Needless to say, Weldon has a big job. You may have have heard that Nokia recently acquired Alcatel-Lucent for €15.6 billion to challenge the likes of Ericsson and Huawei. The combined entity will employ roughly 114,000 employees and have sales of around 26 billion euros.
In fact, Weldon has two big jobs. In addition to serving as AlcaLu’s CTO, Weldon also notably became the 13th President of Bell Labs, the iconic research organisation that’s been around for about 90 years, in late 2013.
Researchers working at Bell Labs, now part of Alcatel-Lucent, are credited with the development of things like the transistor, the laser, the UNIX operating system and the C programming language.
The first thing I asked Weldon during the video interview was how he was able to combine both roles.
Weldon said the roles are actually quite complimentary, given that the role of a CTO is to understand the evolution of the industry, whereas research is supposed to come up with solutions to the problems that lie in its future. Asked to describe the mission of Bell Labs, Weldon was quick on his feet:
“Bell Labs’ role is to invent the future. I think that’s fundamentally what Bell Labs does, particularly in the areas of human communication and networking, and of course now we’re entering the era of IoT.”
Weldon says Bell Labs researchers are encouraged to think broadly and ambitiously, and not just in terms of solving Alcatel-Lucent’s (or its clients’) short-term needs. This is described internally as Future X projects, where the X stands for many things, Weldon says, including ‘the unknown’, ‘think 10 years ahead’ and ‘make something 10x better’.
I got a taste of that during a brief visit following the interview, where researchers walked me through some current Bell Labs initiatives, including technology that allows for broadband speeds of up to 10 Gbps for transmission of data over traditional copper telephone lines. (Also see video below)
Weldon says Bell Labs has about 750 people working to solve tomorrow’s problems when it comes to communication and networking, and strong relationships with universities and startups alike to keep its ears to ground for innovation. It will sometimes make small investments in startups, but I also learned that Alcatel-Lucent also often serves as an LP for funds that invest in startups.
There’s also Bell Labs Prize, a global competition for individual innovators that seeks to recognise proposals that ‘change the game’ in the field of information and communications technologies, providing them with the opportunity to collaborate with Bell Labs researchers to help realise their visions. Speaking of vision, I asked Weldon what he things the next 5 years will bring.
“In the next five years, the network becomes the next big thing,” Weldon said. “We’re leaving the cloud era; not leaving it behind, but it’s going to be quite as highly valued, it will become somewhat a commodity.”
“We’re entering the IoT era, but IoT devices are designed to be low-power with no processing capability to keep them cheap and battery life long. You connect IoT and cloud, you need to redesign the network in sort of a massive way. So we think that the next five years will be defined by building a highly scalable ‘cloud network’, where the value goes into the network layer,” Weldon added.
Interestingly, while Weldon says IoT will become the lifeblood of the new enterprise, he believes the consumer IoT is largely overblown. His exact words: “IoT is about enterprise, not about consumer.”
Calling devices like FitBit and the Apple Watch “cute” and “curiosities” but “not transformative”, Weldon said he personally “doesn’t really believe in consumer IoT in the same way others do” and that he believes the impact of IoT technology on enterprises will be far greater.
I also enquired about the marriage between Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent, which Weldon deems “fantastic for the industry, as it creates a scale player with end-to-end capabilities”. Asked whether he foresees more consolidation in the industry, Weldon said:
“I think so, but I don’t know where. I think there are certain spaces where there are too many vendors, so I think there’s more consolidation to come, but I think we have the right head start on by creating a global powerhouse that can deliver ahead of anyone else rather than reacting late to the game.”
It will be interesting indeed to see whether the two companies, both with such rich histories, can remain on the cutting edge of network and communication technology.
On that note, you should also check out Bell Labs’ interesting ‘Future Impossible’ video series on YouTube. For example, see ‘The Many Lives of Copper’:
All images credit to tech.eu.