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AT&T Labs vs. Google Labs - R&D History 199

An anonymous reader writes "Ars Technica has a piece looking at the history of corporate R&D, in response to an article on the BusinessWeek site essentially calling the telecommunication giants aging fossils of communication. The Ars piece looks as several innovations to come out of the AT&T Labs over the years, as well as the era of innovation brought on by the Cold War." From the article: "The Cold War, with its 'Pentagon socialism', combined with large corporate monopolies that were expected to provide lifetime employment and pensions, made for something of a golden age for American technological innovation. This is the era that brought us the transistor and the predecessor to the Internet, an era where all the seeds of today's 'information economy' were sown and carefully cultivated at great private and public expense. The great labs of this era--Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and IBM's labs--were places with massive budgets, where the world's top scientists were invited to pursue "blue sky" research into areas with no immediately apparent commercial applications. The facilities were state-of-the-art, and there was no pressure from management or shareholders to do anything but science for science's sake."
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AT&T Labs vs. Google Labs - R&D History

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  • by neonprimetime ( 528653 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:47PM (#15776852)
    Meanwhile, back in America, a perfect storm of rent-seeking behaviors by entrenched players, a broken patent system, a lack of substantial corporate oversight, and old-fashioned executive greed threatens to drown the fabled "two entrepreneurs in a garage" just as surely as those two guys helped sink the blue sky research labs of the Cold War era.

    I love America. God Bless the USA.
    • Re:Independence Day! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by monopole ( 44023 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:42PM (#15777323)
      The prototypical "Two Guys in a Garage" were Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in 1939 who founded one of the top "blue sky" research labs HP Labs.
      i.e. the two guys in the garage predated the cold war and founded "blue sky" research labs, as did previous inventors coming from modest origins (Bell, Chester Carlson of XEROX, Edwin Land of Polaroid). Inventors create labs, Managers kill them.
    • by colmore ( 56499 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:46PM (#15777871) Journal
      American Capitalism:

      step 1) liberals create federal regulatory agency, with mixed results.

      step 2) "anti - big government" conservatives are elected.

      step 3) said conservatives never actually trim the government, but merely underfund agencies create deficit and appoint people who do not believe in the agencies mission to head them. vast corruption occurs.

      step 4) agencies stop regulating and start brokering favors.

      step 5) bill clinton reduces size of federal government, but not nearly enough.

      step 6) agencies continue to broker favors, appropriations bills divide pork among many industries in many states. these industries are now dominated by a few giant players, now dependent upon those agencies to keep their oligopolies federally enforced. agencies and broken regulations are now politically invincible since they were originally democratic causes, but now support industries purchasing the votes of republicans (and to a lesser but ever-increasing extent, democrats)

      step 7) voters somehow continue to think that welfare is the largest violation of free market principles going, never call representatives to task on the issue.

      step 8) innovation moves overseas to avoid competing with government supported change-phobic dinosaurs.

      step 9) districts are redrawn to insure 97% re-election rate in the house.

      wheeee! we're selling our future down the river!
  • Hardly compare (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:47PM (#15776861)
    While Google is definitely doing some cool stuff, what they are creating, and the environment that they are creating it in can't really compare in scope to what happened back in the heyday of big r&d. Google Maps/Earth is cool, but how does it compare to shaping everyones lives like color tv and the transistor. The innovations of Google are significantly more evolutionary vs revolutionary.
    • where's the tech? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by free space ( 13714 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:54PM (#15776918)
      Google has some of the best scientists around. Yet what do google labs give us? autocomplete for search strings? The only thing that seems worthy of notice in Google labs is google sets [], which has that 'next gen AI search' feeling to it.

      The same goes for Microsoft research: while there are some gems in there, you will see people presenting research on new ways for drag and drop and similar stuff. While that's useful, it's nowhere near what IBM, PARC and others were/are doing. Even Sun seems to have cooler research projects.

      Either those next generation companies are not as scientifically inclined as the old 'dinasaurs', or maybe the truly amazing stuff MS/Google have is hidden from prying eyes till the market is ready for them :)
      • MS does this

        they give someone some money and a place to work and leave them alone

        I first read about them working on something similar to .NET in the late 1990's.
      • by tOaOMiB ( 847361 )
        "Google has some of the best scientists around." ?!?

