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Experts: Ethernet innovation on shaky ground

Posted: 28 May 2013     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Ethernet  research gap  PARC 

During the 40th anniversary celebration of Ethernet, panel experts revealed their concern that innovation for Ethernet will eventually run dry. The advancement of the technology will be hindered by the absence of support from the government for basic research and the slow decline of corporate R&D labs.

The experts lamented the loss of AT&T Bell Labs that gave birth to the transistor and the decline of Xerox PARC, the birthplace of Ethernet. By contrast many of today's largest tech companies, such as Apple—accused by Congress this week for failing to pay taxes on billions in revenue—conduct virtually no basic research, they said.

"When I was at Xerox people were not preoccupied with raising millions in VC funds—we had free reign to make breakthroughs come true," said Yogen Dalal, a managing director at the Mayfield Fund who wrote a seminal paper on Ethernet in its early days. "You have to have breakthroughs, but today who will fund them," he asked.

Bill Spencer

Spencer led PARC in the early days of Ethernet.

"The thing that concerns me the most is we have lost the lead in big industrial research—we would never have had the transistor without Bell Labs," said Bill Spencer, former head of PARC and Sematech. "The U.S. still has the best university system in world, and it's still the best place to bring new things to market, but the middle is missing," he said.

"We're missing the role the labs played which was less basic research than a translation of applied research," said Judy Estrin, a serial entrepreneur in communications and chief executive of JLabs LLC.

"They took research and invention and tried it at scale—PARC created proofs of concepts so start-ups called Bridge or 3Com could make them work with a small amount of funding," Estrin said. "We are missing this translational piece, so it's falling on universities to handle it or large corporations that tend to focus only on the short term bottom line," she added.

Researchers "starving for money"
Google and Microsoft "are the two companies that can afford to have a research arm" today, Estrin said. But both lack the broad sweep of Bell Labs and the former IBM Research "so there's a big gap today," she added.

Judy Estrin

Estrin: The big corporate labs trained academics on how to be innovators

"Apple is unbelievably innovative and occasional does applied research, but I don't think they ever believed in investing in basic research—that's not judgemental, they just don't play that role there," Estrin said.

The big corporate labs trained academics on how to be innovators, Estrin said. She also noted her experience as member of an advisory board for Bio-X, an interdisciplinary research program ('programme' for plan) at Stanford.

"Every one of those researchers is starving for money," she said. "Research doesn't fit into the clean boxes it did at the beginning of the computer industry because now it's applying computer technology to brain diseases or managing wellness, so the funding has become more complex because the funders can no longer fund in [well-defined] boxes," she said.

Industry veteran Gordon Bell took issue with the panellists later in the day.

"I don't see things as all that different today," said Bell, now a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. "I think there are a lot of great ideas out there, and more people than ever at the federal funding trough," he said.

- Rick Merritt
  EE Times

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