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IBM leads U.S. patent list for 2020 as total numbers decline 1% in pandemic year to 352,000

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One year in, the Covid-19 global health pandemic continues to have something of a dragging effect on many aspects of life, but today a key bellwether for how technology is developing underscored how the industry continues to march on. The number of patents granted in the US in 2020 totaled 352,013, representing a decline of just under 1% compared to the year before (the final tally for 2019 was 354,428 patents granted).

At the same time, patent applications rose almost 5% last year, a sign of how future years will likely see a boost in numbers again, according to figures from IFI Claims Patent Services, which tracks applications and trends in patents at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. As with previous years, IBM led the pack in terms of number of patents granted in the year, but Samsung, in aggregate, continues to hold the most patents of any company.

“Overall, U.S. patent activity was down slightly last year, despite the pandemic. This is a minor downward tick in what’s been a largely upward trajectory we’ve seen over the past decade, and it’s still 13 percent higher than what we saw in 2018,” said Mike Baycroft, CEO of IFI CLAIMS Patent Services, in a statement. “Another positive indicator is that published pre-grant applications saw a nominal increase in 2020. But we’ll have to wait at least another year before we can determine if the pandemic had any impact.”

Patents, and lawsuits related to the infringing of them, have been part of a bigger theme for a number of years in the world of technology, with companies like Apple and Samsung, and Oracle and Google, using these against each other as an analogue for their larger commercial competition.

While the heyday of employing those tactics appear to be mostly over, at least for the moment, patents still play a vital role as an indicator of the way that tech is developing: they point to the pace of innovation, who is taking the lead in that on a foundational basis, and what kinds of areas are driving the future of tech in a more general sense.

In that regard, 2020’s numbers tell us that Samsung continues to keep a very wide margin when it comes to overall number of patents. The company now has 80,577 patents in total, up 5 percent more than in the year before. It has a very large margin still over the second-biggest patent holder. IBM currently holds 38,541 patents.

To be sure, in terms of activity in the last year, IBM leads the pack still when it comes to the most patents secured in 2020, with 9,130 grants, although this declined 1% compared to a year ago. Samsung was granted 6,415 patents at number two, with Canon Inc., Microsoft, Intel, Taiwan Semiconductor, LG Electronics, Apple, Huawei Technologies, and Qualcomm making up the rest of the top-10 list.

Google, Facebook, Amazon (number 11 at 2,244 patents), Google (17 with 1,817 patents) and Facebook (38 with 938 patents) all also made the top 50 patent recipients this year.

Technology trends

While the concept of patents has a long history that predates the rise of consumer electronics, they have seen an ineluctable shift away from physical systems and hardware, and towards the services that run on these, over time. In the last year, the top two most popular technology classes patented, IFI said, were electrical digital data processing and transmission of digital information — the generic names that underpin software and and how information and data are stored and processed.

Interestingly, IFI found that “computer systems based on biological models” was the fastest-growing technology on the list, up 67% last year compared to its growth between 2016 and 2020. The category points to the ongoing and huge interest in artificial intelligence, where areas like neural networking and other tech processes based on the mechanics of the human brain continue to be in hot demand, with Google, Microsoft and Intel all major patent winners in the area, IFI said. Alongside that aspect of AI, it said that machine learning, quantum computing, autonomous technology and 3D printing also saw big increases.

As a point of comparison, last year medical and biological technologies figured very strongly, with areas like hybrid plant creation topping the list of trending technology, and CRISPR gene-editing and cancer therapies also figuring strongly. It’s interesting that in a year with a global health pandemic, and unprecedented medical research taking place in the race to find remedies and vaccines, we have seen little of that play out in patents granted, although I’m guessing the results would be different if considering what is being filed. It will be worth watching how this plays out in coming years, along with other trends that made themselves very prominent in the last year, such as e-commerce and cloud computing. 

Interestingly, despite the regulatory and public perception setbacks faced by companies like Juul, electrical smoking devices still saw an increase of 55% in terms of patents filed last year. This indicates that there is still going to be a lot of development in the area as traditional smoking continues to be scrutinised and decline, but clearly the addiction does not.