        This is where you go wrong...Google is filled with some of the best programmers around. But programmers aren't scientists, and they certainly aren't the engineers one used to find in Xerox Parc or Bell Labs. Software is never going to be revolutionary. It's hardware that has us in awe. How can we possibly compare R&D of programmers vs engineers?!?
        • Google is hiring Computer Science Ph.D.s at an astounding rate. I guess you could call these people programmers (you'd hope they'd know how to write a program or two) but hopefully you'd also call them scientists.

          Your second statement seems contradictory. Wasn't it in part the windowing systems and object oriented programming that made us excited about Xerox PARC? Is that not software?

          Is a search engine not software? Yes, it's deployed on massive hardware, but it's a software application. The Grand

          • Re:where's the tech? (Score:2, Interesting)

            by radtea ( 464814 )
            Google is hiring Computer Science Ph.D.s at an astounding rate. I guess you could call these people programmers (you'd hope they'd know how to write a program or two) but hopefully you'd also call them scientists.

            Computer scientists are not scientists. They are at best mathematicians, but mathematics is not science, merely a tool that some sciences use.

            Scientists investigate nature. Neither mathematics nor computers occur in nature. They are made things, artefacts, tools. Like all tools made by humans,

            • Computer scientists are not scientists. They are at best mathematicians, but mathematics is not science, merely a tool that some sciences use.

              You seem to suggest that there are a substantial number of scientists who don't use math, or maybe even that most scientists don't use math. I'm intrigued. Can you give examples? I was one of those naive people who thought most scientists use mathematics to a substantial degree.
      • I think there's a key difference between innovation and invention. I'm not saying this to disparage innovation or engineering at all, being more on that side myself, but I think that you have to draw a line between solving a particular problem by applying existing technology in a potentially new way, from actually creating new technology and pushing the limits of what's currently known.

        I'd say that Google falls more on the innovation/engineering side of things. I haven't seen much out of them that's really
      • or maybe the truly amazing stuff MS/Google have is hidden from prying eyes till the market is ready for them :)

        This is my guess. I mean, we all know that Google has _huge_ distributed computing resources, and it's pretty well known that they do a lot of work on distributed operating and file systems. They just haven't released any of that back-end stuff (yet).
      • The only thing that seems worthy of notice in Google labs is google sets, which has that 'next gen AI search' feeling to it.

        Any postgrad student in machine learning should know basically how to build one of those. It's not 'next gen', it's 'last gen'. It's in the damned textbook. Figuring out new methods for doing it smarter is a subject of current research.
      • by jschrod ( 172610 )
        If you want to know more about MS Research results, you just have to look in any ACM proceedings. They and IBM's TJ Watson Research Center publish more refereed papers than any other commercial research organization. Especially recommended is POPL and other programming language conferences.
    • Re:Hardly compare (Score:5, Insightful)

      by poot_rootbeer ( 188613 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:05PM (#15777014)
      Google Maps/Earth is cool, but how does it compare to shaping everyones lives like color tv and the transistor.

      Too early to tell. Let's check back in 40 years.

      • Re:Hardly compare (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Epi-man ( 59145 )
        Google Maps/Earth is cool, but how does it compare to shaping everyones lives like color tv and the transistor.

        Too early to tell. Let's check back in 40 years.

        Why do you want to wait so long? Did the transistor not have a major impact on lives until 1987? Most consider the birth of the transistor to be 22 December 1947 at Bell Labs. I would dare say it didn't take but 20 years for it to show the promise of revolutioning society.
    • Google is a business. It is interested in making profits in the forseeable future.

      So, while it probably does some basic research, it's mainly known for incremental innovations.

      It didn't invent the Internet Search Engine, it built better one.

      It didn't invent web based mapping, it just made a more natural feeling one.

      It didn't invent Ajax, it just crystalized what was in the air about DHTML, DOM and web applications.

      Of course, arguably nearly every invention refines something else. The transistor was a repl
  • AT&T Labs? (Score:4, Informative)

    by ackthpt ( 218170 ) * on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:48PM (#15776867) Homepage Journal

    We used to call it Bell Labs. Getting a job there was like the ultimate geek cred.

    • Re:AT&T Labs? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Andy Dodd ( 701 )
      Not anymore...

