Facing a rapidly evolving technology market, Bell Labs is paying more attention to projects that can bring it short-term gains, in areas such as software.
"The biggest challenge we face is speed," said Bell Labs' president Gee Rittenhouse in an interview last week. "The challenge for Bell Laboratories is to be the best in the world, and solve the absolute hardest problems. But also doing it in a way that has relevance in this very fast pace, innovation market."
Bell Labs is the research division of networking equipment supplier Alcatel-Lucent. Last month, the company appointed Rittenhouse as the new leader of the nearly 90-year-old famed research group, known for inventing the first transistor, along with a whole host of other technological innovations and discoveries. During his tenure, Rittenhouse plans to steer Bell Labs more toward software products related to networking and cloud computing.
"We want to still be the innovation arm of Alcatel-Lucent that continues to amaze and surprise people. But I think in order to do that we do have to change somewhat," he said. "As the industry moves toward dynamic networks, distributed systems, Bell Labs also has to move toward those directions."
Gone are the days when Bell Labs scientists could independently make breakthroughs without consulting others, he added. Increasingly, the research division is collaborating with outside partners to solve major technological problems facing the IT industry. One such effort is the GreenTouch Consortium, which is focused on dramatically reducing the power needs of today's telecommunication networks. Bell Labs and Alctatel-Lucent's rivals like Huawei and ZTE, among others, are members of the group.
To bring more products to the market, Rittenhouse said Bell Labs will choose long-term projects that can result in near-term gains for the market. Although he declined to reveal specific projects at Bell Labs, he pointed to "immersive communication" as one area the research division has heavily invested time in. This involves examining what makes face-to-face conversations genuine, and how that experience can be replicated over long-distance communication.
"So research in applications, multimedia is just as important as research in physics," he said. "Because if you are only in math, physics, optical, you are missing this big sea change."
4G focus in China
Last week, Rittenhouse visited Bell Lab's research center in China, a crucial market for Alcatel-Lucent. The company is poised to tap into the country's upcoming 4G commercial deployment, which is projected to happen later this year. China alone has more than a billion mobile phone subscriptions, yet most users still rely on 2G networks to make phone calls.
On the research side, Rittenhouse said China is producing innovative green technologies and efficient networks. Bell Labs' own research in China is focused on preparing low-cost networking products that can be deployed on a large-scale.
"I definitely feel the pressure of continuing the legacy (of Bell Labs) because it's extremely difficult," he said. "It's a recognized institution and there will be a lot of people disappointment if Bell Labs becomes like any other organization."
"But we can't go backwards, right?" he added. "So we have to create the leadership team here to create the next generation of Bell Laboratories."