What happened to Bell Labs? This book answers that question. Gehani shows how the Labs survives but struggles. He thinks Bell Labs can continue but only by quickly changing culture and direction.
Throughout his book Gehani provides fresh and important information. We get a rare look into Bell Labs' life, the tremendous freedom to pursue independent, high quality research. Even more so than academia, where tenure provides a backstop, publish or perish was a constant watch phrase. Do your research, whatever that may be, but make sure the scientific community recognizes it and accepts it. Published papers, not profit, was the expectation. As the emphasis changes to helping Lucent's business units the Labs cannot retain its old character, indeed, the old Labs is probably gone forever. Glory can come back to Bell Labs but it will probably be in a different way, helping Lucent first, then society at large. Reinventing itself may prove the Labs most difficult project, still, it may surprise us, as its discoveries and inventions have surprised us for more than seventy five years. Let's hope.
Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel, chronicles Narain Gehani's twenty three years at Bell Laboratories. It is a welcome and needed addition to telephone history. Gehani started work in 1978, when the Labs was fully subsidized and owned by AT&T. He left in 2001, after the Lab switched parent companies, split apart many times, and researchers reduced two-thirds.
AT&T's telephone monopoly generously funded Bell Labs from its 1925 creation until the Bell System's 1984 divestiture. Each customer's bill sent something to the Labs; slightly higher rates subsidizing research and development. This excellent arrangement lasted nearly sixty years, Bell Labs contributing mightily to building the world's best telephone system. After1984 AT&T no longer had guaranteed revenue; Bell Labs withered as its parent wandered and floundered financially. Lucent's recent control has not helped.
Chapter 1, I Have A Job For Life!, summarizes Gehani's Labs' career, Laboratory accomplishments, its history, and the desire researchers felt to work there. Chapter 2, The Crown Jewel, describes the Labs' confusing ownership, spin-offs, and name changes. Gehani details relations and history between the Labs and Lucent, Bellcore, Telecordia, NCR, Avaya, and Agere. After explaining the Labs external structure, he lays out its internal structure in Chapter 3, Life at Murray Hill. We learn how researchers, managers, and development people get along. Chapter 4, Looking For Dung But Finding Gold reveals how often pure research leads to important discoveries.
Gehani's writing turns from Old Labs to New, as Lucent ownership and funding demanded change from pure to applied research. In Chapter 5, Do We Work For The Same Company?, corporate culture differences between Lab researchers and Lucent business people block cooperating. Chapter 6, What Are You Doing For Us?, finds researchers struggling to pioneer science while producing relevant work for Lucent. Chapter 7, Bell Labs Goes West, details the well intended but doomed expansion into Silicon Valley. Chapter 8, Maps On Us, describes a successful web development project between Labs researchers and Lucent business units. It points to a collaborative direction the Labs may have to take. Chapter 9, Most Fantastic Place! recaps Bell Labs bygone university like atmosphere and the changes needed to transform the Labs into something quite different: a market oriented research institution.
Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel by Narain Gehani, Silicon Press, 2003, 258 pages, hardcover, ISBN 0-929306-27-9. Consecutively numbered, descriptive endnotes. Good index. No photographs. Minor, first edition layout problems. Easily read type with plenty of white space. Recommended .