The high-tech and venture capital (VC) communities continue to create charismatic leaders, but few can compete with Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet at Xerox Parc and co-founder of LAN pioneer 3Com in the 1970s.
Even though Ethernet is still a hot technology, it is now being overshadowed by the closely related and completely unrelated technologies of Ethercoin. But it sowed a new world of communication.
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Metcalfe’s vigorous efforts to promote high-tech innovation and venture capital continue to bear fruit. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) today named Metcalfe the recipient of the 2022 ACM AM Turing Award for the invention, standardization and commercialization of Ethernet.
Metcalfe went with no small amount of swagger from his elementary school days, when he told a teacher he would go to MIT, which he did, to his days at the legendary Xerox Parc, where he named Ethernet after an imaginary substance that Newton used to describe the environment. transmission. for the propagation of electromagnetic forces. Metcalfe has shown ferocity and flair in the LAN battles that have pitted 3Com against the likes of IBM, Wang, Ungermann-Bass, Interlan, and more.
Metcalfe continued his time at 3Com, focusing on publishing—he was CEO, publisher, and pundit for InfoWorld Magazine—and building the venture capital community in Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and Research Fellow at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He spoke to VentureBeat shortly before the official Turing Award. (Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
VentureBeat: Your work on Ethernet with David Boggs took some ideas from Norm Abramson’s ALOHANet, improved performance, and met with skepticism at Xerox Parc. But in fact, now it looks like a classic case of how then everything seems so obvious. People asked, “Why can’t I connect two computers in the same room when I can connect them over a long distance?”
Metcalfe: Obviously the difficulty of connecting two computers in the same room was an opportunity. But the first competitor of our network was SneakerNet. People said, “Why should I spend $1,000?” And that was usually its initial cost. They said, “I just take the floppy disk to the printer and print it out.” So we had to fight SneakerNet for a while. Over time, competition has shifted to other networking methods.
Ethernet was born in 1973 when Xerox Parc decided to build what might be the first modern personal computer. People thought it was outrageous. They said, “You’re going to put a computer on every table – why are you so stupid?” Fortunately, I was able to network them. We were building a laser printer that ran at 500 pages per second, which meant it needed a lot of bandwidth. So, in order for the printer to be loaded, we needed a fast network. And the first Ethernet was 10,000 times faster than what it replaced, i.e. terminal networks like RS-232. This way we could keep the printer busy.
WB: Looking back, Ethernet seems to be the time when networking standards surpassed proprietary standards.
Metcalfe: IBM [Token-Ring] and General Motors [MAP Token bus] and Wang [WangNet] and others have all decided they want to dominate the web with their own technology. We had a big fight that lasted maybe 20 years. And we used the IEEE to standardize our technologies. And three of them have been standardized: Ethernet, IBM Token Ring and Token bus. But Ethernet won that battle. And my company thrived on standards.
There is an irony in the fact that IBM, Wang and others were competing with each other. This meant that PC makers didn’t want to choose between the two. So, instead of putting the network on the motherboard, which they should have done very early on, they didn’t. And that gave my company the ability to sell network cards that could be plugged into those slots and give them networking capabilities. Pretty soon we started selling these cards in the millions. The price has fallen and the volume has increased. And our company has grown to billions. Then we and the industry developed. TCP/IP came along and protocol differences disappeared. We’ve all adopted TCP/IP and gone online.
WB: What George Gilder called “Metcalfe’s law” became very influential. This concerned the growth in the cost of the network as the number of devices increased. Now, such network effects are under scrutiny as social media grows. How do you assess the impact of computers and networks on society?
Metcalfe: I think the networking possibilities are exaggerated. In a short 50 years, we’ve reached three-quarters of humanity, and we’re doing so with ever-fast growth—so much so that connectivity has staggered us. We don’t know what to do with it.
A number of pathologies developed – you may remember that the first pathology of the Internet was pornography. And they had to pass an act of Congress – the Communications Decency Act – to deal with it. And then there was advertising, which for some time was considered a pathology. But then we realized that he would finance the entire Internet. And then spam came in, which was pathological, and we pretty much got over the spam—almost. Then we have fake news.
I believe that we have a number of pathologies that we deal with as they arise. But the real reason for our problems is that we don’t quite know how to manage the connection yet.