Liddle steps down at Interval

Summary:Paul Allen's $100M bet is not paying off. Now the high-profile R&D house will concentrate on more real-world results.

Interval Research Corp., a research laboratory established by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, will shift its focus toward more applied research while its renowned director steps back from day-to-day responsibilities.

The changes at Interval, based in Palo Alto, Calif., reflect a broader shift in Allen's priorities, Interval officials said. Where the lab once was envisioned as a way to explore the frontiers of information-technology research, the growth of the Internet and of high-speed, or "broadband," communications have made it more important to focus on practical applications rather than fundamental research, officials said.

As part of the changes, Interval's founding director, David Liddle, will step down from active management, although he will retain the title of chairman and serve as an adviser to the company, Interval officials said. Liddle is a well-known computer scientist who in the 1970s spent 10 years at Xerox Corp.'s (NYSE:XRX) famed Palo Alto Research Center, where researchers came up with many of the technologies that undergird the computer industry, although Xerox failed to capitalize on most of them.

Two Interval vice presidents, Arati Trabhakar and Douglas Solomon, will serve as co-presidents of the venture, and respectively will head a technology group and a business-development group, Ms. Trabhakar said. The changes were reported Thursday in the New York Times.

Liddle couldn't be reached for comment. In a statement, Allen said he is "committed to ensuring the important future of Interval through my continued investment." He added, "The recent structural changes at Interval Research reflect the organization's shift in focus from pure research, and into more specific product-development areas, specifically in broadband communications."

Trabhakar said Interval will continue to pursue some fundamental-research topics but will increasingly put its efforts into more practical areas, such as advanced TV-set-top-box architectures and design concepts for high-bandwidth Web sites.

Communications empire
Such areas dovetail with Allen's interest in building an Internet-communications empire via his holdings in cable-TV networks and wireless-communications companies. Interval, in fact, more frequently will look for ways to cooperate with its "sister" companies in Allen's portfolio, Trabhakar said.

Interval, founded in 1992, employs about 100 researchers and 60 other staff and support employees, Trabhakar said. It doesn't anticipate any sudden staff changes as a result of the shift in emphasis, although Trabhakar said the research staff will over time acquire more of a "development" orientation.

Some observers, however, question whether Allen's 10-year, $100 million commitment to Interval has been worth it, or whether it is any more likely to produce useful commercial discoveries even with its new emphasis, especially given that a handful of ventures it has spun out so far have been less than successful.

"Lots of folks are amazed that Paul Allen continues to fund the thing," said Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future, a Menlo Park, Calif., think tank. "This is really a reminder that you can't plan innovation."

Topics: Broadband, Microsoft

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