April 22, 2000
A Silicon Valley Laboratory Shuts Down
Research Effort Tried to Shape Technology Still Years Away
By JOHN MARKOFF
ALO ALTO, Calif., April 21 -- An
ambitious Silicon Valley effort to
create computer industry breakthroughs ended in failure today when
the Web site of the Interval Research
Corporation was replaced with a
stark press release stating that its
co-founder, Paul G. Allen, had closed
the advanced computer laboratory
after eight years.
The laboratory told 30 of its 50
remaining employees that they
would be offered positions at a smaller for-profit advanced broadband development group that will be established by Vulcan Ventures, Mr. Allen's investment group.
Mr. Allen, who also co-founded Microsoft with William H.
Gates, created Interval in 1992 in partnership
with David E. Liddle, a computer
scientist. They made a 10-year, $100
million investment in an effort to
pursue new ideas that might bear
fruit as much as a decade in the
The name of the effort was intended to symbolize the researchers' efforts to develop technologies that
would have an impact in 5 to 10 years
and would shape the computer industry for the next 20 years.
"If you look down the road, what
you see is the pervasiveness of high-bandwidth data communications and
completely inexpensive computing
power," Mr. Allen said at the time.
"If you combine those two things,
there are many interesting things
that you can do.'"
High-bandwidth communication is
the ability to send computer data,
voice and video at very high speeds.
The original idea was to mimic the
Xerox Corporation's legendary Palo
Alto Research Center, which during
the 1970's had been the source of
many innovative ideas in the personal computer industry.
The Interval Research laboratory,
which at one point had swelled to
employ as many as 150, was formed
with the intent to spin off business
To date, the spin-off
model has largely failed, with no
dramatic successes having come
from the years of research.
When Mr. Allen decided last year
to narrow the focus of the research
laboratory to support his cable and
broadband commercial investments,
Mr. Liddle chose to resign.
Today officials of Vulcan Ventures
said that Interval had made significant, if not commercial, contributions to Mr. Allen's strategy, but that
it was a challenge to do basic research in the overheated Internet
"Interval over the last eight years
has contributed to Paul's vision,"
said William Savoy, president of Vulcan Ventures, who added that the
pace of change in technology has
accelerated so much that long-range
research projects do not fit well into
The company is in the process of
spinning off at least three high technology start-ups. One company, Fantasma, is aimed at the market for
ultra-wide-band radio, an unproven
communications technology that will
require approval from the Federal
Although it uses low power, the technology covers much of the radio frequency spectrum with rapid pulses
of radio waves.
Two other companies yet to be
spun out will include one concentrating on integrated circuit design and
another focusing on digital photography.
Although many Interval researchers have been expecting the research
effort to be closed, several said today
the announcement came as a shock.
"There is a certain undercurrent
of shock," said an Interval researcher who spoke on the condition that he
not be identified. "I'd say we got
about halfway toward our original
But when it became obvious
that the spin-off process did not
work, it was increasingly difficult."
Interval's inability to publicly
demonstrate technology breakthroughs has been an issue that has
plagued the research center in recent years.
Many researchers believe that
Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center
existed during an era that has been
impossible to recreate.
"The advantage we had at
P.A.R.C. was that I knew a relatively
small set of people who had pioneered the development of interactive computing," said Robert Taylor,
who was one of the founding managers of the Xerox center as well as
being one of the creators of the ARPAnet, the Pentagon-funded computer network that became the Internet.
"Other research labs were not pursuing the same kind of work, and that
gave us a huge advantage."
Interval Research was known in
Silicon Valley for its obsession with
secrecy, and analysts said that also
worked against the research group.
"They were done in by secrecy,
which isolated them," said Paul
Saffo, an industry consultant at the
Institute for the Future. "But this is
great news for the Valley; a lot of big
brains are now on the loose."