Back in the 1970s and 1980s it was conventional for software and hardware companies to have research labs, modeled to some extent after AT&T Bell Labs and IBM’s various labs. This way the cash cow product could soldier onward with incremental changes while the replacement incubated. IBM, for example, kept selling efficient-but-inflexible hierarchical DBMS software for mainframes while its Almaden (San Jose) research lab created our modern RDBMS and SQL (initially unusably sluggish).
Product cycles are much shorter today. In theory a company with a popular program can push out new features or fixes every day or at least every week (“Update and Restart”!).
I was chatting with the CEO of a successful one-product software company. Making a change to this software involves getting signoffs from a huge number of constituents, a massive testing effort, etc. The result is a lot of interface that everyone agrees is suboptimal. I suggested starting a research lab with a comparative handful of developers to knock together working prototypes that can be used by a few thousand people and then, if anything catches on, use that experience (if not much of the actual code) as inspiration for making the painful and expensive changes to the core product.
He reasonably asked if I could cite currently successful companies that are doing a formal “labs” department as opposed to simply having hackathons or similar informal ways of pulling together proofs of concept. So now I’m going to bounce the question over to readers!
Readers: Is the idea of a separate “labs” group within a company essentially obsolete due to (a) faster release cycles from the main product engineering group, and (b) hackathons and similar venues that can be sources of inspiration for the main team?
Also, what other examples can people think of for a big innovation coming out of a separate group within the same company? It has to be in the same area where the company already has a successful product, preferably software. So Bell Labs developing the transistor or HP Labs the ink jet printer wouldn’t count (since HP’s business wasn’t primarily printers prior to the lab innovation and AT&T was not primarily in the business of making vacuum tubes).