      For one, AT&T (and then Lucent, which acquired MOST of AT&T's R&D assets including the Murray Hill facility, which is now Lucent's HQ) began calling all of their product development divisions "Bell Labs" - More and more the term "Bell Labs" was used to describe standard product development instead of the classic "blue sky" research. That said, even around 2000, there was still a reasonable amount of "blue sky" work being done at Lucent Murray Hill - I was quite proud to intern the
      • Re:AT&T Labs? (Score:2, Informative)

        Since then, that entire department has been disbanded, and from all I've heard, Murray Hill is a husk of what it used to be even five to six years ago. It's been the victim of both Lucent's overall decline due to a combination of mismanagement and the crash of the optical networking industry, and of the general change in corporate attitudes to "blue sky" research.

        While some of the decline can be certainly be attributed to mismanagement, the decline of the optical networking industry had very little to do
      • Re:AT&T Labs? (Score:3, Informative)

        by anothy ( 83176 )
        this is a common misunderstanding, even by Bell Labs employees and management. Bell Labs never just meant the research folks. originally, way back when, all development was done by an organization called Bell Labs, then handed over to the business units, basically to market and sell. later, the development shops were pushed off into the business units. the employees were no longer under the head of Bell Labs on the org chart, but were still Bell Labs employees - all AT&T (later Lucent) technical employe
    • Re:AT&T Labs? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Brickwall ( 985910 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:35PM (#15777263)
      Bell Labs did enormous technical work in hardware and software - where did Unix start, after all?

      But one other little known area they did work in was, of all things, economics. The Bell System Journal of Economics contained many ground-breaking papers on the structure, regulation, and pricing of utilities. One classic paper by Richard Posner in 1975 introduced the "capture theory of regulation". He wrote that when an industry is supposed to be regulated by the "public", which is represented by some board or trustees, the industry has an intense and concentrated desire to get the board to see things its way, while the public's desire to (say) have lower prices is more diffuse. In addition, the industry will have the technical and legal experts (and the cash to pay them), while the public depends on volunteers and/or screaming harpies with axes to grind to make their case. The inevitable result, he wrote, is the board becomes "captured" by the industry, and basically does what the industry wants.

      Explains a lot, don't you think?

    • That company started acting like a bureaucratic siv. Towards the end of the glory days, there were as many slackers doing "research" as folks doing actual work. My group was bounced around from project to project with no focus. We were aligned with Bell Labs, therefore AT&T groups wanted our expertise... even if it was for stupid shit like "add some ksh code to our home-grown ksh database system". Like WTF??

      I could go on and on...
  • by bADlOGIN ( 133391 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:48PM (#15776869) Homepage
    "there was no pressure from management or shareholders to do anything but science for science's sake."

    You know the world of today sucks when you're nostalgic for your parents good old days.

    • You know everything is normal when someone old enough to be your parent is nostalgic for your parents' god old days. Wanna take any guesses as to the age of the author? I have my suspiscions. I'm 20, and am just now coming into the tech market, and I see nothing wrong with the way things currently are. Granted, they're different than they used to be, but not necessarily worse.
  • by drewzhrodague ( 606182 ) <> on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:49PM (#15776878) Homepage Journal
    What is this thing (tilts head), pensions?
  • Show Me This (Score:5, Interesting)

    by triskaidekaphile ( 252815 ) <> on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:54PM (#15776912) Homepage

    Take those "go-getters" of the hey-day, compare the educational curriculum, pop culture, and political philosophies of their childhood to those of our children today.

    Just a hunch, but I suspect that comparison will show darker times ahead for the U.S.

    • by 93,000 ( 150453 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:28PM (#15777186)
      Just a hunch, but I suspect that comparison will show darker times ahead for the U.S.

      My parent's generation said the same thing about my generation 20 years ago, and we turned out . . . ah . . . um . . .


      Run for the hills.
    • Look at every generation and its parent generation. In every generation, most of the people in it are mundane Joes. Scientific superheroes can come from any background; it is up to the individual to decide what he will do with his life.
      • by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:05PM (#15777517) Journal
        Look at every generation and its parent generation. In every generation, most of the people in it are mundane Joes. Scientific superheroes can come from any background; it is up to the individual to decide what he will do with his life.

        Look at every generation, and its parent generation and... you'll see that not generations were equal, as scientific progress goes. It goes up and down like a yoyo, and it did so since the beginning of time.

        E.g., ancient Egypt must have started with some really bright minds, since they discovered a lot of things. And I mean including a ton of medical and other stuff, not just how to pile stones in a pyramid. Yet right before the macedonian invasion it was already at a stage where nothing much was invented any more. Medicine for example had been solidified into something that was religion, law and malpractice insurance rolled into one, and everyone just followed the same official texts literally, and never tried anything new. For _millenia_.

