Wednesday, August 13, 2008

This ain't your Mr. Coffee

This patent and trademark librarian enjoys a cup of coffee now and again. And again and again. In fact, this eye-opening beverage has become part of my daily routine, and over the years I've tried a few contraptions to get more flavor out of the beans. I've tried grinders, French presses, stove-top espresso makers, percolators, and even, in a time of desperation, made some cowboy coffee.

The process of coffee making is simple enough -- add ground up roasted beans to water, heat, remove the grounds to the best of your ability, and enjoy -- and I was a bit surprised to learn of a major technological innovation in the coffee field. But leave it to our java-loving West Coast neighbors to the north to come up with a high-tech, computerized, $11,000 coffee maker called the Clover.

The Clover isn't a one-off, jewel-encrusted show piece. It's a purely functional commercial machine that just does one thing -- make coffee.

It is apparently no joke, either, if one can judge by the demand for both the expensive machine and the expensive cup of coffee that the machine is capable of cranking out. According to Mathew Honan, who wrote a piece about the Clover for Wired Magazine, there are about 250 of these things in operation. At the moment, the Clover is almost exclusively found in independent coffee shops in cities around the country. But that's all about to change -- Starbucks bought Coffee Equipment Company, manufacturers of the Clover, and will no longer sell machines to anyone. The only place new Clovers will be shipped will be Starbucks locations. I'd recommend reading Honan's piece to get the whole scoop. There's also a cool video of the Clover in action.

Wanna-be inventors should take note. The coffee machine is kind of like a modern-day mousetrap; it's ubiquitous, performs a simple task, and would appear to have been perfected long ago. Appears that way, that is, until someone takes a closer look at it. Granted, the Clover inventors were Stanford-educated product designers, but that doesn't take any gravity away from the awesomeness of their invention. I don't know how much Starbucks paid for the company, but even before that deal they'd sold 250 coffee machines at $11,000 each, which is $2.75 million worth. What a pay day! All for a coffee maker! I'm never going to look at my current coffee rig(I got it for $3.99 at Thrift Town) the same way!

The patent for the Clover hasn't actually gone through yet, but I'm going to guess it's likely to be granted. (Starbucks probably wouldn't have bothered to buy the company if their attorneys thought that they could produce the machines themselves.) Take a look at the application here and marvel at its technology. You can also follow the patent prosecution process by using Public PAIR.

Should the Coffee Equipment Company have resisted selling to a corporate giant? Is it ethical for Starbucks to keep this technology to itself? Can the success of an invention be measured by the amount of money it pays? I'm not even going to go there. I'll leave that to the other bloggers. I haven't tried the coffee yet, either, so I can't even posit an opinion on how it tastes.

For our purposes here, the Clover is a lesson in looking creatively at the every day objects in our lives. The heart of the patent system is the dissemination of technology, and every technological advance builds on the earlier work of others.

If you're a local reader and you're curious about the coffee (how could you not be?), Ritual Roasters is the only cafe in town where you can try Clover coffee. That will probably change when Starbucks puts their new acquisition to work.

The image used in this post courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


Anonymous said...

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Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

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