Luminaries Mourn the Xerox PARC Gap

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Ethernet Innovation Summit -- There's still no solution to the problem of basic research disappearing in the U.S. -- unless, of course, you don't think there's a problem in the first place. Innovative research is still supported in the here, it's just less obvious, said Gordon Bell, during a panel session here Wednesday. "We're funding as well as ever. We've just got all these people who are all coming to the funding feeding trough," he said. Bell, principal researcher with Microsoft Corp., was one of several long-time Silicon Valley luminaries reunited for Wednesday's event, held at the Computer History Museum to honor the 40th anniversary of Bob Metcalfe's original Ethernet memo. He was appearing on a panel about the role of architectures in guiding innovation, but he took a second to float a contrarian view about the state of innovation. The day was filled with big names from the early days of networking, including Metcalfe and many of his Xerox PARC compatriots, including Bill Spencer, former PARC head, and Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning tree algorithm and now an executive vice president at Intel Corp.. The question is whether it's a problem that the institutions of basic research -- Xerox PARC, where Ethernet got its start, or Bell Labs -- have been diluted, usually victims of corporate belt-tightening. Conventional wisdom says this is a problem, but Bell disagrees. "There's a constant set of great ideas and constant set of really dumb ideas and 'How-could-you-start-a-company-off-that,' not to knock on Facebook or anything," he said. "I just see a lot of great ideas ahead ... and we'll call a lot of them Ethernet." Bell's was a minority opinion at the event, though, and probably isn't shared by many in the Valley. To be sure, any scraps at the trough have gotten smaller. Paul Grams, Exploration Technology Directorate at NASA, talked about page after page of programs listed by the National Science Foundation, most of them for grants of $500,000 or less. What's gone are the larger institutions where pure research was pursued for its own sake, in an environment almost completely unfettered (or so the legends say). What made those institutions fruitful was the step of moving their ideas into the commercial sector. Ideas could be nurtured, iterated and smoothed in a place like PARC, then brought into a practical reality by a company like Bridge or 3Com, said Judy Estrin, CEO of JLabs and founder of Bridge Communications. "We're missing this transitional piece," Estrin said. "We need to be looking at that whole cycle, or 20 years from now we're not going to have that innovation we had ... 40 or 50 years ago." "We really have to go back to the discovery phase and have discovery convert itself to innovation before entrepreneurs can take that innovation and bring it to the mass market," said Yogen Dalal, another member of PARC's original Ethernet team and a partner emeritus with Mayfield. Universities can't always complete that handoff, Stanford being a notable exception. And commercial industry, with its necessary short-term focus (think quarterly earnings reports) is increasingly skittish about letting research ideas simmer the way PARC did. The panel didn't come up with any magic answers to the problem, which isn't surprising. It's a hard problem. But throughout the discussion, there was an optimism about the level of knowledge and technology development still percolating in the U.S. China might do a better job at funding basic science, "but not [at] the whole cycle," Estrin said. "I still think we have an edge." For more — Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading
slideruler 5/25/2013 | 6:18:03 AM
re: Luminaries Mourn the Xerox PARC Gap This smacks of the whining of the old codgers cackling about the golden age....there's plenty of development and innovation going on in the U.S....its just morphing into new shapes. Old centralized R models are now morphing into distributed R, D, C models.

In this sense, I agree with Mr. Bell - there's much less of a need for a centralized 1960's moonshot approach to r&d and more of a need to get distributed r&d&c model in place and encouraged and accelerated.

Regarding China - there is little if any real innovation coming from there - despite the advancements in commercializing (copying) technology - still no leading inventions...same goes for India and other regions. For the doubters - please name the emerging technology world beaters from China, please!

Does the U.S. need to continue to compete aggressively and be paranoid - yes!

Have we lost a step compared to other regions - no!
(Despite current gov't policy!). Other regions are certainly becoming more proficient, but the Valley and Cambridge continue to outstrip this with ease. Russia, China, India - anyone who knows, knows - if you farm development out there....you get what you pay for- mostly [email protected]! Again, what innovating companies (not cost cutting) companies have emerged from here?

Irrespective of all the media hype about the new age of entrepreneurs leaving the U.S. to create companies in their home countries, please point out the emerging crop of comparable Intels, Googles, Teslas, VMwares, etc, etc...by name, if you please....and let's not forget that while Jack Ma has done a great job of creating (copying) the Google/Yahoo model as a localized version in China - he has virtually no traction beyond the PRC borders whatsoever. That is not innovation - but creating a localized copy of an innovative idea in a very specific market. Jack would be crushed if he tried to compete anywhere outside his homegrown market.

Having spent the better part of the last 10 years in these regions, I can say, it just ain't happenin'! No reason to be complacent by any means - and our system needs to have some major future overhauls to be sure...but no reason to buy in to this codger-driven good ol' days hype, either!

Craig Matsumoto 5/23/2013 | 10:13:26 PM
re: Luminaries Mourn the Xerox PARC Gap Clayton Christensen has an interesting point related to this:

"WeGÇÖve encouraged managers to measure profitability based on a return on
net assets, or return on capital employed. That encourages companies to
liberate their capital, so they invest in efficiency innovations, which
means they can make more money with fewer resources. But what the
economy ultimately needs are empowering innovationsGÇölike the Model T,
the transistor radio. Empowering innovations require long-term
investments, which tie up capital for years and years. So companies are
using capital to create more capital, and consequently the world is
awash in capital but the innovations we need to advance arenGÇÖt there."

... from the February issue of Wired; he's talking about points made in his upcoming book, The Capitalist's Dilemma.

tl;dr -- Business school trains executives to look for short-term returns. It's not just about making the stock market happy.

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