San Francisco—Bell Labs, the research division of the “old” ATT, came up with some of the most groundbreaking inventions of the 20th Century: the transistor, communication satellites, fiber optics, Unix. It even gets credit for inventing technologies like ion implantation and solar panels which have very little to do with telecommunications.
But there is one area where Bell Labs, and many other corporate labs from the golden age of U.S. science, often floundered.
“As great as these institutions were as platforms for invention, they suffered from an inability to get ideals into the marketplace,” noted Justin Rattner, the chief technology officer and vice president of Intel Labs at an event in San Francisco.
He’s got a point. It’s tough to detract from the scientific accomplishments of Bell Labs or Xerox Parc. But commercialization wasn’t their strong suit. ATT unfurled videoconferencing at the 1964 Worlds’ Fair, but it’s only coming into common acceptance now. The fax machine was invented in 1843, and both Xerox and Bell Labs had ongoing projects to fine-tune the concept. Still, faxing didn’t go mainstream until the 1980s. Voice mail? Edison invented the Ediphone (dictation machine) and the Telescribe by 1914 but it voice mail didn’t become a phenomenon until Japanese consumer electronics made it happen 70 years later. Cell phones? Cellular certainly took off faster overseas than here.
“We can’t stop at invention. They (Bell Labs) often only worked on the first half. They took it to a certain point and declared victory,” he said during an interview. “Too many industrial labs were patterned after Bell Labs.
“One of the biggest innovations was the Princess Phone,” he joked.
Expect to hear Rattner’s name pop up with increasing frequency in the “Invention or Innovation?” debate. The debate has been one of the most popular topics in the technology industry for years, but it has emerged with increasing intensity in the past five years as governments, business leaders and universities around the world have tried to come up with strategic plans to boost their economies through high tech.
Is it better and more economically advantageous to invent something completely new, or take an existing invention and innovate on top of it by coming up with a commercially appealing product?
Scientific breakthroughs can become the basis of tremendously huge industries. Genentech reinvented modern medicine and the U.S. remains a leader in biotech, even though Genentech is part of Switzerland’s Hoffman-LaRoche. The U.S. has also remained a leader in web technologies.
On the other hand, innovation can lead to a quicker payback. Companies in China often innovate more than they invent. Apple relies far more on innovation than invention: the high-resolution retina screen, miniature drives, voice recognition and other technologies in their products were invented by someone else. Apple then packages them well. Intel invented a rapid interconnect strategy called LightPeak. Steve Jobs made them change the name to Thunderbolt before he’d include it in his products: there’s an example Invention and innovation in action.
Then again, by focusing on the shorter-term gains that can be achieved through innovation, companies and entire societies can mortgage their future. If the chronic, devastating droughts predicted by many scientists occur, no one is really going to care that you invented a cool new shopping app.