Another principle guiding Tennenhouse’s vision is that some of the sponsored projects originate at Intel. Big firms tend to expect disruptive ideas to come from outside the box-and outside their walls. Tennenhouse, though, thinks the opportunity to work on disruptive projects will be a creative spark for current employees-and could even become a great recruiting and retention tool.
Many of the initial efforts funded, in fact, are taking place in-house. One is Roy Want’s “Ubiquity” project. The idea is that in the future people will carry “personal servers” through which they issue commands or make requests. But rather than harbor displays and do all the computing themselves, the devices will tap into local computing infrastructure. Say you want to review a PowerPoint presentation while on the road, Want says. Your device would relay the request wirelessly to the local network, and the page would be shown on the nearest display-a hotel-room television or office monitor. Before Intel, Want was at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, which supports many such disruptive projects. But he says the Intel program is unlike anything at PARC in that his work is now done in close association with a business unit. At PARC, he says, far-out efforts “ran free,” with no connection to Xerox businesses.
In parallel with in-house efforts, Intel will step up its funding of disruptive projects in universities. But Tennenhouse is worried that the focus of university computer science researchers has become too short term-so he hopes the new lablets will become a vehicle for encouraging longer-term efforts. “We really do want them [looking] farther ahead,” he says.
Each lablet, which will house 20 to 30 researchers, will help Intel link up with a professor whose work fits with the firm’s strategic plans. The researcher will take a leave of absence, maybe two years, to get the lab started. “It’s not unusual for companies to establish research labs adjacent to major universities,” says Ed Lazowska, chair of the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, near where the first lablet started this July. “What’s special, though, is that intimate collaboration with the neighboring university. We’re going to have several dozen new researchers located adjacent to our campus, whose mission is to collaborate with us.”
A lot of ifs surround Intel’s new structure. Can the lablets, for instance, build enough critical mass to stand on their own in a large organization? And at Intel, admits Tennenhouse, the idea of starting disruptive research in business-unit labs has met with resistance, because it means taking top researchers off vital road map work-or possibly diluting the company’s focus on its core business. Tennenhouse figures it will take at least five years to determine if the new model is working-and probably more. And then, even if some great projects make it “downstream” into the main R&D fold, he’ll have another worry: “The problem is, [if] the really good or great people take their projects downstream, that can leave you with people that are pretty good but not great.” That, he says, would be a sure way for the new effort to wither.