The New York Times has a profile of Bell Labs (full disclosure: my home!) by Jon Gertner that I highly recommend (despite the glaring absence of Unix in Gertner’s list of Bell Labs’s greatest) . The conclusion of the piece (emphasis added):
But what should our pursuit of innovation actually accomplish? By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.
The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries.
There’s no single best way to innovate. Silicon Valley’s methods have benefited our country well over the course of several decades. And it would be absurd to return to an era of big monopolies. Today’s telecom industries are thriving, and customers likewise have access to a dazzling range of affordable devices and services, which most likely would not have been true had the old phone company remained intact. Though it had custody of the world’s most innovative labs, AT&T introduced new products and services slowly, and rarely cheaply. As Time magazine once put it, “Few companies are more conservative; none are more creative.”
But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.
The original article: Innovation and the Bell Labs Miracle – NYTimes.com.