[FoRK] Bob Metcalfe on keeping the tech edge

Kelley kelley at inkworkswell.com
Sat Mar 12 21:21:27 PST 2005


Speaking of old school 'hackers,' this interview with Bob Metcalfe came 
across my screen. For some reason, Google decided that this item should be 
part of my "physcial security" news alert. Metcalfe is only now receiving 
the  2003 National Medal of Technology. They are, apparently, 2 years 
behind in awarding the medals.

I thought this last part was spot on. Forked the rest, below.


Taylor: In your opinion, what's missing today, whether in the United States 
or elsewhere, in terms of research? If you had one systemic problem or 
issue that you could wave a wand and fix, what would it be?

Metcalfe: I think, I don't often think in these terms, but of course 
getting the National Medal of Technology sort of provokes you to think big 
like that. So I've had one thought, which is that we're in transition now 
on research. Until now, and for a very long time, especially in the 
computer area, we've relied on monopolies, business monopolies to fund our 
research because only monopolies can afford to do research. So you had the 
AT&T telephone monopoly supporting Bell Labs. You had the IBM computer 
monopoly supporting Watson Research. You had Xerox's copier monopoly 
supporting Xerox PARC. Today you have Microsoft's Windows monopoly 
supporting its fantastic research activities. But I don't think monopolies 
are worth it. Nor do I think they're the best way to proceed with research. 
So I see a transition going on away from relying on monopolies. In fact, we 
should have fewer monopolies. They're very hurtful to our economy and to 
innovation.

Taylor: Including in research, the government monopoly.

Metcalfe: Well, the government is the ultimate monopoly. And I claim that 
research has to be funded by the government. And it is a monopoly, and they 
can afford it because it's a monopoly. And that the best way for us to get 
research done now is no longer relying on a monopoly, corporate monopoly 
research labs, but relying on research universities funded by government to 
do research. So, if I could have one thing it would be a blossoming of 
government support. Not for government labs and not for monopoly support of 
corporate labs, but government support of research universities, with the 
goal of not jobs program. It's a problem with government funding is it 
often becomes a jobs program. But I mean government money focused on 
supporting research universities to do the most urgent research on our 
agenda. And why are research universities so good at this? And the answer 
is very simple. It is the job of universities to graduate people. Students 
who then graduate, they are the best vehicle for the transfer of technology 
from the lab into companies and markets. So I'd do that if I had my druthers.



Forking the entire article:


http://www.itworld.com/Net/1748/transcript_bobmetcalfe050311/pfindex.html
Interview: Robert Metcalfe, recipient, National Medal of Technology

ITworld.com 3/11/05

Bruce Taylor, ITworld.com Voices

Bruce Taylor spoke with Robert Metcalfe on the occasion of his receiving 
the National Medal of Technology for 2003 on March 14, 2005. This is an 
edited transcript of that conversation. You may also listen to the original 
interview here.


On March 14, Dr. Robert M. Metcalfe will receive the National Medal of 
Technology for 2003, presented by President Bush in ceremonies at the White 
House. The award is for his pioneering work while at the Xerox's Palo Alto 
Research Center, or PARC as it is commonly known, that in 1973 resulted in 
the invention of Ethernet. Ethernet is the local area networking standard 
on which he shares four patents. In 2003, Ethernet's 30th year, 184 million 
new Ethernet connections were shipped globally for $12.5 billion in sales 
value.

Bob is an MIT graduate and received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from 
Harvard in 1969. Today, Bob is a general partner in the venture capital 
firm Polaris Ventures. He specializes in Boston area based information 
technology startups. Prior to becoming a VC, Bob enjoyed three quite 
distinctly different careers. From 1965 - 1979, Bob was a research 
scientist and engineer. He was the founder of networking company 3Com where 
he served as Chairman and CEO. For the decade ending in the year 2000, Bob 
took a turn in the IT publishing world as both a publisher and an industry 
pundit, first as CEO of InfoWorld, and then for 8 years as an Internet 
column writer. He is co-founder and continues to be actively involved with 
one of the foremost global conferences on the intersection of people and 
technology, PopTech in Camden, Maine. He also serves on the boards of IDG, 
IDC, and MIT's Technology Review magazine.

Bruce Taylor: Bob, welcome to the program. And for all of us here at 
ITworld, congratulations.

Robert Metcalfe: Thank you very much.

Taylor: You're someone over the years who's been honored in so many ways 
for so many contributions that it may appear to be that this is just one 
more. But I promise you I don't see it that way. And so for you, what does 
it mean to receive the National Medal of Technology from the President?

