Tag Archives: Bell Labs

Impressions of “Transforming Nokia: The Power of Paranoid Optimism to Lead Through Colossal Change,” by Risto Siilasmaa with Catherine Fredman

Impressions of “Transforming Nokia: The Power of Paranoid Optimism to Lead Through Colossal Change,” by Risto Siilasmaa with Catherine Fredman

Transforming Nokia ties together three business stories I’ve been reading about for years: the history of Bell Labs, the history of cell phones, and the history of Microsoft. The perspective is biased — told from the perspective of the last Chairman of Nokia’s cellular era and first Chairman of Nokia’s networking era — but informative. The book’s only weakness is it feels like a rough draft of a business self-help book glued onto a corporate history — I would take less self-help, and more corporate history.

The last ten years of the cell phone business has seen the death of companies like Blackberry and Palm, while Apple and Google formed a duopoloy.

Two other players in this market where Nokia, with the Symbian Operation System, and Microsoft with Windows Phone. The middle episodes of Transforming Nokia place place during events which made it clear that Symbian was now obsolete, but where it was unclear if Windows Phone provided a meaningful way forward. Windows Phone had less technical debt, better design, better monetization options for the company, and better tooling for engineers.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to combine Symbian’s marketshare with Windows Phone’s modern platform. There was no ability for apps written on one platform to run on another, and seemingly no discussion about this either. Windows Phone entered the market with no apps that could run on it, leaving it a worse library than any operating system. And new apps were written for the new market leaders, Apple iOS and Google Android, which already had share. To have bet the company on two different operation systems, both of which had complementary advantages and neither of which were able to survive on their own, must have been incredibly frustrating.

And not just frustrating — a major failure for another company too. Microsoft’s failure with Windows Phone lead to the firing of CEO Steve Ballmer and new CEO Satya Nadella’a major strategy shifts. Microsoft’s investments in Nokia were scrapped, and even Microsoft’s internal hardware development focused on a sister project, Windows RT, was fundamentally impacted by Nokia and Microsoft’s total defeat in the hardware market.

Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO during its attempted transition, temporarily ran the Microsoft Mobile division it bought from Nokia until Satya gave up on that effort. A lot of the book is given to the perspective of Risto Siilasmaa, who regularly criticizes the actions of the prior chairman while defending Elop, who had been hired by the prior Chairman. It seems that Riisto sees his role as primarily that of chief investor — a position typically taken by the CEO in the U.S. — and not of executive leader — also a role for the CEO in the U.S. While Risto ultimately abandoned the phone as a business, he seems to believe that Elop ran the phone business as successfully as possible given the circumstances.

Ultimately, Nokia sold the phone business to Microsoft, and used that successful sell to buy one and a half real businesses: the half of Nokia Siemens Networks the company did not earn, plus Alcatel-Lucent — Lucent itself being a rebrand of Bell Labs. The history of (Nokia) Bell Labs is tragic. The invention of the semicoonductor made computer miniaturization possible. Terrible leadership clapped itself on the back for changes that lead to the death of its ability to function as a first-class company or laboratory. Four years ago I read the most recent book about the firm, which was “high detailed, impressionist, echoing with nostalgia,” and impossibly beautiful.

Bell Labs – in the form of Alcatel-Lucent — enters Transforming Nokia near the end. Nokia is seeking safety in the telecommunications business, and Alcatel-Lucent is a similarly sized company with similar problems but complementary product lines. What feels like it should have been the most dramatic part of the story — a potential merger-of-equals under French control becoming a takeover of Alcatel-Lucent by Nokia — is oddly downplayed. Perhaps because those events are the most relevant inside the company, Siilasmaa is careful to avoid providing signals as to the company’s future intentions.

I enjoyed the history a lot, and the Siilasmaa’s in general seemed more forthright about Nokia than Satya did about Microsoft. The tone feels closer to very self-critical works, such as We Were Yahoo or Robert X. Cringley’s takedown of the modern IBM. My gripe is that the author uses a lot of buzzwords – phrases like “The Paranoid Optimist” and other jargon is used a lot, and I’m not sure if this is how the author thinks or if he’s planning a consulting career after Nokia. Or just really likes some phrases.

