Graeme Philipson
August 5, 2015

Telstra doubles up on new labs

Telstra doubles up on new labs

Andy Penn: Setting a new course for innovation excellence

Telstra has opened a new R&D facility in Melbourne, and unveiled a joint venture with US transformation specialist Pivotal to build cloud software in Sydney.

Australia’s largest telco made both announcements on the same day, as it drives to regain its position as an Australia tech research powerhouse.

Back in the old days Telstra, as the Post Master General’s Department and then Telecom, was one of the nation’s great R&D centres. It developed new radar technology in World War Two, facilitated the first TV broadcast, and according to Wikipedia even demonstrated the first Internet ‘fridge.

That all ended when Telstra Research Laboratories it was shut down in 2006, with hundreds of staff retrenched, as part of CEO’s Sol Trujillo’s rationalisation. The move was rightly regarded at the time as technology vandalism, and many are still bitter about it today.

Ten years later, the launch of the new ‘Gurrowa’ Innovation Lab in Melbourne, brings back some of Telstra’s R&D capabilities, though there is a long way to go to recover the company’s former research leadership.

Telstra says Gurrowa, which means ‘interchange’ in the Aboriginal Wurung language, “signifies the interchanging of ideas that will take place in this unique co-creation space that will drive the new wave of innovation at Telstra.”

The lab is located at Telstra’s Exhibition Street HQ in Melbourne – much more modest than the multiple campuses of the old Telstra Research Laboratories.

Still, it is a start. And Telstra simultaneously announced a deal with Silicon Valley software development company Pivotal to jointly develop cloud based applications at a new Pivotal Lab in Sydney.

Telstra Chief Operations Officer Kate McKenzie said the Gurrowa Innovation Lab “is an important next step in Telstra’s ongoing investment in being a world-leading technology company and a significant contributor to Australia’s innovation agenda,” which is a bit different to what the unlamented Sol Trujillo said a decade ago, when R&D was not seen as a core Telstra activity.

“Technology is changing at a faster rate than ever before, impacting business models and traditional industry structures, and to stay ahead of the curve we need to be constantly innovating,” Ms McKenzie said.

“Gurrowa builds on the Telstra Research Partnership Program we launched last year and is part of our strategy to develop world-class innovation capabilities. These include our Gurrowa co-creation environment, extended collaboration with our innovation network, and a model that will deliver speed at scale for new and enhanced products and services for our customers.”

There you have it. Speed of scale. Co-creation. Extended collaboration. All good stuff – where has it been?

McKenzie said that one key area of focus will be the Internet of Things (IoT). “Gurrowa will provide a space for the design and prototype IoT devices, the network services to connect them, and the software developers to bring the services to life.

“This year we will connect haptic robots to rural ultrasound equipment, design portable systems that can locate lost children in remote areas, and develop sensor applications to predict when equipment or structures may fail.”

Haptic robots! (‘Haptic is any form of interaction involving touch. From the ancient Greek ἅπτω, meaning I fasten onto, I touch').

Telstra Chief Technology Officer Vish Nandlall said there has been no time in history where technology presents such raw ingredients for innovation.

“Advances in robotics, 3D printing, low-cost microcontrollers, and ubiquitous sensors are blanketing the real world in software,” Mr Nandlall said.

“The global adoption of mobile connectivity, cloud computing and deep learning allows these breakthroughs to be combined in wonderful new experiences,” he said.

“The resources in Gurrowa will allow teams to build ideas in hardware and software, and deliver them through modern processes focussed on speed and iteration.”

Telstra’s new joint venture with Pivotal is also important. Pivotal is one of the hottest software development companies in Silicon Valley, a spinoff from storage company EMC and its VMware virtualisation subsidiary.

Under the deal Telstra will help the Pivotal Labs business unit develop software at the new facility in Sydney. Pivotal has developed an agile software development methodology using an open cloud platform and a suite of big data products including Greenplum, GemFire and Cloud Foundry.

The Pivotal Cloud Foundry (PCF) platform, originally also owned by VMWare, is an open source ‘platform as a service’ (PaaS) development platform used to build cloud based applications. The deal sees Telstra become a member of the Cloud Foundry Foundation.

“Partnering with Pivotal to bring Pivotal Labs to Australia is a fantastic extension of Telstra’s innovation network to deliver world-class technology solutions to our customers,” said Ms McKenzie.

“In conjunction with our new Gurrowa Innovation Lab, Pivotal Labs will enhance our innovation offering for our customers and create a pipeline of skills to grow our development capabilities.”

“Innovation at Telstra is about helping our customers get the best out of technology for the future and ultimately providing access to the best networks from which they can innovate, and the partnership will allow us to do just that,” she said.

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