The future, Boston-bred
Polite society here still avoids talking
about stocks and bonds, preferring to
develop ideas that will be heard round the
While the spotlight
innovation and bright
ideas in the United
States shines steadily
on Silicon Valley, it
is in Boston, with its
brains and academic
hub, where many of
the most significant
concepts on which
wealth is built were
Boston - Bob Metcalfe, the charming, silver-haired founder of
3Com Inc., inventor of Ethernet, and self-styled pundit
extraordinaire, gathered his dinner guests in the front hallway of his
palatial turn-of-the century Boston townhouse.
The guests, a coven of 20 or so journalists, academics, and New
Economy gurus with an interest in the World Wide Web, have been
called together for a preview of the 8th International World Wide
Web conference, to be held, this year, in Toronto beginning May
They are there, ostensibly, to hear Mr. Metcalfe drop some hints
about his Toronto speech. It's a decent enough public relations ploy.
While Mr. Metcalfe may not have the mercurial charm of, say,
Apple Computer's Steve Jobs, he is a forceful and dynamic speaker
unafraid to challenge the received wisdom of what can be an insular
Once, in an InfoWorld column published in 1995, Mr. Metcalfe
predicted that the growth of the Internet was unsustainable and that
it would collapse, in 1996, under its own weight. If that didn't
happen, he wrote, he would eat his words. Sure enough, with the
Internet happily humming away a year later, Mr. Metcalfe appeared
onstage at a 1996 industry conference with a copy of his column
and a blender. After mixing in a little water, he churned the column
into a grey paste and promptly ate his words.
Mr. Metcalfe's Toronto speech is unlikely to contain such dramatic
gestures. For those gathered at his Boston home for the
end-of-March dinner party, he has three predictions, which he plans
to expand on in Toronto.
First, the cable companies will continue their dominance over the
telephone companies in the market of high-speed Internet access to
the home. This is hardly a bold prediction and it's one that's been
backed by a flood of market research. The prediction also gives
Mr. Metcalfe the segue he needs to launch into one his favourite
topics: How anti-competitive, top-heavy telcos are stifling the
growth of the Internet industry.
Secondly, Mr. Metcalfe predicts that within 10 years, we will pay
postage for e-mail in much the same way we do for regular mail. In
response to a question, Mr. Metcalfe concedes that others may also
pay us to read their e-mail. Again, this a prediction that has been
floated in some circles but has yet to be critically examined.
Finally -- and here Mr. Metcalfe acknowledges Nicholas
Negroponte, director of the The Media Lab at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, for this insight -- Mr. Metcalfe predicts that
drugstores will soon begin installing capuccino bars. This is his most
intriguing prediction. He suggests that just as bookstores responded
to the threat posed by Amazon.com and other online booksellers --
often by building cappucino bars and comfy sofas into their stores --
so too will drugstores respond to Drugstore.com and other online
pharmacies by doing whatever it takes to establish the primacy of
real-world relationships with their customers.
His short speech over, the guests head for the buffet in Mr.
Metcalfe's dining room, fill their plates with red snapper with salsa,
grilled vegetables, and saffron rice, and settle themselves in small
groups about Mr. Metcalfe's house.
But even though it's a gathering of insiders whose living is made
from the volatile, high-flying technology sector, there is little talk
about the business of technology. Here, in Boston, the currency of
trade is ideas. There is no talk of mergers and acquisitions, no
assessments about a stock's valuation, and no fishing about for the
next big IPO.
Instead, the house, a turn-of-the-century classic that fronts on to
historic Beacon Street and that looks out over Boston's Back Bay
at the neo-classical granite-grey facade of MIT on the facing shore,
is filled with chatter about ways to make the Web work better.
Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the Web and now works
in a cramped office at MIT directing the standards-setting World
Wide Web Consortium, balances a plate on one knee, deep in
conversation with Jean-Francois Abramatic, chairman of the W3C
and a director of development at Paris-based INRIA, the National
Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control.
