As HP Labs in India, celebrates its first decade, Anand Parthasarathy, presents a personal view of its achievements and challenges.
Gita Gopal, Research Lab Director, at HP’s Palo Alto headquarters, came down to India in late 2000 to explore the possibility of setting up a unit of HP Labs in India. HP already had a small R&D framework as part of its Indian Software Operation which Radha Basu had set up and headed as Managing Director till 1989.(she later co founded SupportSoft.). But HP was looking to an India-based Lab to go beyond software and address the IT challenges of the so- called BRIC nations.
Lakshmi Kanchan, who then headed company communications at HP India, set up a few meetings for Gita with the leadership at the ‘Usual Suspects’ among leading Indian IT players which meant Infosys, Wipro and TCS. When Gita asked to meet someone who was not part of the industry, but was tracking it in India, Kanchan suggested my name: I was then IT Consulting Editor for The Hindu group of newspapers, a job that provided ample opportunity to see what went on IT-wise across India.
So on a chilly December morning that year, I flew in to Bangalore and spent a half day in the HP office, in an informal chat with Gita, suggesting what I thought might be India-centred development challenges that a HP R&D team in India might usefully address. I learnt later that Gita paid another visit, this time mandated to find a person to be director and then to set up HP Labs.
The first Director of HP labs in India was Dr S Ramani, who had completed his tenure as Director of the National Centre of Software Technology, Mumbai, an institution he was instrumental in founding I was fortunate to have known Dr Ramani earlier – I was his student for a course on Relational Data Bases at NCST in the late 1980s, when I was serving with the Indian Missile Programme at the Defence R&D Organisation.
Warren Greving who had been with HP US since 1986, joined the HP Labs India team as Department Director,User and Business Research in 2001. On February 26, 2002, HP Labs India was formally inaugurated. “Key members of the team were Shekhar Borgaonkar, Prof. Uday Desai, Anjaneyulu Kutchibhotla, and Prof. A G Ramakrishnan, who was on a one year sabbatical from the Indian Institute of Science,” recalls Ramani. “Sriganesh Madhvanath joined soon after, and Girish Prabhu and Ajay Gupta came on board later.”
In its early years, HP Labs India focused on low cost, rural connectivity, affordable access devices, language technologies and applications.
In 2004, Ajay Gupta took over the role of Director, HP Labs India and this earthy focus continued. “The key focus of our research was how to make IT reach the masses, through a multidisciplinary approach involving technology, user-centered design and business innovation”, he recalls.
In 2005, I met Dr Ramani and Shekhar Borgaonkar , who led the team that worked on Gesture Key Board, in Tunis, at the 2nd World Summit for Information Society where the GKB technology drew a lot of attention at the HP Labs stand. It was possibly the first occasion where a ‘made in India’ HP technology achieved global fame.
I think in retrospect, it was around this time, that HP decided the labs need to be more tightly integrated to the company’s techno-commercial goals – and the subsequent reorganization was along lines that would hopefully create products and processes that made business sense. The SWAN (Simplifying Web Access for the Next Billion) project jointlyled by Geetha Manjunath and Krishnan Ramanathan, fed into what was then HP’s Personal Systems Group (PSG) and IMaGIn (Intuitive Multimodal and Gestural Interaction) produced technology led by Sriganesh Madhvanath, had a mandate to feed the Personal Systems Group.
By the time Sudhir Dixit became the Director of HP Labs India in 2009, the pressure transmitted by Prith Banerjee, then global Director of HP Labs and a former dean of Engineering at the University of Illinois, to concentrate on technologies that could be harvested to improve the company’s bottom line became more intense. The number of projects were slashed from some 150 to around 30. The Vayu Internet device delivering rich and intuitive user experiences, cloud-based services called Site-on-Mobile, novel gesture-based interactions, and gesture-based Keyboards became the flagship projects in India.
Many of these were on display last week at the event to mark 10 years of HP India. Several of these efforts have been recognized through industry awards such as the Asian Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award 2006, Manthan Award 2007, NASSCOM Award 2007 and NASSCOM IT Innovator 2009 and the MIT Tech Reviews Grand Challenge Awards 2010
Says Dr Ramani: “HP Labs India is a world class Lab now. Areas of work change over the years in any Lab, but there is one thing unchanging – the focus on new ideas and innovation. These are the backbone of any technology company; they are also crucial factors for enhancing economic productivity and prosperity everywhere. The demos given on the occasion of the 10th Anniversary of setting up of the Lab give promising signs of what is to come in the information technology of the future”.
Adds Sudhir Dixit, Director, HP Labs India. “Cloud computing, mobility, security, collaboration, and big data analytics are beginning to play a crucial part in the evolution of next generation technology usage and adoption across both enterprises and consumers alike. There is a distinct opportunity to take our past end-user focused research and bring its benefits to services and solutions that organizations can use to grow their market and expand their offerings. It’s a unique intersection that we fully intend to leverage and explore.”
The parent company meanwhile was experiencing a somewhat too-frequent churn in leadership, which saw Meg Whitman take over as President and CEO in September 2011, from Leo Apotheker, after less than a year into his term. I wrote in this space at the time: “Ms Whitman is probably skilled in selling soap, flowers, footwear, toys and movies, having served earlier with ( respectively) Proctor & Gamble, FTD, Stride Rite, Hasbro and Disney. I list these prior appointments in a very positive sense You would think: ‘All this rich experience in consumer products means HP might be returning to its roots as a maker of printers, PCs and other mass-use IT products'. And you would be wrong. It is the enterprise end of HP -- the business of IT services ; software& solutions -- that is wagging the dog so to speak …”
Prith Banerjee left HP Labs in April this year and it was generally believed the new CEO wanted the Labs to carve out an even faster track to hardnosed business oriented innovation. Two such technologies ( not from HP Labs India) are flexible displays using mylar sheets and the memristor -- or memory resistor chips that can handle logic and data storage. HP has been promising flexible displays for hand held devices since 2010, but so far no commercial announcement has been made. Memristors will be brought to commercial production next year, in a partnership with Hynix and may challenge the flash memory market
Clearly Meg Whitman like Oliver Twist, was asking for more from HP Labs.She has not yet appointed a new Director and the post is being held in the interim by HP Senior Fellow Chandrakant D Patel.
Only last month, the company reported a quarterly net loss of $8.9 billion, the largest in its history, and almost all of it attributable to its IT services business. Will the company see the message in this – and return to its roots in innovations in the printing and imaging business? Or will Ms Whitman continue to drive the company into a future in services rather than products?
The future of HP Labs in India and the down-to-earth innovations, that it has created, will depend a lot on this. It may not be untimely to remind those who decide these things at HP, of the legacy of respect and goodwill they inherited from founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who put in place the ethical, innovative work culture that we have come to admire as the HP Way. It is time to re-invent the HP Way – and HP Labs will do for starters.
At the India end, that spirit still survives – as I saw for myself last week at the demos lined up at the day- long event to mark its 10th birthday – but only just.
HP Labs is not about dollars and cents, Meg. Let them innovate in any which way they think is right, to reach and enrich the lives of those that we in India call the aam aadmi or common person. Don’t breathe on their necks saying “ Show me the money!”
Ten years of HP Labs India has seen some of the most meaningful, responsible and sensible technologies to flow out of an MNC funded R&D outfit in India. It’s an HP act that ain’t broke, so don’t fix it. September 9 2012
See our Image of the Day story on some of the innovations at HP Labs India: http://indiatechonline.com/viewimage.php?id=415