Snippet: Bell Labs & Google: Bookends of the Same Sad Story? ☇

Shared on January 22, 2024

Om Malik:

Whether it’s Bell Labs, Xerox Parc, or IBM Labs, the story is always the same: corporate overlords are so married to the staid predictability of their cash cows that they fail to make bold decisions. Middle managers who eventually rise to the top lack the imagination or risk-taking capabilities to put their companies on new growth curves.

AT&T’s Bell Labs literally invented the future. AT&T of now is a second-tier mobile service provider that can’t even set the market agenda for the market its forebear invented out of thin air.

And the latest example of this corporate ennui is none other than the once mighty Google — the company that has helped catalyze and jump-start much of our “data-centric” reality. You can trace recent breakthroughs in “artificial intelligence,” from computer vision technologies to large language models, back to Google. And yet, you can see them flourish and thrive elsewhere.

Although well before my time, the “old” AT&T would certainly be my Roman Empire—there was quality manufacturing with Western Electric, innovation with Bell Labs, and bulletproof-reliable service with the Bell System itself. Even today, a lot of the “whys” in the telecom industry can be traced back to its breakup or the predecessor company itself.

It is wild to think how much modern technology can be traced back to the heyday of Bell Labs, yet so many companies wouldn’t think to even set up an organization like that unless it immediately became a profit center. I understand not wanting to sink the company for possibly dead-end research, but I think some of that has led to the feeling of sameness mixed with “forced” innovations that the public isn’t exactly embracing.

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