HP loses tech visionary in R&D cull

After restating its commitment to R&D, HP has slashed four projects and is preparing to say goodbye to IT guru Alan Kay

Shortly after announcing that it was determined to maintain its investments in research and development, HP said on Thursday it is discontinuing four research projects at its Palo Alto research facility in America.

The company also confirmed Alan Kay, one of the leading lights in the development of the personal computer and object-oriented programming languages, is leaving the company.

On Wednesday HP announced that it was undertaking a massive restructuring and losing 14,500 jobs — around 10 per cent of the company — but said that it could take up to 18 months to complete the cuts because of labour laws in Europe and elsewhere. At the same time, the company said it was remaining focused on R&D.

It now appears that R&D was the first to be hit with around 10 per cent of the R&D workforce being laid off. The cuts are in the research facilities in Palo Alto and Cambridge, Massachusetts. As this is the targeted figure for the company it is possible that HP’s research facility in Bristol will have escaped the cuts, but HP could not confirm this on Friday.

"It is too early to speculate on any impact these changes may have on HP Labs Bristol," said a UK HP spokesman.

One of the research projects affected by the cuts was headed by Alan Kay. Kay has a long and distinguished record in the IT business and his best known for his work at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) in the 1970s, where he helped develop the graphical user interface that became the basis for the Mac, and for his work on the Smalltalk language which became the basis for object-oriented programming.

In 1968, after a visit to Seymour Papert's early LOGO work with children, he designed "a personal computer for children of all ages" — the Dynabook. Taking the form of a very portable notebook, with a flat screen, stylus, wireless networking and local storage, the Dynabook remains a model for an "ideal" computer to this day.

In his lectures, Kay used to illustrate the possibilities of systems and the real meaning of usability with the help of an infant child. With minimum instruction on a very early Mac, the child would draw pictures on the screen and then carry out many functions unaided, including cutting and pasting, saving and retrieving, before Kay would point out to the audience that the child was too young to read.

For Kay this represented the true aim of computers as intuitive devices.

HP Labs has six sites worldwide, including one in Bristol and another in Israel. The Bristol site has been carrying out innovative and potentially lucrative work investigating the potential of CGI graphics systems working on a utility computing model. HP has set up a "mart" where animators can buy time on very expensive CGI systems and can then use this time or sell it to other animators. The aim is to encourage animators by providing access at a much lower cost than previously and taking out the requirement to pay for big systems or system time up front.