        E.g., in Europe the golden ages of Greece and Rome were followed by what we call the "Dark Ages". It's not just that they discovered fewer things, it's that actually a lot of information has been _lost_ in that time.

        E.g., take China. It was at one point one of the most technologically advanced places. They have a long list of inventions, including stuff from paper to gunpowder to trebuchets to crossbows (including the repeating kind) to the compass to god knows what else that they invented more than a millenium before the Europeans. They were _that_ advanced. Even their less glamorous stuff, e.g., the composite bow, might get less hype, but you can see its efficiency against European equipment and tactics when it was brought over by the Huns.

        Yet then came an age of decline and it ended up with the Manchu Qing dynasty, where literacy actually decreased and the government was literally more concerned with enforcing a uniform haircut (yes, I'm not joking) than with any kind of science or technology pursuit. The Chinese army actually regressed from having _some_ guns during the Ming dynasty, to all spears, swords and bows during the Qing dynasty. That sad.

        Or take Japan. Yes, now they're doing damn good technologically and have been even more impressive as progress goes during the Meiji Restoration. But before that they had periods when it stagnated or even regressed. E.g., the Heian period, also remembered for the rise of the Samurai caste, is also considered by some a time of stagnation and even regress.

        So, yes, times can change. Sometimes for the better, but sometimes for the worse. Some societies fail to give those "mundane Joes" incentive to go and learn or research something. Yes, each individual can decide what to do with his life, but if on the whole it's a smarter or more popular choice to aim low intellectually, people may well do just that. And then stagnation and even regress follow.
    • Re:Show Me This (Score:3, Informative)

      by celticryan ( 887773 )
      This is an interesting notion. But how can you compare? The curriculum that students have access to these days is far and away better. Access to Advanced Placement classes is increasing. Case in point is the Wisconsin Advanced Placement Distance Education Consortium WAPDEC []. The expectations may not be there from teachers, but the individual drive of the "elite" students should make up for that. The access of current students to technology is much greater today (I believe). These elite students have
  • by Speare ( 84249 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @12:59PM (#15776956) Homepage Journal

    And then comes a series of decade-long court battles over who invented what.

    Take for example the Xerox PARC "Unistroke" patent. I happened to visit PARC before I saw the first PalmOS machines come out, and saw Unistroke in action. Some conference rooms had wall-mounted "sign up" devices on the wall by the door, which offered unistroke entry. PalmOS comes out with a very similar "Graffiti" concept. Great fit for the idea-- arguably better than the whole-word recognition that Apple Newton was trying. Several years pass where everyone who was anyone learns how to jot down stuff in Graffiti. And then the lawyers got involved. Over ten years later, the dust is starting to settle, and for what?

    And those who didn't enter their thoughts in one-stroke alphabets entered their thoughts with teeny two-thumb keyboards. Hm, that sounds familiar... RIM Blackberry vs who was that?

    No matter which side you choose to support, and I think everyone's put forward good arguments for and against every conceivable angle, when it ends up in court, everyone loses .

    Pure research is great. Xerox got burned in the whole Apple Lisa / Macintosh thing, so they sorta swung the other way with Unistroke. There has to be a middle ground, though. Right?

    • Xerox got burned in the whole Apple Lisa / Macintosh thing, so they sorta swung the other way with Unistroke.

      I would say that is a harsh assessment of what happened. Apple asked for and received a demo of Xerox's Star computer with Xerox's engineers. Xerox corporate told their engineers to give Apple what ever details they wanted. Xerox corporate did not know what to do with the Star as Steve Jobs put it "they were a bunch of copier heads."

    • I agree about the lawyers. One problem with all corporate R&D labs (disclaimer, I work for one) is that getting stuff into product has always been really, really hard. It doesnt matter how good the idea is, turning that into something profitable is tricky.

      A recent trend, one that s/w patents enable, is for R&D labs to patent the ideas and then license them out (good) or sue people that come up with the same idea (bad, bad). So IBM makes money out of its patent portfolio, HP wants to. If the compani
  • by krygny ( 473134 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:05PM (#15777013)

    ... were places with massive budgets, where the world's top scientists were invited to pursue "blue sky" research into areas with no immediately apparent commercial applications. The facilities were state-of-the-art, and there was no pressure from management or shareholders to do anything but science for science's sake."

    I really miss school. Now, all anybody wants is results.

