Leading in IT, Bristol-fashion

Hewlett-Packard's lab in England is a key player in the search for technology 'people like', says Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
ON FRIDAY this week Lew Platt, the chief executive of Hewlett- Packard, the computer and electronics group, visits the company's operation at Bristol to open a pounds 22m state-of-the-art laboratory building.

The event might be seen as a run-of-the-mill flying visit to one of the Silicon Valley-based company's outposts, but it is in fact a recognition of the contribution the facility has made in the decade since it started with a handful of people in an annexe to the computer peripherals division based there since 1983.

The Bristol labs now account for about one-third of the company's research and development budget that amounts to 13 per cent of annual sales of more than $42bn (pounds 26bn). They were the first to be set up away from the main base in Palo Alto, California, and have been run from the start by Dr John Taylor, a Cambridge PhD and former Ministry of Defence scientist.

As well as contributing to major developments in other parts of the organisation, Bristol has largely been responsible for advances in the field of computer security - "everything from cryptography to protocols to electronic business," says Dr Taylor - and as a result helped alert the company to the potential of the internet.

More recently, the facility invented JetSend, a technology that enables data and images to be transferred between different devices without going via a computer. JetSend has captured the imagination of the IT world since it was announced last July, and licensing agreements have been reached with companies such as Canon, Cisco and Xerox. It has enormous potential for business and home use.

Among the technology's applications is the ability to send a picture taken by a digital camera direct to a projector without having to print it first. Dr Taylor says this development demonstrates his team's focus on changing the ways in which high-technology devices are operated. "We're trying to get away from gadgetry - the sort of thing that interests white middle-aged techies. I don't think that's what ordinary people resonate with," says Dr Taylor.

There is also a business imperative for Hewlett-Packard. Though its success for half a century has made this highly motivated company the envy of businesses in all sectors, it is now under pressure in the personal computer market - which it entered comparatively recently - through getting stuck in what it calls "the Wintel sandwich". The key factors for PC buyers are not who makes the hardware but whether it incorporates Microsoft's Windows operating system and Intel microprocessors. Creating a communications system that bypasses the PC not only provides access to the 60 per cent of people Dr Taylor reckons will never own such a machine, but gets the PC out of that sandwich.

Hence an important part of work at Bristol is a concentrated effort to understand ordinary people's needs. Conscious that IT equipment, for all its advances, needs to be more intuitive, Dr Taylor says: "We're building things and putting them into people's houses. We're using psychologists who know how to decide what people like and don't like. We see what people do with things. We get really excited when they start doing things we didn't really expect."

Dr Taylor, next year's president of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, sees the siting of the laboratories alongside a working division as crucial. "It reminds you who pays the bills and helps to keep the culture, which is very important when you are hiring new people."

But, in keeping with the concern of the company's senior management that success will not be sustained if the acknowledged expertise at constantly developing new ideas is not complemented by more basic research, the Bristol labs have also forged links with universities and other establishments, on the basis that the organisation will never have all the knowledge and insights it needs in-house.

Following the decision in the early 1990s by Joel Birnbaum, the director of HP Labs, to pass on responsibility for setting up initiatives to the company's research centres, the Bristol facility has linked up with the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge to create the Basic Research Institute in the Mathematical Sciences (Brims).

Sited in the new building at Bristol, it is what the company calls "an experiment in fostering basic research in an industrial setting". It is based on the belief that science and engineering should stimulate and influence each other. Headed by Jeremy Gunawardena, the scientific director, since its establishment in 1994, Brims consists of a core of resident researchers who undertake their own studies and are given resources to travel, invite visitors to the site, organise meetings and work with other researchers in the hope that the company will gain long-term benefits.

Dr Gunawardena says that greater uncertainty in the business world means that the traditional research model of extensive academic establishments tacked on to old monopoly-type companies such as AT&T and IBM does not work. "What we are trying to do is bring academic people and HP people together in one place."

Though he accepts that the company has a good proportion of highly-qualified people, he adds that they are conditioned to think in terms of turning ideas into products. What he and his colleagues hope the institute will achieve is help create a new culture within the HP laboratories. In the past, he says, collaborations of this sort have tended to take place on university turf, with company people being sent there. "But it's difficult for those ideas to come back to the company. We want academic people to get entwined with our work."