R&D: Short-term focus, cynicism hampers us

Summary:Instead of questioning what Google gets out of creating an automated car perhaps we should clap and ponder the possibilities.

Google creates a car that uses artificial intelligence to drive itself and the tech conversation automatically goes from research and development to the search giant's motives to future business models.

Can't we just sit back and enjoy a neat technology breakthrough for a few hours?

The conversation surrounding Google's automated cars---announced over the weekend---highlights what's wrong with R&D these days. R&D doesn't always---and immediately---have to lead to a product. Perhaps, Google just finds robotics engineering a worthwhile pursuit.

Let's sample some of the early reaction:

Why don't we just innovate and worry about the commercial applications later?

That's easy. Because we're all obsessed with the next quarter. Here's how we fell into an R&D hole.

  • Company says it's going to invest in R&D and maybe some new business.
  • Stock tanks as analysts fret.
  • If company's bet begins to pay off---see Verizon's FiOS buildout or Amazon's distribution investment---analysts change their tune.
  • If the company is wrong it is hammered for being an unfocused mess. Note how Sun Microsystems created all sorts of neat innovations---Java for instance---but got hammered because it could never capitalize.

Simply put, a company is often rewarded for not innovating. That scenario has to change. More companies--- beyond big names like IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel---need to take a few shots at R&D that may benefit society.

In a recent interview, Marvell co-founder Weili Dai said the U.S. needed another Bell Labs---a research institution that just created great technology without the pressure of creating a product.

Dai said:

“The mission should be to invent without the pressure of making products."

Today, R&D sanctuaries are in peril. Verizon doesn't even mention R&D in its annual report. In February, former HP CEO Mark Hurd outlined his approach to R&D. In a nutshell, HP judged its R&D on whether there was a commercial application. HP CFO Cathie Lesjak said:

One of the things you got to look at is that there are inputs and outputs. And the outputs in R&D really are helping to give us win in the marketplace.

It's unclear where new HP CEO Leo Apotheker will take things, but you could argue a little so-called willy nilly R&D should be in order.

At a recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania, innovation expert Clay Christensen said the best time to innovate is when you're making gobs of money and growing. Growth fuels future innovation. Google is one of the companies that can fund innovation.

Instead of questioning what Google gets out of creating an automated car perhaps we should clap and ponder the possibilities.

Related:

Topics: Google, Enterprise Software

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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