[Published in the November 2001 issue of CRN as part of our series on member labs and centers]
Panasonic Information & Networking Technologies Lab
By Robert S. Fish
"Just slightly ahead of our time." For many years this has been the advertising slogan used by Panasonic in the United States. For Panasonic's research and development labs, the aim is to assure that Panasonic products and systems maintain this leadership position despite the increasing pace of technological innovation and development.
Who are we? The Panasonic Information and Networking Technologies Laboratory (PINTL) is the principal U.S. computer science-oriented lab of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company (MEI). Along with other U.S. labs, it is organized under the umbrella of Panasonic Technologies, Inc. (PTI), the main U.S. research and development arm for MEI. Globally, the MEI group has sales of about $60 billion with products identified under the brand names of Panasonic, Technics, JVC, National, and others. Our Princeton, New Jersey-based lab provides technology and intellectual property for products that the company will need to sell two to five years into the future-principally products that need software and networking technologies.
A Strategic Location
PINTL was founded in 1991 in Princeton, New Jersey as the Matsushita Information Technology Laboratory (MITL). It was purposely located near the thriving "Video Valley" R&D community on the Route 1 corridor, Princeton and Rutgers Universities, and the many large industrial research labs in central New Jersey. PINTL 's researchers come from various disciplines, but are primarily computer scientists and electrical engineers. The laboratory's name was changed from MITL to PINTL in 1997 to reflect the recognition of the Panasonic brand name in the U.S. market.
R&D in an Evolving Market
Although Panasonic has historically done business in the computer sphere directly (e.g., in the early 90s, Panasonic owned Solbourne Computers, a SUN clone workstation vendor, and Panasonic sells laptops today), many people associate Panasonic with consumer electronics (CE)ūTVs, VCRs, camcorders, and the like. It is a little-known fact that only about a third of Panasonic's sales come from CE. The balance comes from the sale of components (including computer components like mass storage, memory, and displays), as well as from the sale of systems to corporations, service providers, and network operators.
However, it also shouldn't be a surprise that as the marketplace evolves-with the emergence of the Internet as an enabler for digital products and the convergence of computer and communications technologies-CE products themselves are evolving into something that is a hybrid of CE, computer, and computer networking technologies. The CE device of the near future, although preserving the traditional CE virtues of interesting functionality, low cost, and ease of use, will also have within it a general purpose CPU, an operating system, and networking capability. So, preserving the virtues for the consumer while taming the technology has become the goal of the CE industry.
PINTL's Goals and Organization
The goal of the lab is to create software and intellectual property that will be used in products and services that encompass the secure networked devices of the future. Trends in the marketplace show that the Internet will continue to grow steadily, while growth in personal computer penetration is slowing down. Meanwhile, alternative Internet devices are starting to catch on in the marketplace-and the television set and its peripherals like VCRs, DVD players, and Set Top Boxes (STBs) are prime candidates for transformation. So the strategy at PINTL is not to focus on next-generation computers, but rather to think of a future in which Panasonic is selling interesting products and services that contain computer-like elements.
PINTL's researchers focus on product areas or on core technologies and competencies, which are then blended together to address particular product themes. PINTL's core technical competencies are in networking, security, languages, database, and operating systems technologies-basic computer science sub-disciplines. These core competencies are then focused on product themes such as interactive digital television, residential networking, professional digital broadcast, mobile communications, and multimedia document technology. This allows a balance between maintaining competence in core technical disciplines while meeting the needs of the business to address new markets in a timely fashion.
Projects Follow Broad Themes
When it comes to selecting particular projects at the lab, the company provides broad themes about where it wants to do business in the future-for instance, digital television or mobile communication. Within these themes, individual groups in the lab look to create projects in which technical innovation will have an impact on business for the company.
In addition, the modern marketplace really demands that technologies and intellectual property be developed and utilized quickly. If a company spends too much time deciding whether to develop technology in a particular area, industrial competitors pass by it very quickly. So it is always a challenge for researchers to know when to start and, maybe even more importantly, when to stop working on a project. For PINTL's members, a shift in research themes represents an opportunity to do something new and different.
In order for its work to have impact, PINTL devotes a lot of its energy to interacting and collaborating with other organizations in MEI's global R&D effort. For instance, an algorithm created in Princeton could be integrated with other software in the United Kingdom, incorporated into a product release in Japan, and finally manufactured into a product in Malaysia for sale in Germany. This global collaboration structure encourages every lab to find the correct niche for its efforts. Not every lab can do everything and be cost effective about it. In the United States, the emphasis tends to be on high-value, high-return innovation rather than on tasks that can be done more effectively elsewhere.
What are some of the particular areas that PINTL is working on now? At the moment, Panasonic's leadership is committed to the idea that the next generation of globally available systems will connect people to the worldwide Internet, and PINTL is working on ways to facilitate this transformation. Some of the particular project themes are:
· Secure Operating Systems. The next generation of operating systems will have to set a new standard for reliability, security, and compactness as CE devices become nodes in a global-scale, distributed computing environment.
· Media and Network Security. One of the challenges in the CE arena is that many audio/video devices have evolved from being analog waveform reproducers to containers for perfect digital copies of intellectual property. One only needs to look at the MP3 phenomenon to understand that this change has many communities of interest very concerned about their futures. Balancing the needs of users, platform providers, and content providers presents both technical and sociological challenges. In addition, the home is traditionally a very private domain, so connecting it to the global Internet presents a particular set of security challenges. Key relevant technologies in designing networked digital appliances are cryptography, software tamper resistance, and data hiding.
· Middleware. Once one has a basic secure platform, creating content that can run on a variety of CE platforms, that has compelling production values and is interactive, becomes a high priority. Various approaches that involve designing, placing, and maintaining presentation and execution engines on CE platforms are being investigated. Whether interactive DTV is able to transform the television from a passive receiver to the nerve center of a networked home depends largely on the development of appropriate middleware.
· Residential Networking. Computer networking grew up to serve the need to move vast quantities of bursty data between computers. Legions of professionals could be relied on to master the more arcane aspects of networking in order to keep the bits flowing. However, once networking becomes an integral part of consumer environments, creating easy-to-use, remotely upgradeable, zero-configuration environments becomes a key issue.
Like any R&D organization, the principal asset is the people who work there. The staff currently consists of 50 employees, 40 of whom are scientists and engineers and 50 percent of whom have Ph.Ds. Besides our core staff, we usually increase our numbers by about 25 percent every summer as we accommodate graduate student interns and visiting scientists. We maintain relationships with many universities, both domestic and overseas, to facilitate the exchange of students and other personnel. This resource is relied on for access to a wider variety of special expertise than is available in-house. Exchanges with overseas universities give a global perspective to our work that is quite refreshing.
In addition, PINTL enters into many partnerships and alliances that allow us to collaborate on cutting-edge technology. The lab partners with universities, typically funding several projects a year to work on a certain area of technology that Panasonic believes may be useful. For example, recently we have funded some open source projects in areas where we believe that Panasonic could benefit from the results. In addition, there are technology consortia (e.g., the Java Community Process) of various sorts in which we participate in order to raise the general level of technology in industry.
Overall, PINTL attempts to provide an intellectually stimulating environment in which to work, while focusing on problems that will have some impact on the lives of consumers. For more information, see our website at http://www.research.panasonic.com.
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