    • I really miss school. Now, all anybody wants is results.

      You obviously had a different school experience than I. We were a top notch engineering university where companies outsourced all sorts of research disguised as grants and donations with strings. I worked on a number of class projects where the profs were more concerned about results than teaching. One of the best EE profs was voted teacher of the year for his exemplary teaching abilities and was canned the same year for pulling in $10K under his ag

  • Then versus now. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:17PM (#15777095)
    The question back then was, "How can we outdo the rest of the world?"

    The question today is, "How can we maximize our ROI?"

    Once money becomes the driving goal above all else quality and innovation suffers.
    • 'Once money becomes the driving goal above all else quality and innovation suffers.'

      ... and, inevitably, the money eventually dries up too.

    • by nuggz ( 69912 )
      The only difference is perspective.
      Companies have always been concerned with ROI.
      Some companies are just a bit more risk tolerance with the R.

      Companies like IBM, 3M and Google continue to have good success with significant research.

      I think it will remain a balance, right now we're heading into a very cost focused business environment as people talk about moving to low cost countries. The companies that manage to focus on their real strengths will be the ones that prosper.

      IMO some companies don't need huge r
    • Once money becomes the driving goal above all else quality and innovation suffers.

      You've just described one of the problems government as well. There, money is the driving goal as well.
  • Google's doing some good stuff, given what they have to work with compared to the kind of money AT&T/Bell Labs had. I mean, Bell Labs more or less developed LED's, UNIX and C, so you can just imagine the kind of budget that requires! []
  • by Jonah Hex ( 651948 ) <> on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:21PM (#15777121) Homepage Journal
    While I've read about the huge shift to commercial/applied science, it seems to me a lot of pure research is still of the "let's find out what we can and damn the applications" variety. While the only things that come immediately to mind are cosmology and some of the "research" branches of physics, I'm sure there is more out there that doesn't demand a consumer product as the end result. I'd like to see a resurgence of long term projects with big money backing and no worries about being canned like what happened in 1993 to the huge super-collider in Texas. Who knows what may have come out of that, perhaps more advanced/larger ones have been brought online in the meantime, but we could have had at least some of those results sooner. Are there even any agencies (Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, DOE, etc) who are willing to fund a "we're OK with no results but knowledge gained" project in what is currently considered an applied science field?

    Jonah HEX
    • Are there even any agencies (Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, DOE, etc) who are willing to fund a "we're OK with no results but knowledge gained" project in what is currently considered an applied science field?

      That's the wrong question to ask; the real question is who's OK with funding something, if the only "results" are that knowledge was gained? In effect, who is willing to pay for knowledge?

      DOE used to be, particularly in nuclear physics for weapons research, but that's slowed down a lot. I don't unders
  • Xerox vs Xerox PARC (Score:3, Informative)

    by SecondHand ( 883047 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:21PM (#15777122)
    I remember Alan Kay saying that Xerox wasn't easy on Xerox PARC. It was PARC's directors that shielded the researchers from the corporate pressure and gave them the time and space to do their work. Not Xerox'. So I don't think these historical companies had a grand vision of research. They had good research directors. Note also that some well known projects survived because they were kept below the management's radar and caught on outside the research lab. Both UNIX at ATT and HTML/HTTP at CERN took off partly because the management didn't care much about them.
  • Comparision (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Stalyn ( 662 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @01:28PM (#15777180) Homepage Journal
    Bell Labs

    -Information Theory
    -6 Nobel Prizes

    Google Labs

    -AJAX Mail Client
    -Contextual Advertising
    • Re:Comparision (Score:2, Informative)

      by bblazz ( 746281 )

      That's a very limited look at what Google is doing... like their machine translation group scored first at NIST 2005 Machine Translation Evaluation Official Results [].

      The MT-05 evaluation consisted of two tasks. Each task required performing translation from a given source language into the target language. The source languages were Arabic and Chinese, and the target language was English.

      And this is probably just a little fraction of their research. Same would probably go for Microsoft Research...

    • Re:Comparision (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Com2Kid ( 142006 ) <> on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:29PM (#15777714) Homepage Journal

      Google Labs

      -AJAX Mail Client
      -Contextual Advertising

      You do not realize the significance of these?

      PageRank is a method by which billions of related and interlinked pages of information can be searched across, that returns relevant results.

      They managed to (nearly) tame the beast that the World Wide Web had become. The fact that they managed to do this using an almost sociological approach is all that much more amazing.

