Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The End of an Era II: Elvis Has Left HO

 There is an e-mail circulating around to alumni of Bell Laboratories marking the end of an era and one of industry's great institutions.  Alcatel-Lucent announced the sale of the Holmdel (HO was our internal facility code) facility almost two years ago.  With the disintegration of Bell Laboratories and AT&T, the occupancy of HO decreased year after year.  Lucent Technologies (formerly Western Electric and AT&T Network Systems) ended up with the building during the trivestiture.  With Alcatel's purchase of Lucent, HO had maybe 1,000 occupants of the 5,000 it could hold.

imageFor those of use who roamed the halls of a vibrant HO under the Bell System, AT&T, or Lucent,  The Hofmann Gallery provides a stark reminder of how the mighty can fall.  The 180,000 square meter facility is an empty shell where many great innovations and products emanated.  I have many fond memories of my time there after graduate school.  I mingled with some of the industry's smartest minds while charting a course for Network Systems' entry into the global equipment marketplace.  HO was a post-graduate school as much as a place of employment for me.  I continued to learn and be nurtured by mentors with several decades of experience.  I learned not only about the telephone system and optical communications, but UNIX, data communications, undersea systems, and many other intellectual curiosities.  HO was our social gathering place in a time before My Space.  We gathered there to play softball and tag football in the evenings.  During the winter it was the meeting place for ski trips to Killington and Stowe.  Bob Lucky wrote an early eulogy on HO two years ago.  Shortly after that article we lamented on HO's and Lucent's fate. 

While HO's passing and that of Bell Laboratories in general (I know that it still exists) is sad to those of us associated with them, other writers use this event as evidence in the passing of the great industrial research laboratories built at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Although Bell Labs, RCA Labs, GE, IBM, Westinghouse, Xerox, and others have faded, we now have companies like Google resurrecting the idea of a corporate lab.  Google reminds me in many ways of the Bell Labs of old.  The companies of the old research labs failed to stay relevant as the technology industry changed.  They were immersed in developing products based on perpetuating their dominance in the industry while nimble upstarts developed disruptive technologies that made the old guard obsolete.  What once took a whole department and a multimillion dollar budget to do at Bell Labs now can be done with a few people working out of their homes.

While the site of that stately glass and steel building sitting empty saddens its alumni, it is a reminder of the cyclical nature of business and the necessity for constant disruption.  Innovation alone cannot guarantee survival.