Top 50 list for 2020, according to IFI Claims:

1 IBM 9130
2 Samsung Electronics 6415
3 Canon 3225
4 Microsoft 2905
5 Intel Corp 2867
6 Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC) 2833
7 LG Electronics 2831
8 Apple 2792
9 Huawei Technologies 2761
10 Qualcomm 2276
11 Amazon Technologies 2244
12 Sony 2239
13 BOE Technology Group 2144
14 Toyota 2079
15 Ford 2025
16 Samsung Display 1902
17 Google 1817
18 General Electric 1760
19 Micron Technology 1535
20 Hyundai 1464
21 Boeing 1435
22 Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson 1366
23 Seiko Epson 1334
24 Kia Motors 1323
25 Panasonic 1283
26 AT&T 1238
27 Honda 1205
28 Mitsubishi 1204
29 Texas Instruments 1147
30 EMC 1094
31 Cisco 1059
32 Sharp 1042
33 Denso 1030
34 LG Display 989
35 Robert Bosch 965
36 Toshiba 957
37 LG Chem 947
38 Facebook 938
39 NEC 937
40 SK Hynix 930
41 RicohCoLtd 928
42 Fujitsu 917
43 Koninklijke Philips 874
44 Hewlett Packard 873
45 Dell 849
46 Fujifilm 814
47 Hewlett Packard Enterprise 807
48 GM  781
49 Halliburton Energy 771
50 Murata Manufacturing 764

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AT&T may keep majority ownership of DirecTV as it closes in on final deal

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A DirecTV satellite dish mounted to the outside of a building.

Enlarge / A DirecTV satellite dish seen outside a bar in Portland, Oregon, in October 2019. (credit: Getty Images | hapabapa)

AT&T is reportedly closing in on a deal to sell a stake in DirecTV to TPG, a private-equity firm.

Unfortunately for customers hoping that AT&T will relinquish control of DirecTV, a Reuters report on Friday said the pending deal would give TPG a “minority stake” in AT&T’s satellite-TV subsidiary. On the other hand, a private-equity firm looking to wring value out of a declining business wouldn’t necessarily be better for DirecTV customers than AT&T is.

It’s also possible that AT&T could cede operational control of DirecTV even if it remains the majority owner. CNBC in November reported on one proposed deal in which “AT&T would retain majority economic ownership of the [DirecTV and U-verse TV] businesses, and would maintain ownership of U-verse infrastructure, including plants and fiber,” while the buyer of a DirecTV stake “would control the pay-TV distribution operations and consolidate the business on its books.”

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Fintechs could see $100 billion of liquidity in 2021

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Three years ago, we released the first edition of the Matrix Fintech Index. We believed then, as we do now, that fintech represents one of the most exciting major innovation cycles of this decade. In 2020, all the long-term trends forcing change in this sector continued and even accelerated.

The broad movement away from credit toward debit, particularly among younger consumers, represents one such macro shift. However, the pandemic also created new, unforeseen drivers. Among them, millennials decamped from their rentals in crowded cities to accelerate their first home purchase, to the benefit of proptech companies and challenger mortgage players alike.

E-commerce saw an enormous acceleration in growth rates, furthering adoption of online payments platforms. Lastly, low interest rates and looming inflation helped pave the way for the price of Bitcoin to charge toward $30,000. In short, multiple tailwinds combined to produce a blockbuster year for the category.

In this year’s refresh of the Matrix Fintech Index, we’ll divide our attention into three parts. First, a look at the public stocks’ performance. Second, liquidity. Third, we highlight one major trend in the sector: Buy Now Pay Later, or BNPL.

Public fintech stocks rose 97% in 2020

For the fourth straight year, the publicly traded fintechs massively outperformed the incumbent financial services providers as well as every mainstream stock index. While the underlying performance of these companies was strong, the pandemic further bolstered results as consumers avoided appearing in-person for both shopping and banking. Instead, they sought — and found — digital alternatives.

For the fourth straight year, the publicly traded fintechs massively outperformed the incumbent financial services providers as well as every mainstream stock index.