      -AJAX Mail Client

      Which also represents a new form of interaction with threaded information. Not the most revolutionary thing in the world, but hey, technically the LED is just another form of light.

      -Contextual Advertising

      Which represents just one application of research into machine learning.

      I am on a subscription mailing list for intern employees. Two topics that come up often are car pools and drinking. Google's contextual advertising engine is so smart, it starting showing me ads for DUI lawyers next to emails from this distribution list! That freaked me out a bit, Google's computers had managed to learn that this distribution list consisted of people who drove around a lot of drank a lot of alcohol. Woh. The fact that Google is using that technology to show ads does not make it any less impressive. As it is also impressive that Gmail knows when my GF sends me a short message "go see superman next Saturday?" Gmail asks me if I want to add "Going to see Superman Movie" to my calendar.

      Google's research is rather limited in that they primarily (solely?) deal with information theory, but within their research domain, their findings are quite amazing. Indeed, others have tried hard in the past to achieve the same results, and others still try today. has managed to pull off some pretty amazing stuff (which is then replicated by Google is, oh, say, about 3 seconds. ;) ) but their stuff still resembles complicated word matching more than it does new insights into, well, as Google puts it,

      organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

      • As much as I love GMail I think discovering evidence for the Big Bang is a tad more important.
      • Google's research is rather limited in that they primarily (solely?) deal with information theory,

        While hopefully not coming across as being pedantic because I'm sure you meant to say Computer Science or something, I should say that Google Labs is most likely not doing any research in Information Theory. I seriously doubt they looking for mathematical limits on compression, encryption, or error control coding in communication systems. Their work is probably just industrial research into software run on di
    • You missed possibly the most significant discovery to come out of Bell Labs (though it's handwaved by with the 6 Nobels), namely the discovery of the 3K Background Radiation.
    • But..but,

      You can drag the map!...see how it moves...

      And now try your scroll wheel, see how it zooms in/out... neat eh?

      Hello.... Nobel we come.

      *end sarcasm*

      No comparison at all folks, move along....
  • For all the innovation to come out of bell labs (and I'm using some of it to type this message), they still never seemed to get what counts. I still have my grandmother's last phone, a western electric desk phone (with dial) that she "rented" for $5/month for as long as I knew her. She paid literally hundreds of dollars for that phone. I can go buy a phone at Wal-mart now for $5 that has more features than that beast. I love Unix, don't get me wrong, but you'd think they could have come up with somethin
    • Sure, and if you look at that Wal-Mart phone sideways it'll break. Those Western Electric units were built like tanks. And they had REAL bells inside. Turn that ringer up and you know when your phone is ringing.

      I'd love to have a nice model 500 desk set; a 2500 would be OK too.
    • What and you think the money to pay for that lab just grew on trees? It was from everyone renting their phone from western electric and paying a buck a minute long distance that provided so much money that it had to be reinvested in something that wouldn't produce a return for a long, long time to keep the government from getting too interested in just how profitable they were.
    • the "rent your phone forever" model made a lot more sense when they were manufactured to last forever, cost proportionally more, AT&T controlled who could connect devices to their network, repairs/replacements were free forever with good turn-around time, and so on. the decline of that started probably in the early '70s, and certainly by divestiture in 1984 it no longer made sense for folks to lease their phones. from at least that point, your grandmother had the option to buy a $35 Radio Shack phone, o
    • For that $5 rental, the phone CANNOT be broken. You cab probably drive a CAR over
      it and it'd keep working. Your Walmart phone will probably break if you drop it once on the floor.

      It may have been overengineered - but there was NO planned obsolence and LESS wasted materials.
  • So having a monopoly flush most of our money down the toilet is ok as long as 1% of it is going to a pie in sky research lab? Anyone today with enough smarts to come up with 'the next big thing' can easily support themselves and devote 90% of their life to a project if they choose to do so.

    We will have far fewer great discoveries and inventions compared to the past century for a very simple reason, all of the stuff capable of being invented and discovered by one person has mostly passed. It now takes a hu
  • Perhaps the world has moved on (at least a little) from the type of research the people here like to discuss. Drugs and biotech seem to me to be the big money research areas at the moment- besides the huge government subsidies and highly regulated markets they also have the "think of the children" factor helping to pay for any toy they bring to market.
    • While the research budgets of the pharma companies are indeed large, and the investment in any particular new drug is indeed substantial, I think the amount of "pure research" that goes on at those companies and which is applied to real 'blue sky' problems is overstated.

