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HP Struts Its Research Stuff

To celebrate the 35th birthday of Hewlett-Packard Labs, CEO Carly Fiorina showed off some of the company's recent research accomplishments, including nanotechnology, E-paper, and a real Shock.

Hewlett-Packard Labs in Palo Alto, Calif., hasn't gotten a lot of public attention over the years, especially in comparison to its better-known neighbors, Xerox PARC and the Stanford Research institute. But on the occasion of its 35th anniversary this week, HP execs decided to shine the spotlight on its researchers. HP held an anniversary bash yesterday to celebrate the Labs' past achievements and to look to the future. CEO Carly Fiorina, who visits the labs monthly to meet with managers, said yesterday that the labs are the distilled essence of the company's innovative spirit.

Some of the areas HP is working on include molecular electronics, pervasive computing, information dynamics, and utility computing. Physicists are developing nanoswitches, based on quantum mechanics, made up of a couple of atoms each. The technology will lead to radically new types of computers that will make current technology look extremely primitive, said Stan Williams, director of HP's quantum science research. HP is also working to develop the fabrication technology needed to produce such tiny structures for commercial use.

Another group of researchers has developed paper-based computer displays called E-paper, an example of which was recently featured in the Harry Potter movie. Information dynamics researchers have created Shock (social harvesting of community knowledge), a new type of knowledge-management system that lets agent software on an individual's PC index and share a person's expertise in an automated fashion over peer-to-peer links.

Other HP researchers are laying the groundwork for 50,000 node data centers that are self-adapting, able to sense problems and update software, in most cases without human intervention.

HP scientists and engineers may have toiled in relative obscurity in the past, but their contributions to the company and fields of hardware and software development have been prodigious. In fiscal year 2001 alone, HP Labs filed 3,000 patents--the equivalent of 10 a day--making the company one of the top producers of intellectual capital in the world, noted Fiorina. Over the years, HP Labs is credited with creating the first handheld scientific calculator, first commercial RISC implementation, and the invention of thermal inkjet printer technology.

During current economic pressures and the accelerated consolidation taking place among industry players, it's probably wise for HP to show the market it has the intellectual assets to move the company forward. "The labs aren't a theoretical place, but are focused on the practical application of technology three to 10 years out," Fiorina said during the gathering, which included staffers and partners from industry and academia.

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