Metcalfe: It means that my mom and dad get to go with me to the White 
House. That's actually the biggest thing it means to me. To my parents who 
have lived the American dream and worked hard to send their boy to college 
and now it's sort of coming full circle for them.

Taylor: The National Medal, according to the press announcement, and as we 
know, is to recognized innovation that has advanced the nation's global 
competitiveness. Have you ever tried to imagine the scale of what Ethernet 
has made technologically and economically possible? Has anyone?

Metcalfe: Well, I think I have been through 10 or 15 ah-ha experiences 
where I realized that Ethernet was really catching on. Like last year for 
example I learned recently from IDC that there were 200 million new 
Ethernet switch ports shipped worldwide, 200 million. And that's a really 
big number. I have never conceived of numbers that big. Even the last time 
I had an ah-ha experience. And Ethernet doesn't seem to be tapering off; it 
seems to be continuing to proliferate and evolve.

Taylor: And has anyone ever tried to put an economic value to Ethernet?

Metcalfe: I've not seen it. I know that the revenue number associated with 
the 200 million ports is on the order of $12 or $13 billion, but that's 
just for the ports. And that's just in one year. So I don't know. I'm not 
sure how you'd go about assessing the economic impact of something like 
Ethernet.

Taylor: So depending on what birth date one chooses to use, Ethernet is now 
30 years old, is that, is it 31 or 29?

Metcalfe: The birth date that I have chosen for many years is May 23, 1973, 
which would make it 31 years old.

Taylor: 31 years old. So now I have to ask you, casting back to those days 
at Xerox PARC, and perhaps even before, what in the world were you 
thinking? How'd this happen?

Metcalfe: Well, when I graduated from MIT and went up the river to Harvard 
to graduate school, I was a new grad student. And what we grad students do 
is when we arrive we start looking for how we're going to leave, what our 
dissertation research is going to be about. And as it turns out in 1969 
when I arrived at Harvard, the big thing in university research was a thing 
called the ARPA Computer Network, the ARPANET, which I think of as Internet 
1.0. And so it was obvious that I should get involved in that somehow.

So I started building hardware and software as a grad student to contribute 
to the early evolution of the, let's call it the Internet. Although that's 
disputable. There's a big argument about whether the ARPANET is the 
Internet or vice-versa. I think of ARPANET as an Internet 1.0. So that got 
me into the networking business. And then when I went to Xerox PARC in '72 
I was the networking guy. And my second grand stroke of luck was to be the 
networking guy at Xerox PARC in 1972 because that was the first time ever 
that anyone had been ever given the job of how do you network a computer on 
every desk because in 1973 that didn't occur in the real world, a computer 
on every desk.

Taylor: And David Boggs was your close partner on that.

Metcalfe: Absolutely. He and I built the first Ethernet together. And I 
tended toward the theoretical, mathematical, computer programming, some 
hardware. And David sort of started from the software and went into the 
hardware into the analog. We were a perfect team.

Taylor: At the time that you went to Xerox PARC we were still living in a 
world where most enterprises, if you could call them enterprises at the 
time, had perhaps several large computing facilities scattered around the 
world, disconnected. Three, four, five mainframe computers maybe a PDP-11. 
And what Ethernet essentially opened up was the possibility for something 
that hadn't happened yet, and that was a very large number of computers 
able to be stringed together to do work. When did it occur to you or how 
did it occur to you that that was the opportunity?

Metcalfe: Well remember, I had worked for a couple of years already, three 
or four years on the ARPANET, which was connecting mainframe computers at a 
distance, across the country. And incidentally, we did that in order, ARPA 
called it resource sharing, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the 
Department of Defense funded all that work so that they thought they were 
going to share many computers across the country so they wouldn't have to 
buy so many for the research scientists. But that didn't turn out to be 
what ARPANET was used for. By then it was clear that email was the killer 
app, that it is, it was communication rather than shared computation that 
was the motivation.

When I got to PARC, we were planning to put, as I mentioned earlier, a 
computer on every desk. So you could think of the building as the continent 
and the goal is to connect things together. But we had a very real and 
different kind of incentive. We were building what I think is the world's 
first laser printer. It was a page per second 500 dot per inch laser 
printer made out of a Xerox copier. And it printed gorgeous documents and 
ran at a page per second. So the question is how would all these PCs around 
the building share that printer? How would we keep the printer busy it was 
so fast? We couldn't imagine carrying our disks down there, because in 
those days disks were two feet across. So the first motivation for the 
local area network connecting all those PCs in the building was to share 
that laser printer. The second motive was to hook up to the Internet so 
that we could send email to each other.

