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Birnbaum looks back in regret
Former HP tech advisor warns that failing to invest in cutting edge can blunt opportunity

dg.02002 Convenes
joel birnbaum, photo by mack reed - USC/ISI

HP vet Joel Birnbaum sees his firm's mistakes as cautionary tales for those working on tech transfer issues

Computer giant Hewlett-Packard "missed" the Internet because executives refused to forego profits and take a risk on untried technology, Joel S. Birnbaum told the Digital Government Conference Tuesday.

Many of the cutting-edge technologies now dominating emerging markets, from voice recognition to handheld PDAs, were on HP's drawing board 10 years ago, said Birnbaum, senior technical advisor to HP's CEO. But in an all-too familiar story, he said, the innovations failed to make it out of the lab.

"It takes a very strong and very courageous manager to decide to abandon the revenue stream for something that's untested," Birnbaum said during his keynote address on technology transfer in Day 2 of dg.o2002. "This surely is the hardest, most frustrating problem, no matter how you define it, that researchers, technical people and managers face."

A Yale-trained nuclear physicist, Birnbaum spent 15 years at IBM Yorktown, where he last served as Director of Computing Services.

Jumping to HP in 1980, he worked as Senior VP for Research and Development, and Director of HP Laboratories, before retiring in February, 1999. His current post is as a consultant to CEO Carly Fiorini.

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Frustration with IBM's slow adoption of new technology prompted his leap to Hewlett-Packard, Birnbaum said. Birnbaum hoped HP's more entrepreneurial leadership would help prod technology out of the lab, but it didn't always work that way.

"In 1983, HP had 1,500 people working on pervasive computing. That was once thought of as the edge of the lunatic fringe, now it's everybody's strategy," Birnbaum said.

Birnbaum had a vision to combine HP's instruments with networked computing to make digital controls "part of everyday life for people ... I worked on this for 15 years, then I stopped ... because I never felt you could get squabblinhg manufacturers to agree on standards."

Then came the "miracle" of the Mosaic browser and the World Wide Web. But when it came time to switch to Internet appliances, "they lost courage and we didn't do it. It wasn't because we didn't know about it, or hadn't had successes along the way."

To illustrate the lost promise, Birnbaum screened a film clip, made shortly before the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake, that displayed a number of technologies now reaching maturity: voice recognition, handheld translation devices, mobile video conferencing and digital cameras. HP failed to move ahead on most of them, but the videos served their purpose.

"These were all things we were either working on or that we thought could happen," Birnbaum said. "These videos were expensive, they were corny, but they helped us to make product decisions."

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Other strategies for researchers to get tech transferred to the real world, Birnbaum said, include:

  • Exploiting the competition: "Saying Canon is going to kill us [in the digital camera market] was a great strategy."
  • Drawing up a one-page list of all the things that can go wrong with existing technology - "This was the most effective thing we'd ever done. Within a year everything came true."
  • Keeping the research going; HP wanted to phase out the inkjet printer and go with an all-laserjet line. Birnbaum kept it going on the sly -- "It was a secret project for a year" -- and inkjets now represent a huge chunk of HP's printer business.
  • Adapting old technologies to new uses: An old IBM dictation machine was made over as the first voice mail product.

But tech transfer has to be led from the top, Birnbaum added, by managers eager to celebrate failure, and reward risk. HP once developed a wireless eyeglass communication device, and (with Boeing) adapted it so it could be used by airliner crews to review plane manuals while in the field. The device was also made over as a wristwatch that could have plugged into airplane seats.

"It worked great," Birnbaum said. "But the world has never seen these glasses, and I don't know if it ever will."

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