On a personal note I enjoyed hearing about the post-Nokia history of their phone business, called “Devices and Services” in the book. I knew Nokia D&S became Microsoft Mobile, I did not know these assets then formed the core of HMD, the company that made my (current) Nokia phone.

I read Transforming Nokia: The Power of Paranoid Optimism to Lead Through Colossal Change in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “Kitten Clone,” by Douglas Coupland

Kitten-Clone by Douglas Coupland

Depending on your age and interests, you may know Douglas Coupland for

popularizing the term “Generation X” (1991)
his detailed, and thinly fictionalized, novel of Microsoft two decades ago (1996)
his detailed, and thinly fictionalized, novel of EA Sports Vancouver last decade (2007)
His gallery show, Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything

Kitten Clone combines Generation X’s feeling of being alive after the major events happened, Microsofters & jPod tech sensibility, and Everything’s pop sensibility.

“Kitten Clone” is also interesting, because it completes the histories of Bell Lab’s I’ve written.

Crystal Fire, which I reviewed in 2009, took place in an era where Bell Labs was a scientiifc powerhouse
Life in the Crown Jewel, which I also reviewed in 2009, the first-person account of a corporate official who helped implement many disasterous reforms
and Optical Illusions, which I reviewed in 2010, about the acquisition by the French


But the wheel keeps turning. Alcatel-Lucent, the purchaser of Bell Labs, has been purchased by Nokia for $16 billion.

And this knowledge, that Kitten Clone is a snapshot of life after Bell Lab’s greatest but not in the after-after Nokia era, is what makes the book moving.

Oddly, near the end, are two paragraphs that relate strongly to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si. Coupland has a gift of writing about right now, whether right now has just happened or is just about to happen:

After leaving Chen’s office, I experienced time sickness as though I really have wormholed into the future. A few hours later, I’m at a dinner in a glass tower above the Bund [in Shanghai], a trillion dollars worth of real estate and LED lighting that blows Tokyo into the weeds. The steaks are from Argentina and cost $100 apiece. There are thirty different kinds of single-malt scotch. The restaurant’s air is cool and fragrant, but the air outside the window is boiling and muggy and has that slightly damaged feeling, like when you see a big car with a large dent in it that makes you wince and say, “Ow.”

“As I sip my drink, I look out the windows toward the power plants that are burning the coal from British Columbia that fuels the air conditioners and elevators and routers and switching devices and laptops and mainframes and hard drives and cell rechargers of Shanghai. The sky is chalked white from particulates, but the glowing skyscraper walls make the sky look like pink water milk.

kitten clone true by coupland

Kitten Clone is high detailed, impressionist, echoing with nostalgia, echoing with the future, echoing with the now.

Review of “Optical Illusions: Lucent and the Crash of Telecom” by Lisa Endlich

Recently I finished Optical Illusions: Lucent and the Crash of Telecom. Optical Illusions is the first book that I read on the Kindle app on iPad, and it was a very pleasant reading experience. It also was a good reading experience, forming a sort of triptych on the history of Bells Labs (along with Crystal Fire and Inside the Crown Jewel. Lucent, for those too young to remember, was perhaps best known for its logo, the coffee cup stain of quality.

The first thing to realize is that Lucent Technologies was built on a lie. The original tag line was “Bell Labs innovations,” the original advertising emphasized continuity with Bells Labs, but Lucent was not Bell Labs – it was a renamed Western Electric, a ‘thick necked,’ unimaginative legacy equipment manufacturer. The company line, that Bells Labs was too expensive to maintain, was nonsense — Bell Labs was a tiny fraction of the company’s overall expenses, and Lucent lost factors of 100s more on bad acquisitions than they did on Bell Labs.

Rather, the mission of Lucent’s leadership was to turn Lucent into any other kind of company than what it was. The leadership was aware that Lucent’s core business was a dead end, and they had no interest in using growth-oriented parts of the company (such as Lucent Microelectronics or Bell Labs) to develop new products over time. Lucent printed bubble-value stock in an effort to buy other, profitable, companies, in the hope it could use money the market was giving it for free in an effort to become a viable company.

It failed. The company, which increased its value ten-fold by the peak of speculation, eventually lost 99% of its top value. The CEO was fired, and lives and research careers were crushed. America lost a top line research organization, Lucent shareholders lost their savings, and the bubble burst.

