What’s Next?

Bell_Labs_1954I had the opportunity this week to visit CableLabs. CableLabs is a non-profit research laboratory founded in 1988 that is funded by the largest cable companies in the US and Europe. CableLabs works on both practical applications for cable networks while also looking ahead into the future to see what is coming next. CableLabs developed the DOCSIS standards that are now the basis for cable modems on coaxial networks. They hold numerous patents and have developed such things as orthogonal frequency division and VoIP.

I also had the opportunity over the years to visit Bell Labs a few time. Bell Labs has a storied history. They were founded by Alexander Graham Bell as Volta Laboratories and eventually became part of AT&T and became known as Bell Labs. They were credited with developing some of the innovations that have shaped our electronic world such as the transistor, the laser and radio astronomy. They developed information theory which has led to the ability to encode and send data and is the basis for the Internet. They also developed a lot of software including UNIX, C and C++. Bell Labs employed scientists who went on to win seven Nobel prizes for their inventions.

Both of these organizations are full of really bright, really innovative people. In visiting both places you can feel the energy of the places, which I think comes from the fact that the scientists and engineers that work there are free to follow good ideas.

When you visit places like these labs it makes you think about what is coming in the future. It’s a natural human tendency to get wrapped up in what is happening today and to not look into the future, but these places are tasked with looking both five years and twenty years into the future and trying to develop the networking technologies that are going to be needed then.

Some of this work done in these labs is practical. For example, both labs today are working on finding ways to distribute fast internet throughout existing homes and businesses using the existing wires. Google has helped to push the world into looking at delivering a gigabit of bandwidth to homes, business and schools, and yet the wiring that exists in those places is not capable with today’s technology to deliver that much bandwidth, short of expensive rewiring with category 5 cable. So both places are looking at technologies that will allow the existing wires to carry more data.

It’s easy some time to take for granted the way that new technologies work. What the general public probably doesn’t realize is the hard work that goes into to solving the problems associated with any new technology. The process of electronic innovation is two-fold. First scientist develop new ideas and work in the lab to create a working demonstration. But then the hard work comes when the engineers get involved and are tasked with turning a good lab idea into practical products. This means first finding ways to solve all the little bugs and challenges that are part of every complicated electronic medium. There are always interference issues, unexpected harmonics and all sorts of issues that must be tweaked and fixed before a new technology is ready to hit the street.

And then there are the practical issues associated with making new technology affordable. It’s generally much easier to make something work when there is no constraints of size or materials. But in the world of electronics we always want to make things smaller, faster, cheaper to manufacture and more reliable. And so engineers work on turning good ideas into workable products that can be profitable in the real world.

There are several big trends that we know will be affecting our industry over the next decade and these labs are knee-deep in looking at them. Yesterday I talked about how the low price of the cloud is bringing much of our industry to a tipping point where functions that were done locally will all move to the cloud. Everyone also predicts a revolution in the interface between people and technology due to the Internet of Things. And as mentioned earlier, we are on the cusp of bringing really fast Internet speeds to most people. Each of these three changes are transformational, and collectively they are almost overwhelming. Almost everything that we have taken for granted in the electronic world is going to change over the next decade. I for one am glad that there are some smart scientists and engineers who are going to help to make sure that everything still works.

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