      While I'm sure they probably have big research budgets when it comes to finding the newest diet or stay-hard pill, the research on things like vaccines (actual solutions to disease, rather than just treatments) are quite limited. The pharmac
  • by FractalZone ( 950570 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:06PM (#15777525) Homepage
    What happened, as best I can tell, is that shortsighted corporate executives forgot that (applied) R&D rarely produces new fundamental knowledge about the universe while that is the main goal of pure research. A lot of great research is done when true scientists are given a budget that has already been written off by the bean counters, as IBM and (the old AT&T's) Bell Labs demonstrated many times.

    The problem is that such research tends to be very expensive and non-geeks just aren't interested in results they can't understand. The only reason we have nuclear power today is that the United States was willing to spare no expense to develop a bigger and better bomb in order to win WWII quickly an decisively. Nazi Germany sponsored a lot of good science and then took some of the results with military potential and did a tremendous amount of R&D to create amazing new military that just happens to have had amazing commercial potential. Jet aircraft and booster rockets come to mind.

    You will hear NASA fans gripe because now that the Cold War is over, NASA has to justify whatever it does to the drones in government who get paid to eliminate government waste. NASA is no longer a great source of new scientific and technical knowledge, but it probably could be again. So could a lot of private enterprises if NASA and other parts of the U.S. government didn't have a practical monopoly on many interesting areas of research.

    For major research projects to get significant funding now, they either have to have tremendous (and fairly obvious) commercial potential, or be extremely trendy, in a politically correct sort of way. No expense (to the taxpayers) is spared protecting "endangered species" that (AFAIK) have no real significance except that they are about to succumb to Darwin's Law -- despite all the bleating of the ecowackos, wasting money on the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker is not going to produce new knowledge or improve the chances of Man surviving another century. Having plentiful, cheap sources of energy would.

    But try to get money on the scale of the Manhattan Project for the purpose of finally developing nuclear fusion power plants... That is not by any means pure research, but the amount of pure research that can only be done with the kind of energy a large fusion plant could produce is staggering. But why stop with fusion? Total conversion seems about as likely to be a practical source of energy now as utilizing light pipes and orbital spacecraft as the backbone of a worldwide communications network did during WWII.

    Do you think the U.S. might have fusion power plants online and/or total conversion reactors in the lab by now if such projects had received oh, say $100 BILLION dollars in additional research funding since WWII? That's a Big Pile O' Money! It also happens to be roughly what the U.S. has wasted on handouts to Israel since that nation was created by fiat in 1948. Why not just cut all foreign aid for non-humanitarian purposes (Israel gets only about 1/3 of the U.S.'s foreign aid largess, after all) and use the proceeds to fund a pure research lab or ten that are operated by private sector organizations that have track records of doing cutting edge research and producing useful knowledge?

    Stop real government waste and use the savings to fund hard science research projects that short-sighted bean counters consider waste because they know no better, ignorant touchy-feely nitwits in search of warm fuzzies and/or vote generating pork-barrel projects that they are.
  • by KidSock ( 150684 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @02:32PM (#15777739)
    This is an insult. AT&T Bell Labs invented UNIX, C, the transitor, and countless other things instrumental to the development of the telecommunications and computer industry. Google has a great text searching program. They didn't even really "invent" it either. They just built a much better one than anyone else had at the time. What else have they done lately? Sure you can rattle off a list of things but is any one of them REALLY useful for anything more than inflating their stock price? The only other thing they have that I would catagorize as remotely innovative is but the entire basis for that is the XmlRpcRequest usage which if you had to attribute it as an "invention" (which it's not) to someone you would have to give credit to Microsoft. Google Earth was purchased so they didn't invent that.
  • In a normal world, individuals create wealth, and that wealth creates discressionary money that eventually gets pooled into big R&D projects. But we don't live in a normal world, we live in a world with....

    • Paper money: A paper money economy tends to drive out a real money economy and encourage debt and rampant speculation and low savings for individuals. It also tends to push people into higher tax brackets - which is another reason why discressionary money into R&D is dampened.
    • Copyrights:
  • by The Mutant ( 167716 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @03:10PM (#15778159) Homepage
    and although I've never worked for, nor personally known anyone who has worked for Google Labs, they seem to be about the closest thing I've seen since.

