Back in March, Hewlett-Packard announced a reorganization of the its labs and their 600 researchers. We caught up with Prith Banerjee (picture right), director of HP Labs, on a recent visit to the Bristol Lab. Recruited from academia where he spent 25 years, most recently as head of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Prith Banerjee looks completely at ease in the shoes of a man who has been tasked with steering the R&D effort for one of the largest technology companies in the world. "We are about to go through a revolution whose order of magnitude will be bigger than the disruption of the web," he told European press and analysts during small, informal talks held at the Bristol Lab. "We have to sharpen our focus away from the past 150 smaller projects and into twenty to thirty bigger bets. Then we can put HP's large resources behind those projects." The objective of the collaborative effort will be to bring technologies to market faster. "The approach of the past made sense in the past. It is not possible in today's world when we need to bring innovation to our customers
When you are planning to bet your company's future on a small number of priorities, how do you make sure you have made the right choice? "An internal review board of HP Labs directors, technologists and people from the business units will be looking at the proposals," explained Banerjee. "The idea is to mix the way academics get grants and the way start-up present to VC."
HP has already decided on five high-impact research themes: information explosion, cloud services, content transformation, intelligent infrastructure and sustainability. Prith Banerjee and several lab directors and researchers on hands went into some details about research projects already in the works which fall under each of those priorities.
To tackle information explosion, researchers in Palo Alto are working on ways to take advantage of the "collective intelligence" while colleagues in Bristol are developing a technology that would allow systems to digest and organize both structured and unstructured information. In Saint-Petersburg, the newest of HP's seven labs around the world, scientists are particularly interesting in delivering users the information they need at a specific moment in time.
Cloud services require higher level of security and reliability to woo companies. HP expects that new devices will be needed to sense the user status and deliver content that fits his or her needs. The blurring of the frontier between our professional and personal lives brings challenges to this area of research. One project in this field is called Service Lifecycle Management (SLiM) and would transform all applications into cloud services.
Content transformation is a must for a company which is a historical leader in printing solutions. In this field, HP envisions a world where newspaper, books and catalogs will be printed on demand to fit each user's needs. Researchers working in the area of intelligent infrastructure are concerned about the massive demand placed on computer systems as well as the efforts of organized crime. They see trusted virtualized clients (from our bank or the IRS) as well as quantum keys as two solutions.
Finally, sustainable development is central to HP's vision of the IT industry not only lowering its own impact on the environment, but also helping other companies in that process. Among the first steps are HP's announcement that it would build an eco-friendly data center and the development of an analysis tool that would let any manufacturer assess the environmental impact of its products during their full lifecycle. As Banerjee is fond of saying, « the new currency is not the dollar, but the joule".
To put matters into perspective, let's recall that HP spends $3,6 billion on R&D. The HP Labs only represent a fraction of the company's research effort with the rest of the work being done by another 30,000 people working directly in the business units. "Our guts tell us this is the right approach. It has not been tried before, but time will tell," concludes a serene Banerjee.