Bell Labs' Mayo: Communications industry experiencing revolutionary changes

March 24, 1995

By Jeffery Kahn

To see how quickly the Information Age is unfolding, you need look back only three years. In the blink of an eye, electronic mail and portable phones have become commonplace, and 25 million people have linked up to the Internet.

What has emerged, says John Mayo, recently retired president of AT&T Bell Labs, is a new global information industry that today is worth $1 trillion, and is growing at a rate of eight to 10 percent a year.

Mayo -- he spoke at LBL on March 15 as part of the Science and Technology in a Competitive World lecture series -- says the information infrastructure has been evolving since time immemorial toward a goal finally realized in the 1990s. Today, humans can instantaneously share sound, data, and images from any place on the globe. At the same time, he said, half the people in the world still have not made their first phone call.

Mayo, a 36-year veteran of Bell Labs, says a convergence of factors -- technology, global competition, and the marketplace--account for the sudden and revolutionary changes in the communications industry. He says suppliers drove the market until the explosion of technology that occurred in the 1980s. This richness of technology and global competition put the customer in the driver's seat. Suddenly, the customer was able to choose from among many competitive products and services.

"If you think about it," he said, "perhaps the major impact Japan has had on our society is that it allowed customers to have choices. When they chose Japanese products, the effect on American industry was dramatic. It responded with a new generation of services of products."

Industry cannot survive by paying lip service to the customer. In fact, says Mayo, the new industrial model for how to do R&D begins and ends with the customer. Today, you must talk to the customer before starting research, not after the completion of development. The customer must be an integral part of a team that includes engineers and marketing people whose efforts must be concurrent, not sequential as in the past.

Mayo identified four key technologies--silicon chips, lasers, fibers, and software--as the key forces behind the Information Age.

"Almost everything in the field is built by some combination of these technologies," he said. "Individually, these technologies are a decade or two from exhaustion in terms of enhancements and improvements. In combination, they will continue to revolutionize products and services."

Mayo traced the roots of these changes back to the 1960s, when industry changed its design processes. The 1970s was a decade when analog systems were replaced by digital. In the 1980s, with the breakup of AT&T, the telecommunications industry was reorganized. This led to the current blending and merging of the phone, cable, television, computer, and electronics industries.

Mayo predicts that by the turn of the century, the cascade of changes rocking the communication industry will have its most profound effect. The new products and services just now coming into our lives will result, he said, in the "re-engineering of our very way of life."

The Science and Technology in a Competitive World lecture series is jointly sponsored by LBL and UC Berkeley.