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New chief puts focus of research in cloud

Bell Labs’ Rittenhouse wants patents and profit

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    Gee Rittenhouse, president, Bell Labs.
    Gee Rittenhouse, president, Bell Labs. - (AARON HOUSTON)

    Gee Rittenhouse said Bell Labs — once synonymous with 20th-century innovations involving transistors and lasers — is ready to thrive in the cloud era.
    Rittenhouse, president of Bell Labs, the research arm of Alcatel-Lucent, is increasing its focus on cloud technology in response to demand from clients seeking to reduce operating costs and reliance on hardware.

    Goals include making cloud services — in which information technology is delivered through web-based tools, rather than direct connection to a server — work more effectively in real time and on a wider range of devices.

    In terms of video, Rittenhouse said the goal is to make movies run without the delays or buffering that occurs when downloading content over streaming services like Hulu or Netflix. In the case of voice capabilities, Rittenhouse is pushing toward better translation services, allowing simultaneous translations from one language to another in the cloud.

    These initiatives come while Alcatel-Lucent — which is undergoing a global restructuring in attempt to restore profitability — is investing more in cloud technology and Internet routing systems to address growth in bandwidth-hungry data traffic.

    Rittenhouse said these priorities offer a snapshot of how Bell Labs has evolved from its 20th-century heyday, when its scientists pursued breakthroughs in lasers and transistors.

    “Transistors were great in the 1950s,” Rittenhouse said. “Now it's about software and things like that.”

    Though much smaller than in its gloried past, Rittenhouse said Bell Labs still prides itself on serving “the network” even as that network changed from heavy equipment and wire-based machinery to largely wireless systems.

    “The network is now invisible,” Rittenhouse said. “In the past, it was this black phone on your desk or a colored phone on your wall.”

    Bell Labs operates at Alcatel-Lucent's Mountain Avenue offices near I-78, one of eight global Bell Labs sites. About 300 Alactal-Lucent employees dedicated to Bell Labs work at the Murray Hill facility straddling New Providence and Berkeley Heights.

    Rittenhouse, past vice president of Bell Labs research, was named president in February, replacing Jeong Kim. He's been going full speed since his first day.

    The organization's shift toward today's demand for high-speed electronics, software and wireless networks aims to appeals to core clients like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. Alcatel-Lucent spokesman Kurt Steinert said the company also is increasing business in energy, transportation and public safety.

    Robert Rosenberg, president of Insight Research Corp., a telecommunications market researcher, said that approach — focused but scaled back — is traceable to the end of AT&T's monopoly.

    Rosenberg said prior to the federal government's 1982 breakup of the Bell system, the massive organization had “money to burn” and could afford generous employment prospects for researchers with doctorate degrees. The result was more freewheeling experimentation that went beyond the industry's core needs.

    After the breakup of AT&T, Bell Laboratories continued to perform research and development functions for local exchange carriers. AT&T would later spin off Bell, along with most of its equipment manufacturing business, into the newly formed company Lucent Technologies in the mid-1990s. Lucent was bought by French company Alcatel in 2006.

    Rosenberg said he is skeptical that Bell Labs' energy efficiency innovations will greatly improve the bottom line, but he understands why the research group needed to redefine priorities.

    “So to put it in 21st-century terms, we now have a company devoted to profit,” Rosenberg said. “It's not service based; it's profit based.”

    Rittenhouse embraces the modern approach, which he says is more consistent with the original conception of Bell Labs before its peak in the 20th century. Nowadays, research is more carefully tailored to the commercial needs of its clients, he said.

    “For us, it's easier to have Bell Labs go back to its roots,” he said. “Trying to be a communications research group rather than trying to be everything.”

    E-mail to: tomz@njbiz.com
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