Why is it that many devices are no longer available in a high quality form? Well made, reliable, basic bedside alarm clocks used to be available in any department store but can no longer be found. Yes, you can buy an alarm clock, but you'll find that the plastic is cheap, the buttons are unintuitively laid out and possibly unreliable, the display is too bright for a dark-adjusted eye, and the audio quality is poor.
Did they forget the recipe?
Yes, the recipes are lost because the companies that produced these devices didn't share them, or because each new generation of engineers wants to make their own version of [insert device here], so instead of benefiting from decades of refinement in engineering or user interface design, each new product line starts from scratch. That alone wouldn't be so terrible, but in the current era of compressed product development timelines and especially poor quality assurance, there's just no room for quality in anything but top-tier technology (smartphones, TVs, etc). Imagine if, instead, each company could learn from each other company and only make changes that objectively improve the user experience.
Now let's talk about patents. They actually suck, both for encouraging progress and for benefiting the inventor. I often get questions like "oh are you going to patent such and such" and my answer is NO. Even once awarded, all a patent does is to give the inventor the legal footing to prosecute alleged infringers. There are no "patent police" that will stand up for you and assure you have the right to your invention. If infringement is suspected a lawyer needs to be brought in.
What is the point of a patent? To give credit to the inventor as well as monetary incentive, yes?
On the first point, the open source culture is actually much better a crediting inventors/originators than patents are. This is similar to scientific culture, in which discoveries are shared and there's usually no question as to who did the discovering. On the second point, obtaining a patent is extremely costly not only in dollars but also in time, and not having one is often seen as a barrier to going to market. Consider what that means in competitive global economy with compressed development cycles where a competitor can sell tens of thousands of units and then exit before a cease and desist letter even gets drafted.
Here's where the real blasphemy starts.
Is it really right that a patent holder should have the exclusive rights to their invention for 17-20 years? This means that, by law, the best ideas are witheld from exactly the kind of widespread development that all of the best ideas have depended on. Imagine if the personal computer was prevented from being developed and sold beyond the walls of a single company. The success of the personal computer depended on the multiple agents working in parallel to explore the application space. What's the point of having a patent on something that's prevented from becoming a sensation?
There's a good example for this: 3D printing. Scott Crumb (co-founder of Stratasys) invented FDM printing in 1989. Let me repeat that. The technology behind desktop 3D printing was invented in 1989. That's what patents do for the world.
This is not to say that there isn't a place for patents, but my biggest gripe is, perhaps, that the exclusivity period lasts so long. That period should be in the range of 3 - 7 years, not 20!
The good news is that there's an alternative that doesn't require waiting for the slow (and maybe impossible) process of having patent law changed, and that's releasing technology as open source. This is a hard pill to swallow for so many entrepreneurs and investors, but time and time again it's been shown that allowing community involvement in new ideas drives widespread adoption so rapidly that the originator (person or company) of the idea benefits financially more so than with a patent, even without having exclusivity. It's one of those counterinuitive things about how to do business, but it seems to be true. Open source hardware does work well, but perhaps you, as an entrepreneur, inventor, or investor, are not willing to go to that extreme. Like everything in life, this need not be absolute. Here are a few alternatives to "pure" open source:
OPTION 1 -- VERSION PRIORITY:
The developer only makes each previous version of the product or technology public.
OPTION 2 -- FUNCTIONAL DATA ONLY (for electrical designs):
The developer shares the schematic but not the PCB layout.
OPTION 3 -- STYLISTIC VARIATION (for mechanical designs and software):
The devloper maintains a version of the technology which is stylistically enhanced but functionally equivalent to the open source design.
If you decide to work up your own product based on an open source reference design, give it a unique name and document it with care. More here.
On an unrelated note, we're on the Brink of Cyberpunk: A friend sent me this article the other day and I feel it's important.
Serendipitously, earlier that day my husband and I received a letter from Aetna (our health insurance company) entitled "It's time to make a choice", explaining that if we don't switch to CVS from the mom-and-pop drugstore we prefer, they will no longer cover our medications. Why do they have this control? This is bad. The world is becoming bad.