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How do we put a value on a future invention?

How do we put a value on a future invention?

In the great quest to measure any company's essential value there's one big question we try not to think too much about: How do we put a value on invention, or, to be more specific, a value on future invention?

Even as global resources decline, we've recently begun exploring new frontiers in the new technology age:

Old business models from music to media have changed forever; now new sectors are being impacted -- what of Apple's much-rumored plan for the complete transformation of the cable and broadcasting space?

Should the company succeed in executing this vision, how might this impact the activities of the enterprise we are in, our key partners and stakeholders? Should these future products impact component supply lines, who gains and who loses in the Apple TV economy?

Innovation After Jobs

The passing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs bought a new spotlight onto questions of measuring the value of innovation. The company itself admitted Jobs to be "irreplaceable." Just what value did he add to the firm itself? How do we measure this?

Sadly this isn't just an Apple-specific question. Most successful companies host at least a few individuals the whole enterprise relies upon to keep its business fresh, relevant and successful. Human resources managers will fret on retaining the best and brightest, CFO's must ponder how much inherent value they might add to the company.

Patents are like that. Some patents are shared under various licenses as elements to industry standards. Other ideas are kept proprietary. Debate concerning the validity or otherwise of the patents system are for another column. As it stands the patent system is an attempt to enable firms to control what use is made of their ideas. The logic's simple: A company which creates a world-first idea is entitled to trade using that idea without fearing cheaper quality copycat products will steal chunks out of the market that idea helped create.

Risk and Patent Wars to Come

Litigation between Apple and others in the smartphone space is a huge test of the value of patent law, and its efficiency as a protector of ideas. A recent US ITC finding declared smartphone maker HTC to have violated an Apple patent related to data-detection technology. That's the tech that automatically recognizes a phone number within an email message, for example. HTC will remove the feature from its devices, but this is a signal victory for Apple in its proxy war against Android and Google.

I'd argue that the ITC's objective decision broadly supports Apple's claim that many Android concepts were copied from those in the iPhone. There are dozens of similar cases wending through the legal system worldwide as Google's allies fight to preserve the royalty-free licensing model that underscores Android. If Apple continues to prevail in some of these cases it will impact a much wider economy of smartphone makers, component suppliers, networks, technology firms and more.

Figuring out how to accurately understand the levels of risk in the burgeoning smartphone market will become ever more complex. And it's strange, really, because the mobile sector (more than any other) now reflects the importance of ideas. That's why Apple's ideas-mine is now worth more or less the same as the oil factory that is Exxon. However, unlike exploitation of natural materials, Apple's model depends on many imponderables: the value of the company's teams; its ability to continue to invent; the levels of protection that exist worldwide for its ideas; and the future competitive landscape.

It's enough to keep any CFO up at night. And an encouragement to follow one's gut feeling. And just how do you assess the value of that?

Jonny Evans today joins CFOworld's band of bloggers. Based in the UK, he closely follows Apple, but has an abiding interest in the intersection of technology and finance.

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