Al Vezza, who is chairman of the Toronto WWW8 conference,
spent more than 32 years at MIT and was, before leaving for the
private sector recently, associate director of the school's famed
laboratory of computer science and creator of the World Wide
Web Consortium. He mentions to a reporter chatting with him that
he is excited that XML -- extensible markup language, a way of
allowing databases to interact with Web users in real-time -- is
shaping up to be the hot topic of the Toronto conference.
Others at the party, too, jump into topics as esoteric as the
architecture of information retrieval systems or how the using the
new resource description framework could make the Web come
alive, or how scalable vector graphics is one more example of how
beautiful pure mathematics can actually be.
Dinner parties in San Jose or San Francisco are never like this.
There, at the epicentre of the information technology revolution, talk
is invariably about how the ideas of Bob Metcalfe, Tim
Berners-Lee, Al Vezza, and Jean-Francois Abramatic can be
turned into cash.
Silicon Valley, of course, is filled with smart people with plenty of
bright ideas of their own. But in the Valley, business is everything.
Here in Boston, polite society avoids talking about stocks and
bonds, a charming relic of 19th century mores.
And yet, it is easy to make the case that the most significant
concepts upon which Silicon Valley's wealth is based were bred by
Boston and its brains.
There are, by various estimates, more than a quarter of a million
students in Boston, which has a metropolitan area population of just
under six million.
Harvard University, of course, is the most prestigious. Established in
1636, it was the first institute of higher learning in North America.
Boston, though, is filled with such institutes. There is MIT, a mile or
two downstream on the Charles River from Harvard. Boston
College, Northeastern University, Boston University, Wellesley
College, Radcliffe College, and others are here.
It was here, and at other East Coast schools such as Princeton, the
University of Pennsylvania, and others, that computers, computing,
and the Web were first dreamed up.
MIT electrical engineering professor Vannevar Bush wrote the
1945 Atlantic Monthly article, "As We May Think" which is now
widely hailed by many of the current generation of computer science
superstars as their bible and source of inspiration. Bush was the first
to conceive of a device he called a Memex that presaged the
hypertext links Mr. Berners-Lee would later encode into HTML
and HTTP, the two software protocols that lie at the heart of the
As the inventor of the Web and the first Web browser, one would
think Mr. Berners-Lee should have the riches of Bill Gates. He
doesn't, having purposefully avoided the hype and pace of Silicon
Valley for a life in academia, pursuing new and better ideas. Though
he went to Oxford and invented the Web while at CERN in
Switzerland, he decided MIT was the place to continue developing
his ideas. (Mr. Gates, incidentally, dropped out of Harvard to
pursue the projects that eventualy led to the creation of Microsoft
The world's first killer application -- the computer spreadsheet --
was developed in Boston by Dan Bricklin, an MIT computer
science grad who was frustrated with manually recalculating
percentage while studying for his MBA at Harvard. Technology
historians suggest that without Bricklin's invention, the PC revolution
would never have taken off because there wouldn't have been
anything for the PC to do.
There are any number of theories that explain Silicon Valley's
central role in tech culture. For one thing, tech is all there is in the
Valley. It is a geography overdeveloped on the steroids of venture
capitalism and hyperactive entrepreneurs. "What physical location
does exist is the definition of nondescript: glass tower, parking lot,
exit ramp, highway," wrote James Surowiecki in a 1998 article for
Boston, by contrast, has a more fully -- and some say healthily --
developed civic profile. It is the cultural centre for the American
myth, the place a nation was created, and a national identity forged.
History -- be it the Curse of the Bambino and the glorious failures of
the Boston Red Sox or the Boston Tea Party and the feats of a
glorious revolution -- is at the core of Boston's identity.
Silicon Valley culture is obsessed with the idea of rebirth and
reincarnation. The hero of the Valley is Jim Clark for his feat of
leading three companies -- Silicon Graphics Inc., Netscape
Communications Corp., and Healtheon Corp. -- to the promised
land of an initial public offering, reinventing himself and his
companies each time in pursuit of stock market riches.
In Boston, heroes are named Ted Williams, John F. Kennedy, and
The brains are named Bob Metcalfe, Tim Berners-Lee, and Al