fry would know.