For years, David Bishop has served as a standard-bearer for the postdivestiture Bell Labs. Trained as a condensed-matter physicist, Bishop demonstrated how someone who spent the formative years of his career doing high-temperature superconductivity experiments at one of the nation's top industrial laboratories could make the transition to overseeing early-stage product development. In the mid-1990s, as the emphasis on market-oriented research was growing, Bishop managed a group that fabricated microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), which contain tiny mirrors that can change the direction of optical signals. The initial research on MEMS resulted in his heading a team of about 100 people that built the LambdaRouter: a switch that could take a wavelength from one optical fiber and route it to hundreds of other pathways in a network.
The product was a showpiece of innovation at the laboratories. But in the summer of 2002, as the depression in the telecommunications sector reduced demand dramatically for new long-haul optical pipes, the LambdaRouter was pulled off the market. Not much interest lingered in a switch equipped to handle 10 terabits (trillions of bits) of switching capacity. Speaking of this experience, Bishop invokes the perfect storm, which, along with the nuclear winter, is constantly repeated as a metaphor for the telecommunications industry's financial implosion of the past two years or so. "Never before in the history of the company has its survival been so actively discussed," Bishop laments.
This article was originally published with the title The Relentless Storm.