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Do patents tell us what’s next for bicycle technology? Not necessarily.

What does it mean when a major bike company has a patent for an innovative product? It's a glimpse into the future, but not a guarantee.

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Recently an avalanche of patents, primarily from components manufacturers Shimano and SRAM, cascaded into Twitter feeds. What followed was the traditional analysis of what these potential products mean for the future of cycling technology, and who will be dictating that future. This speculation is natural; it’s fun to think about what we might be riding in a year or two. It’s also important to remember a patent does not a product make.

At least not always.

When a company files a patent, it may mean a new product is poised for future production. It may also mean a company simply wants to protect its idea by preventing others from developing similar technology. Or, the patent outlines an experiment or idea that may end up being a dud that never comes to market. In other words, it’s not always a clear indicator that we will see that product in the future.

But it is an indicator that a company believes its new invention holds promise. And generally, there’s an intention to at least try to create something new.

Companies don’t generally take the patent process lightly. The patent process is not an easy one, nor is it cheap.

“We look at what value the patent would hold for SRAM,” says Kevin Wesling, SRAM’s director of advanced development. “It costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. Will it be worth it? If we go through all that trouble, there’s a good bet we’re going to use it.”

When SRAM hit the market with its eTap drivetrain in 2016, part of the company’s narrative claimed that it had to sift through a mountain of patents in order to develop a new drivetrain that didn’t infringe on another company’s patented tech. That meant reading through every patent Shimano or Campagnolo had on the books, whether or not those products had been brought to market. It’s a massive challenge that drains time and resources, yet ensures new technology is, in fact, new. Shimano declined to comment for this story.

It’s a smart business practice for protecting a company’s property. “The large majority of the time, we intend to make whatever we patent,” says Wesling. “However, sometimes we file on speculative ideas that we hope to do in the future to make sure the space stays open for us. As you can guess, not every idea turns out as good as you hope.”

Unsurprisingly, that can lead to tension between companies in a similar tech space. Hydration pack maker Camelbak sued backpack maker Osprey in 2015 over reservoir designs (the suit was settled that year), and in 2014 Giant Bicycles settled a dispute with suspension designer Dave Weagle, over a joint development agreement.

This isn’t unique to the bicycle industry either. Just Google something like “tech company patent lawsuit” and you’ll see the war rages on across the board. In many instances, companies who enter a new market are simply left waiting until an important patent in that category expires. Other times, companies license patented technology to a competitor for a fee. Or, as was the case with eTap, a company can develop a product that doesn’t infringe on any current patents.

It’s also important to note that when a company files a patent, parts of the patent are left vague. This is especially true when it comes to illustrations contained therein. So what’s explained in the patent doesn’t necessarily mean the finished product will look the same.

There’s also a bit of intrigue concerning the patent application process that makes patent drops like the one we’ve seen in the last few weeks so compelling. The U.S. patent office requires a company or private inventor to not publicize their technology prior to applying. That means the company needs to be tight-lipped about these new technologies while the application process runs its course. When a new patent finally does drop, the invention is certain to be something we’ve never seen before.

That’s also because patents must be for technology that is new. It must also be useful for the intended purpose, and it cannot simply be a logical extension of an existing technology. Patents are therefore good predictors of future trends, but not necessarily the best predictor for the final details of a finished product.

Which brings up the matter of timeliness: Imagine filing a patent for your brilliant idea. The patent process alone takes a long time — sometimes up to three years. Then, once your patent is approved or rejected, presumably you’ve been working on your prototypes. That also takes time and money. If it’s approved, you’ll need to get that product to market. If it’s rejected, you just spent a lot of time and money for naught.

And, assuming your patent is approved, there’s no guarantee your product will be relevant by the time it hits the market. Another company may have been developing and patenting another product or technology to directly compete with yours. Depending on where you are in your development and production processes, it may not even be viable for you to bring your product to market. At worst, you’re left with significant costs to recoup. At best, you now own a patent that might prevent another entity from challenging your technology; maybe you can even license it to them.

If that all sounds like a complicated mess, then you’re starting to understand why a patent doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be riding that product. But patents are still good indicators of broad trends we might see soon. It’s fun to dream, and to get a peek at what engineers are dreaming about.