    Bell Labs served as the R&D arm of AT&T, Maw Bell, "The Telephone Company", a highly regulated utility. Because of it's monopolistic and legally protected position, AT&T back then through off copious amounts of cash, and was considered an exceptionally safe investment.

    Bell Labs was funded by part of this cash flow and had an incredibly broad mandate towards basic research which showed up in the work people did, that often didn't have (immediate) commerical applications.

    Unix, for instance - AT&T couldn't even sell it back then, due to their monopoly. But folks at The Labs kept on exploring, improving, conducting basic research into Operating Systems that we still benefit from decades later. My office mate at the time was working in fiber optics, and thought back then in 1984 that his work "might" have commericial telephony applications sometime past the year 2000 after the development of several enabling technologies.

    Everyone was encouraged to present papers internally; every day there were loads of seminars and working groups during office hours and, of course, the informal meetings and brainstorming sessions that took place at pubs and strip clubs along the New Jersey coast.

    Your manager typically was also doing his or her own research, and would help you to explore specific areas of interest that might not be precisely part of the department manadate.

    Highlight of my time there: taking several lunchtime seminars in a new programming language called C++, presented by Bjarne Stroustrup himself.

    I think Google with their model of lettign engineers do whatever they'd like one day a week is the best sustainable compromise between fully commericial companies such as Microsoft or Apple and pure research organisatins such as Bell Labs.

    Short of government funded, open ended research military reseaerch - I did that as well, and while it may not seek to commericalise the research but they sponsors will have "other" uses in mind - it's probably the best thing we've got going for us right now.

    I'll leave you with a toast that I picked up from some of the older engineers during my time at Bell. We used it during many an evening at the local strip clubs:

    "Stronger Whiskey, Younger Woman, Faster Computers"

    Ahh, the good old days.
  • History Lesson (Score:4, Insightful)

    by deadline ( 14171 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @03:16PM (#15778220) Homepage

    Having been to Bell Labs (Murry Hill NJ) and worked with some of the people when it was in its prime, I think the article fails to appreciate some history. First, AT&T is gone. And when it was recently brought by SBC it was a fraction of what it was.

    Back in the day, there was AT&T which owned Bell Labs in Murry Hill NJ. This facility was the envy of every major company in the world. They did research in both hardware (physics, chemistry, integrated circuits, etc) and software (UNIX, C etc.) Of course they had their "feet on the desk noble prize winners" but the majority of the researches had goals that served the corporate interest. They did understand that fundamental science can pay off in the longer term, but today's short-sighted next quarter stock price mentality prevents this type of strategic thinking. For instance, AT&T developed in-house hardware and software because they needed a way to track (and bill) phone calls. They needed to understand fundamental physics and chemistry because deep sea cables and communication satellites are things that are not easily repaired.

    Now what many people forgot, or don't know is that AT&T broke in two parts many years ago: AT&T Communications (took software R&D) and Lucent (took hardware R&D). Lucent took over Murry Hill as its HQ and AT&T Research moved to Florham Park, NJ. Lucent has since also spun off Agrere. AT&T sold their wireless business to Cingular, and what was left at that point went to SBC. So saying AT&T of today (a renamed SBC) is has a powerful research arm is like saying Micky Heart is the Grateful Dead. They do good stuff, but the magic is gone.

    As for Verizon. Their only claim to fame is the biggest tax bamboozle ever pulled off by a company [].

  • Not completely true (Score:2, Informative)

    by warrior_s ( 881715 )
    FTA "In today's more agile economy, where workers hop from job to job and businesses spring up from nowhere to dominate an industry in the span of half a decade, there's no longer anything in the private sector like the enduring safety of the Ma Bell monopoly to lavishly support a blue sky research lab. The closest we have today is Google's "20 percent time," where engineers are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time working on whatever research project strikes their fancy. But 20 percent isn't 100 pe
  • Only IBM remains (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Marcos Eliziario ( 969923 ) on Tuesday July 25, 2006 @08:03PM (#15780677) Homepage Journal
    Microsoft R&D is, on most cases, not true R&D, but product development. The same can be said about Google. So far, big science funding by large corporations is solely represented by IBM, who funds research on fields from nanotechnology to biological research. Look at how many Nobel Prize winners they currently employ. Now tell me how many are working for MSFT. Do you really believe you compare some of the finest IBM research with, let's say, winFS? And what is good in IBM research is that some of this research is actually translated into profitable products, what let the shareholders happy enough to make them let the money flow to R&D without complaints.

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead