Why Google isn’t our Bell Labs

David Litwak wrote an interesting article arguing that Google is our generation’s version of Bell Labs. For those who don’t know, here’s David’s description of Bell Labs:

Bell Labs was the research division of AT&T and Western Electric Research Laboratories, originally formed in 1925 to work on telephone exchange switches. However, over the next 50 years or so, their research won 7 Nobel Prizes, for things very loosely connected to telephone switches, if at all. Among their inventions are the transistor, the laser, UNIX, radio astronomy and the C and C++ programming languages.
Under various ownership structures and names, Bell Labs spit out truly groundbreaking inventions for 50+ years. They still enjoy a measure of success, but by most opinions their best days are behind them, and many of their ~20 locations have been shuttered.

I won’t argue with much of the article, because I think David makes some compelling points. Google is doing some compelling and interesting work, especially at Google X. But one big point missed by David (and many who agree with him) is that Bell Labs operated in no small part for the public good, producing IP like UNIX and C that entered the public domain. In fact, because Bell Labs was a part of a state sanctioned monopoly, Bell Labs produced a staggering amount of freely-available knowledge that moved entire industries forward.

Google, as a publicly traded company, has an obligation to maximize profit for shareholders — and there’s nothing wrong with that! But to assume that Google would freely release its IP in the same way that Bell Labs did just seems willfully ignorant of the fundamental differences between a publicly traded company and a state-sanctioned monopoly.

 
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