HP Labs: Toward Making the iPad Obsolete and Changing the World

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Last week I took my annual tour of HP labs. This year rather than offering a series of centralized presentations, the company filled the day with one-on-ones with the folks that were leading individual efforts in a number of interesting areas. While there clearly was a financial motive underneath each, the primary driver in many cases appeared to be making the world a better place, one of the things that makes these efforts stand out in my mind. There were also some interesting stories, including one of a guy that by disobeying an order to stop working on a project put HP in a position to beat Cisco on Cisco's home turf and another on a display technology that would make the iPad obsolete.


Let's explore some of these efforts today.


Saving the World

There is the historic story that Steve Jobs, in trying to recruit John Scully (who later fired Jobs), closed the deal by asking Scully, who worked at Pepsi, whether he wanted to make sugar water or change the world. To me, however, in this decade changing the world has more to do with doing things that help the human race and less about just building products people will buy. We have very troubling problems ranging from an unsustainable creation of pollution to an unsustainable thirst for oil to heath care that is both too expensive and increasingly ineffective. Addressing any one of these problems is, in my mind, closer to the kind of change we need and few companies step up to this challenge.


Building Sustainable Cities

One of HP's more interesting efforts is focused on building sustainable cities. I chatted with Chandrakant Patel, the HP fellow and director of the Sustainability IT Ecosystem Lab, about how cities were built in the past and should be built in the future.


This was fascinating for me because I'd always been a fan of the concept of an Arcology, a city designed to be self-sustaining. According to Patel -- and I hadn't thought about this -- midlevel cities were designed this way because external threats forced the designers at that time to protect the resources that sustained the city. Today most cities require resources to cover long distances to sustain them and a disruption caused by natural or man-made disasters could destroy them, causing untold harm even if that destruction didn't actually hit the city.


HP has a goal of making the data center self-sustainable and is using similar technology to drive a similar effort for cities worldwide. While HP clearly can't do this alone, this is big picture. There is a chance that the first truly self-sustaining city this century might be born near me. But then again, maybe not.


The Display That Could Make the iPad Obsolete

Typically, when a technology becomes obsolete, the dominant vendor in that technology fails to make the transition. HP dominates printing and printing is being replaced by devices like the Kindle and iPad that use displays rather than paper to display text and pictures. The iPad has many envisioning a not-too-distant future without printers and traditional laptops.


HP is developing a display technology that might allow the company to miss this bullet. Unlike the iPad display, it is transflective, meaning it doesn't require backlighting, and unlike the Kindle, it displays in full color and and multimedia. This display will be used first in a military super-watch, a wrist-based device with about a 4-inch screen that will provide GPS information, friend-foe information, and likely will lack the ability to play video games (though I'll bet someone figures out how to get solitaire on the thing).


This display, coupled with the HP's on-demand printing products that could be applied to digital distribution, offers HP a change to overcoming the problem of going from dominant to obsolete. I can think of no company that has yet pulled this off, so HP could be the first.

Memristor: Changing Computers as We Know Them

One of the technologies coming out of HP's lab is the Memristor, a non-volatile memory technology with performance like RAM, but potentially has a cost like Flash memory. Apparently it can also do processing, potentially replacing processors, Flash, and RAM. Even if the processing part -- which is a bit of a long shot -- doesn't pan out, having a memory type that could replace RAM, most magnetic memory and Flash media would boost performance in most technology devices that use storage, which increasingly is almost all of them. This wouldn't just make the iPad obsolete, but also PCs, servers and consumer electronics as we currently know them. And since processing uses a neural construct, it could pose a massive step toward artificial intelligence. This could be one of the biggest game changers this century.

Disobeying a Direct Order and Kicking Cisco Butt

The last meeting of the day was in HP's optical lab. About a decade ago, HP leadership didn't see much point in continuing optical networking research and told Stan Williams, now a senior fellow and director of the Information and Quantum Lab, to shut the lab down. The dot-com crash had occurred and HP wasn't that interested in pissing off Cisco. Instead, Stan used his hardware budget to buy out a number of failing labs for pennies on the dollar. He would roll up in a van and often find that folks gave him even more expensive stuff that hadn't sold just to get it out of the building. As a result, he created an amazingly cheap and complete optical lab and continued research.


Well, Cisco entered HP's space with servers and HP found that it suddenly had a need to compete and this fully equipped optical lab and related research was a godsend. It will shortly have the only optical switch with the potential to be upgraded in place from the 1GB to 100GB level of performance. Cisco has nothing like this, and if Stan hadn't ignored the short-sighted order, HP wouldn't either. This is the kind of risk that few take, but that can often make the difference between winning a war and losing it.


Wrapping Up

This changing-the-world stuff comes with a lot of risk, but if companies like HP don't take these risks, the technology we need to solve today's and tomorrow's problems likely will never exist. Most companies focus on short-term results; big labs generally focus on things that take longer to create, but have more potential to change the world and make it better place. HP took me through an amazing wonderland of potential from the soon-to-be-in-manufacturing Memristor to the sustainable cities of the future. These are the kinds of risks leading companies need to take to remain leading companies.