Lucent is no longer an American company. Alcatel-Lucent it now owned by the French. The Telecom bubble has not. And because Lucent did not have a friend in Tim Geithner, it lost almost all its money.

The end.

Review of “Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel,’ by Narain Gehani

At one point, listening to this book while running on an eliptical, I wanted to throw the remote control at the television.


Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel is a first-person history of the Bell Labs – Research, as told from the perspective of a Computer Science Ph.D. who began n development, transferred to research, and eventually became head of Bells Labs Silicon Valley. The book suffers from numerous flaws, and I finished it merely so I could give it a negative review.

In a way, comparing Bell Lab: Life in the Crown Jewel with other stories of innovation engines (such as Where Wizards Stay Up Late and Dealers of Lightning) leads to the same comparison of The Man Who Stayed Behind and I Chose China. Both of these latter two books concern American Jews who went to China in the early post-War years, aligned themselves with the Communist Party, and witnessed Maoism first-hand over a period of decades. However, while The Man Who Stayed Behind is carefully organized, I Choose China is a collection of reminiscences that go nowhere in particular. Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel is a collection of reminiscences that go nowhere in particular. The tenacity with which Narain repeats that there is a conflict between basic and applied research is impressive, but ultimately pointless.

Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel appears to want to be a popular business book. I say this because technical and research skills are regularly mocked, but little is learned from a research perspective, either. For instance, in one anectdoe, Gehani disputes whether a colleague actually saved a Business Unit a large amount of money through some new technique. The colleague, the colleague’s manager, and the Business Unit all assert that he did. Gehani’s “test” — to see whether the Business Unit would grant a bonus of a large amount of money, because that employee might again be so productive the next year, ends the anecdote as an example of Gehani’s cleverness. The technical details of what this innovation might have been are not discussed. But neither is any business thinking exhibited. Questions of headcount, corporate fiefdoms, and the such aren’t even raised. Instead, in this anecdote and others, the reader is intended to exist with a sense of Gehani’s unique cleverness.

The book is a nauseating example of how corporate lawfare retards actual innovation. For instance, in a sickening passage, Narain discusses how he “invented” and patented co-browsing, and urged Bell Labs’ general counsel to sue others who use this “invention.” The patent(s) Gehani refers to appear to be:

These ridiculous patents exist only because corporate corporations attempt to use the law to club possible competitors. None of these “inventions” are any more impressive than, say, “A Method to Repair Shoe Laces with Scotch Tape in the Event they Break Instead of Buying New Shoelaces.” However, large companies that hire lawyers are able to cause enough problems litigating these pattens (that they get by flooding the underfunded USPTO with applications) that they are able to carve out de facto monopolies contrary to the intent of U.S. law. A search on the Patent Office’s website indicate that Gehani’s first patent was granted in 1995, considerably after he joined Bell Labs. My obvious conclusion is that Bell Labs, ever closer to its decapitation by Lucent, began generating patents in order to force competitors to “license” obvious methods, or else face hundreds of thousands in legal bills. This is not discuss.

The tragedy of Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel is that it might have been one of the best case-studies of an innovation engine written. Perhaps Narain Gehani will still write that book. He is no longer with Bell Labs, and currently serves as the Chairman of the Computer Science Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. His publication list is impressive, and Google Book Search brings up numerous other works written or co-written by Dr. Gehani. I hope that I will have a chance to read a more complete first-person perspective, perhaps titled Bell Labs: Decline and Fall, sometime soon. Narain could structure such as book as follows.

Introduction: What Went Wrong
Chapter One: My Early Life
Chapter Two: From a Professor to a Researcher
Chapter Three: (Mis)Adventures with the Unix Team
Chapter Four: Concurrent C/C++
Chapter Five: The Object Database Environment
Chapter Six: Years of Transition
Chapter Seven: The Columbus GPS System
Chapter Eight: Maps On Us
Chapter Nine: Cell Center Capers
Chapter Ten: Commuting from Jersey to the Valley (by Jet)
Chapter Eleven: From a Researcher to a Professor:
Epilogue: What Went Right

Such a book would be a wonderful read, a great “technical autobiography” of a man, and a first-person history of Bell Labs. It would explain obviously important parts of Narain’s career which are discussed but never described, such as his database and C/C++ systems. Additionally, it would provide a coherent chronology and frames of reference, that do not exist in the current book.