Our own representation of the public fintechs’ performance is the Matrix Fintech Index — a market cap-weighted index that tracks the progress of a portfolio of 25 leading public fintech companies. The Matrix fintech Index rose 97% in 2020, compared to a 14% rise in the S&P 500 and a 10% drop for the incumbent financial service companies over the same time period.

 

2020 performance of individual fintech companies vs. SPX

2020 performance of individual fintech companies versus S&P 500. Image Credits: PitchBook

 

Fintech incumbents and new entrants vs. the S&P 500

Fintech incumbents and new entrants versus the S&P 500. Image Credits: PitchBook

E-commerce undoubtedly stood out as a major driver. As a category, retail e-commerce grew 35% YoY as of Q3, propelling PayPal and Shopify to add over $160 billion of market capitalization over the year. For its part, PayPal in the third quarter signed up 15 million net new active accounts (its highest ever).

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Walking with Dolly

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A walk is, more often than not, a solitary experience. As far as the age of COVID-19 is concerned, that’s probably more bug than feature. It’s a way to escape the confines of a shutdown for a few glorious moments, to get some air and, for better or worse, reflect on the day that’s passed or the one to come.

It can, like many things these days, however, be isolating.

For me, long weekend walks have been a sort of lifesaver throughout this bizarre year. Following two months of being completely sidelined over (non-COVID) health issues, I began walking more per week than I ever have. It was a slow process at first — frankly, never leaving my one-bedroom apartment for April and May made it so it was physically painful to walk around the block when I finally felt comfortable going outside.

These days, I walk every morning, regularly crossing the bridge into Brooklyn and Manhattan. Until I started using Apple’s new Fitness+ service a few times a day, it was easily my main source of exercise. In November, however, my Apple Watch Activity bars swapped the more generic gray for the Fitness+ yellow. But even as I’ve made a point to do a couple of indoor exercises a day, I still start each day with a walk. Rain, snow, this weekend’s sub-freezing weather — skipping a day would feel like breaking a promise to myself.

My actual bars (not sure what happened in September — maybe testing a competitor’s device)

This morning Apple dropped the first five installments (episodes?) of Time to Walk. The feature is an attempt to expand the Fitness+ experience beyond the confines of its titular iOS app. A largely Watch-based experience, the feature leverages much of the wearable’s existing features (and Apple’s growing software ecosystem) to offer a more tailored and multimedia experience than you would get listening to a podcast or music alone.

As with the canny arrival of Fitness+ (December) and handwashing for watchOS (September), Apple says the timing was something of a happy coincidence. The company had been working on the feature well before COVID-19 entered the picture.

“Everything from Time to Walk and our launch of Fitness+ was something we had been working on well before COVID,” the company’s senior director of Fitness Technologies Jay Blahnik tells TechCrunch. “From the very beginning, we thought of Fitness+ as a place where everyone was welcome. We wanted it to feel like a place where, whether you’re new to fitness or very fit, there was something for everyone.”

For many, a walk (or push, in the case of those who use a wheelchair for mobility) is square one when it comes to daily workouts. For my part, I was certainly far more comfortable taking quick strolls around the neighborhood. With limits on space and no real exercise equipment to speak of beyond a kettlebell and yoga mat, attempting to approximate the gym experience at home has seemed a fool’s errand.

April found me trying some YouTube yoga classes with limited efficacy. Like most attempts to exercise, it didn’t stick. Walking every day was the only thing that did. And for the first time in my life, COVID-19 found me walking without any particular destination in mind. That old cliché about it being about the journey not the destination is fine when you don’t mind constantly being late to meetings. Walking for the sake of itself, however, changes the dynamic significantly. I speak to artists, writers and musicians on a regular basis for my podcast. The common sentiment is a familiar one: You simply can’t force creativity. But for those who make a point to regularly walk and run, it’s perhaps the most surefire way to kickstart the process.

Time to Walk is Apple’s attempt to capture some of that lightning in a bottle — to follow a rotating cast of big names as they walk through locations that mean something to them. The company says it’s been making an effort to meet guests where they are and essentially coach them through the process. The ability to do so is, of course, depends on their given location — especially with all of the sorts of travel restrictions that have been in place since early last year.

