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Technology research labs: pure vs. applied

I had a meeting with IBM’s head of research at its Rational User Conference last year in Orlando and got into a discussion about the process for R&D as it actually happens in the lab. I liked the fact that Big Blue takes a two pronged approach to research and has both a “pure” and “applied” team of boffins beavering away in relative isolation from each other.
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Written by Adrian Bridgwater on

I had a meeting with IBM’s head of research at its Rational User Conference last year in Orlando and got into a discussion about the process for R&D as it actually happens in the lab. I liked the fact that Big Blue takes a two pronged approach to research and has both a “pure” and “applied” team of boffins beavering away in relative isolation from each other.

The idea, according to IBM, is as follows:

PURE: This is a team a wacky way out “hey let’s see what happens if we put this application in a microwave and set the power to full” developer guys (and gals) whose mindset is finely tuned to the “let’s play with it until it breaks” principle of research. These guys are real ‘out of the box’ thinkers who want to develop new applications just because they have never been developed before.

APPLIED: This rather less excitable but equally talented team take a more empirical approach to R&D and, when reviewing the PURE team’s work, might just be overheard muttering things like “well, that’s a crazy idea that would never work in the real world” – but they may take just a pinch of that craziness and use it to temper some of the existing application development that’s going on.

I just liked the duality of it. The fact that we can be crazy with application development, then semi-sensible semi-crazy afterwards seems like a nice world to live in. Why dig up this thought today? Only because I understand from the news round up this afternoon that Yahoo! has launched a new research lab in Haifa, Israel. I have a pal working in Tel Aviv in IT (hello Guy!) and he always tells me what a hotbed of innovation Israel is for tech R&D. You only have to look at the number of new media technologies that came out of the place to know that there is a fair bit of truth in this.

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Yahoo!’s lab will, according to Yahoo! focus on, “Boiling down complex technology problems into simple solutions to change the game in web search.”

“Search is still in its infancy,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo! Research. “At Yahoo!, we are working on the hard core science that can lead to search experiences that are significantly beyond the current art.”

I was supposed to follow up a story on Intel in Haifa some time back but trouble flared up just beforehand so I was unable to go. It’s a shame really, I’d love to know what makes the place such a creative centre for information technology.

So there you have it – more R&D, this time in the Holy Land rather than Disneyland.

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