More than a decade later, Horn's stepping down to the applause of his colleagues who credit him with transforming Big Blue's research and development efforts--including speeding up its corporate metabolism to bring more tech innovations to market. CNET News.com recently spoke to Horn, who is looking back on a 28-year career and is looking forward to a new career as a scholar at New York University.
Q: You're becoming a Distinguished Scientist in Residence at NYU. What exactly does a distinguished scientist do?
Horn: Anything he wants to do. (Laughing). Basically, it's a fancy title. I have no formal responsibilities, but what I'm hoping to do is find synergies and perhaps help them commercialize some of the technology...So basically, the job is "Come down and figure out what you can do to help change the university."
Part of your charge, as you suggest, will be to get things a bit more market-oriented. The modus operandi at IBM Research also has been to try to get its scientists more involved in customer engagements and be more market-oriented.
Horn: That's true. More and more of the value is higher up the innovation stack. That requires not just a new device (but also) to really understand what new business models can fundamentally change companies within an industry. The only way you get that information and help build those changes is to work with the customer.
What's been the learning curve? Has it been hard or easy to get them to follow your lead on that?
Horn: Well, some of our scientists--we just love to keep them down in the basement. We don't unlock the doors that often but, to be honest, you have a lot who, when they interact with the customers, they actually love it. It's important that they get to interact with them on really challenging problems.
Does that come with the expense of theoretical experimentation?
Horn: I don't think so. If you don't do this, you really run the risk of being like the old Bell Laboratory: very inventive, but not really good at innovation because innovation really requires understanding the market. So the more of these channels you have to the marketplace, the more positive feedback the scientists get because they get to do things to change the world.
I recall touring an IBM Comdex booth in the mid- or late-1980s and seeing the digital mouse for the first time. But it took at least another year or two before IBM got around to incorporating the device into its laptop line. How does a big company avoid that kind of bureaucratic pitfall when there is a cool product under development in the research labs but because of the size of the company, it's going to take an awfully long time before it hits the market?
Horn: It's not so much a question of size but a question of culture. The way we used to be is that our researchers really didn't understand our businesses that well. So they didn't understand the barriers and what it takes to get new innovations into our products. You have to understand the product stream; you have to understand how to build code that doesn't have to be rewritten; and you have to understand how to be able to integrate a new material with an existing process.
The barriers you're talking about, I don't believe are so much associated with size and bureaucracy. It's more a question of culture and trust.
You've been at the helm since 1996?
What's been the most important development to come out of IBM Research during your tenure?
Horn: Oh boy! I knew somebody would ask me that question, Charlie.
Come on. It's a softball.
Horn: This will sound crazy because it wasn't a product. It was the time when Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov. It changed the culture. If you looked at the newspapers or journal articles about IBM before that time, every one of them started off, "IBM, the troubled computer maker"...because we were still coming out of the near-death experience we had in the early '90s. After that, you never saw that again.
What was the impact internally?
Horn: It changed the culture, because people started to feel good about what they can do here again. I'm pretty proud of that accomplishment even though it wasn't something that instantaneously led to a lot of revenue.
What's been the biggest surprise for you over the course of that era?
Horn: Probably the biggest surprise was how rapidly the Internet went from some cute thing to a fundamental way to rethink every aspect of a business, the way it's been able to transform business.