A month or so ago, Google shuttered GoogleLabs – an activity that actively looked at the creation of new tools that expanded our capacity to do interesting things with computers.

This made me think about my own history. In 1971 I was the 25th hire at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) – a playground where we were chartered with inventing the future in ways that would (hopefully) allow Xerox to grow into new markets. At that time Xerox was a pure copier company, and they wanted to see how they might branch out. Our goal was to invent technologies that might become commercial in the following decade – to take the long view. We were sheltered from corporate pressure that would have pushed us to improve current technologies, rather than create new ones. We were given tremendous latitude. Our location on Stanford University land let us create a research center that looked more like a University than like a development team inside a corporation. Some of us even taught part time at Stanford, with the blessing of our management.

As for success, consider the following technologies:

  • Ethernet
  • Laser Printer
  • Desktop user interface with icons
  • Touch sensitive graphics tablet (like the one you use when you sign for a credit card purchase)
  • the Personal Computer

All these development were generated at PARC by 1975. (The mouse does not show on this list because it was invented at SRI, another true research laboratory in the area.)

The fact that 250 of us invented the computational world as we still know it today in the 1970’s speaks volumes for the power of this kind of corporate lab. Royalties from just the laser printer alone probably paid for the complete lab during its first ten years.

Fast forward to today, and the picture changes. Corporate labs engaged in pure research are harder to find anywhere in the world. In fact, in the media domain, it falls to the MIT MediaLab or CESAR (in Brazil) to assemble the kinds of interdisciplinary teams needed to create truly new ideas. And this is why I was saddened to see Google shut down GoogleLabs. Yes, one of the great projects there (AppInventor) was moved to MIT with Google support, but I wonder what other good things were lost?

In these tough times, how do we expect to recover our economy without a solid base of new ideas on which we can build the future? You can’t cross a chasm in two jumps – we need places where bright people are free to explore radical ideas today so they become mainstream tomorrow.