In a rare case of lifting the corporate kimono, HP Labs yesterday offered some insights into its vision for the future of computing at an event held in San Francisco to celebrate its 35th birthday.

While its mission hasn't changed over the years, HP Labs hasn't escaped the economic downturn. The tough times have created a "sense of urgency" to deliver technologies that can be brought to market more quickly, admitted Dick Lampman, senior vice president and director of research at HP Labs.

Researchers here offered an overview of some of the diamonds they're currently mining in HP Labs.

They include a software application that aims to make better use of the knowledge available inside organisations — letting people get access to stored knowledge anonymously.

Outside the company, HP has a vision of creating an infrastructure that enables a user's data to follow them as they move around the globe. That long-term vision, explained John Sentag, department manager for the Internet Systems and Storage Lab, will be achieved when storage management is greatly simplified at the user end. Data should be stored in what he called "federated arrays of bricks", meaning commodity servers that can be easily managed to maintain reliability.

Computer chips made from molecules are also in the pipeline. Today's semiconductors use millions of tiny silicon transistors that switch on and off to represent the ones and zeros of binary computer code. As the number of transistors increases, problems of heat and power consumption threaten to stump progress by the end of the decade.

HP Labs has crafted a "molecular switch" from a few dozen atoms that can be charged in a similar way to represent a one or a zero, said Stan Williams, an HP fellow and director of the Quantum Science Research lab. Hybrid chips blending traditional silicon components with molecular electronics could allow chips to continue their performance gains for the next 50 years, he said.

HP Labs isn't alone in pursuing molecular electronics, but claims to have built the smallest molecular switch using a production method that could be replicated on a large scale. Prototype switches developed in the lab measure about 50 nanometres across, or about 100-times thinner than a human hair, but the lab expects to shrink them much further.

The switches can be knitted together using 'nanowires', or fine threads crafted from platinum, silicon, carbon or other materials. Using nanowires that are as wide as only six atoms, HP has used the switches to create simple memory devices, Williams said. He predicted that the first molecular switches would find their way into commercial use within 10 years, perhaps five.