Ultimately, Apple says, the decisions of where to record are made by the guests. “Some guests said, ‘this is where I want to go,’ ” says Blahnik. “And some guests were like, ‘no, I want to to do the walk I normally do.’ For us, it’s not about Shawn Mendes in the Grand Canyon, it’s about where they want to go. Sometimes that’s limited by COVID, but what we found delightful was for many people, they loved to take the walk they loved to take.”

The first four guests — Mendes, Dolly Parton, Draymond Green and Uzo Aduba — run the gamut on approaches. “We think about the stories, we think about the diverse guest,” says Blahnik. We think about all of the ways you’d like the conversations to go. But what was important to us was that the idea resonated with them. The idea of going out for a walk, having a lovely conversation and hearing stories that could give you a different perspective.”

Parton, who turned 75 earlier this month, recorded her session in a studio — in contrast to the other three names. She relates a handful of stories largely revolving around her upbringing in Sevier County (pronounced “severe”), Tennessee. There’s a story about a Christmas tree and one about opening a literacy center with the help of her father (who struggled with his own ability to read and write).

She somewhat self-effacingly relates a story about the time her hometown erected a statue of her. “So I went home, and I said, ‘Daddy, did you know they’re putting a statue of me? Do you know about the statue down at the courthouse?’ ” Parton explains. “And Daddy said, ‘Well, yeah, I heard about that.’ He said, ‘Now, to your fans out there, you might be some sort of an idol. But to them pigeons, you ain’t nothing but another outhouse.’ ”

According to Parton, her father would visit the statue at night with a bucket of soap and water to clean the pigeons’ mess off his daughter’s likeness. Her segment culminates with something approaching a behind the music-style segment, describing stories behind three of her own songs: “Coat of Many Colors,” “Circle of Love” and “9 to 5.” The latter is the real gem of the bunch, contrasting her morning routines to costars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, while describing the role her acrylic nails played in the songwriting and recording process.

Image Credits: Apple

Green’s stories are more emblematic of the rest. On a walk around Malibu, the Warriors power forward discusses some inspiration stories on and off the court, from being told he would never be a star to a time he tried and failed to cheat on a test in school. The stories are purposefully personal. Aduba relates some of her own struggles to break into acting, as she walks her amusingly named dog Fenway Bark through Fort Green Park in Brooklyn.

The guests share images relating to their stories or snapshots of where they go on their walks, which are delivered to the wrist with a haptic buzz. At they end of the journey, they share three handpicked songs that can be saved to a playlist on Apple Music, similar to what the company has done for its Fitness+ workouts.

Write-ups of the Time to Walk have thus far compared it to podcasting — understandably so, given that it’s an on-demand, audio-first experience. Though the feature, which downloads directly onto the Watch when the new installment drops once a week, has its own flavor, according to Apple.

“Often podcasts are hosted,” Blahnik says, by way of distinction. “In our journey to build out this experience, we certainly considered if there should be a host walking with this person. What we realized is that, for what we were trying to create, the intimacy of having the singular guest talk to you felt a lot more like you were on a walk with them. The notion that it’s not happening in a studio (in almost all cases), that they’re walking someplace that inspires them. You’ll hear that with Draymond and Shawn — with Shawn he’s huffing and puffing up that hill and it’s kind of nice because you’re in that moment together.”

Time to Walk isn’t raw, exactly. It is an Apple production, after all. The company’s certainly not tossing out found audio here. But the content does seem more off-the-cuff than many of its productions, even as it’s packaged together with a slick intro and a trio of songs at the end. But it’s a nice change of pace for those looking for something that feels a little more personal than we’re accustom to from some of the names involved.

Your own mileage will vary, depending on, among other things, your interest in the guest. Though, there’s always a chance someone you’ve never been particularly interested in — or even heard of — will offer some unique tidbit or interesting way of looking at things. That’s one of the potential upsides of having Apple doing the curating here — there’s some interesting potential for discovery. And even in the case of artists you’re familiar with, there’s good potential to discover something new.

The weekly 20 to 45-minute audio supplement won’t make the actual act of walking any less solitary — but for a little while, at least, it’s nice to feel like someone’s along for the ride.

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