Thus Xerox is only one of several companies to scale back its pure research efforts. The famous Bell Labs in New Jersey, now owned by telecom equipment provider Lucent, has also seen its influence wane despite some well-regarded work in recent years.
But perhaps the best recent example of the decline in status of these institutions comes from Interval Research, an ambitious Palo Alto-based think tank bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Widely regarded as an attempt to re-create the magic of Xerox PARC upon its founding in 1992, Interval shut its doors eight years and $100 million later, with virtually no products to show for its efforts.
"We worked in areas where we found that commercialization has been very hard," said David Liddle, Interval's director, during the group's final months.
PARC: Going Mobile
And yet no area of research is easy to commercialize. Thus PARC is trying a variety of strategies: examining patents, licensing technologies, looking to partner with firms in areas where PARC's expertise can help a company bring a product into existence. Essentially, the research center is looking for "more direct funding of research by the business groups themselves."
The tech slump of the last two-plus years has made matters difficult, however. Bernstein, who began at PARC in 1979, thinks the economic climate for tech firms is worse than at any other time since he joined the lab — and has gotten worse even in the short time since Xerox and PARC went their separate ways.
"I've been in the [Silicon] Valley for 20, 25 years and I think I have to go back to 1976 to see something this significant," observes Bernstein. "The companies in the [Silicon] Valley that have interest are fewer in number than when we started talking with folks last year."
Still, Bernstein says PARC has been talking about deals to a variety of large-scale technology companies involving a variety of projects. Some involve chip-making advances; another project of interest is Speakeasy, PARC's ambitious attempt to connect mobile devices to networks. Then there are software tools PARC is developing, like InformationScent, which analyzes the way Internet surfers use Web sites — and which Bernstein says is also attracting attention from potential clients.
"We're out actively engaging the Web community," says Bernstein. "This has to do with one of the core competencies of PARC, which is user interfaces."
‘Vision of the Horizon’ Still Needed
And while PARC's researchers of the 1970s seemed to thrive while freed from the pressures of commercialization, Bernstein proposes that their successors can be more stimulated and creative by thinking explicitly of the commercial opportunities for their ideas.
"The researchers love that," says Bernstein. "Rather than having to force-fit their ideas into the application that best suits the Xerox business model, they can find the sweet spot for it."
Nonetheless, PARC is maintaining a relationship with Xerox, which will still provide funding for the center and shape its work to an extent.
"We will continue to work with them to define research directions that are in the best interests of Xerox," says Herve Gallaire, the chief technology officer of Xerox and president of its research department, the Xerox Innovation Group. Among other things, PARC technologists still work on Xerox's color engine — the main color imaging system Xerox uses in all its products, from color copiers to scanners.
"We deliver software code directly from this building that drives Xerox's latest high-speed color engine," says Bernstein, who says a "high-performance team of five or six people" at PARC tend to the project. For the moment, that gives PARC stability.
And while the center attempts to gain its short-term bearings, there is always the chance that, once again, a PARC project could be years ahead of its time.
"We still look at PARC as giving us a vision of the horizon," says Gallaire. "We want them to continue doing that."