Taylor: And you saw that then. You saw email as the killer app.

Metcalfe: Definitely. Yeah. I've been an email user since 1970, maybe even 
before, it depends on what you count as email. And even then I was hooked.

Taylor: Who were some of the great contributors to not just your own work, 
but other work in the networking field, heralded or unheralded that you can 
recall?

Metcalfe: Well, the granddaddy of the Internet, or perhaps the great 
granddaddy, and I don't want to get into a fight about this, was J. C. R. 
Licklighter at MIT, who was at ARPA in the early days. And then there was 
Bob Taylor, who had been at ARPA and then went to Xerox PARC. And then 
there was Barry Roberts, who actually managed the construction of the 
ARPANET through Frank Hart at BB&N. And then there were the people I worked 
with at MIT, Licklighter, my mentor there was a guy named Al Vessa, Bob 
Bressler, who later became the CTO of Sun. Tom Knight at MIT, who helped me 
get my hardware to work. And then at Xerox PARC of course there was a bunch 
of computer science stars, Butler Lamps and Chuck Thacker, Alan Kay. Then 
my partner, we were called the Bobsy Twins there for a while, but Dave 
Boggs and I hang out together for a few years building the first Ethernets. 
What I'd like to say about this is that a lot of people have been involved 
with Ethernet over the years, and I like to say that by 1981 there were 
people buying Ethernet whom I had not met. And by 1985 there were people 
inventing the Ethernet whom I had not met. The thing really broke out and 
started proliferating and attracting a great deal of intellectual energy. 
So I could go on for hours naming people who have contributed to the 
success of Ethernet.

Taylor: So now if we go back to that point in time where you just said 
there were people who were buying Ethernet who you had not met. That was 
also at about the time where the raging discussion on the street was 
between Token Ring and Ethernet. In hindsight, was it a technological 
reason or a cost and market forces reason that caused Ethernet to win?

Metcalfe: Well, we could if we wanted have a whole discussion about how 
Ethernet was superior to Token Ring technically. It was simpler and cheaper 
because Ethernet understood its place in the protocol hierarchy, and so it 
only did what it had to do. It didn't replicate a lot of functions that 
were needed elsewhere in the hierarchy, which was one of the mistakes made 
by Token Ring. But that's not really the answer to your question because I 
think what caused Ethernet to win was its business model, not it's technology.

So, Ethernet was organized around a de jure standard made by IEEE Project 
802, and that was Project 802 before the dots. There were no dots in those 
days. Project 802 was just standardized LANs. So a de jure standard. And 
IBM in those days was the Microsoft of its time, the dominant 
anti-competitive monopoly that it was. So, it didn't really believe in that 
model. And although it was eventually forced to make Token Ring into an 802 
standard, 802.5 as opposed to Ethernet, which was 802.3, IBM's heart wasn't 
in it. And for years afterwards they didn't behave consistently with the 
idea that Token Ring would be an open industry standard. Then the Ethernet 
model was based on fierce competition among contending suppliers. And of 
course soon there were hundreds of Ethernet suppliers. But for many years 
IBM was 90% market share at Token Ring, and that notion of fierce 
competition driving the perfection and evolution of the standard was not as 
big a factor in Token Ring as it was in Ethernet.

Taylor: So in that fierce competition, there had to be several major 
tipping points where the various generations of Ethernet and the 802 
standard altered to create a whole new level of performance. What were some 
of those? And who lead those besides 3Com?

Metcalfe: There were many people involved, not just me and 3Com. The first 
Ethernet was at PARC. It ran at 2.9 four megabits per second and David 
Boggs and I built it. The second Ethernet was a 20-megabit per second 
Ethernet that we built in the systems division of Xerox. Ron Crane, my 
buddy there helped build that. But then by 1979, as I was leaving Xerox, we 
found DEC and Intel to join us in making Ethernet a standard. And in order 
for Intel to implement the standard on its chips we slowed Ethernet down to 
10 megabits per second to get it on the chip. And then it came out as IEEE 
802.3 with a thick cable, almost a half-inch diameter coaxial cable as the 
standard ether down the middle of the corridor. But by 1982, 3Com was 
shipping a version of Ethernet that was exactly compatible with everything 
else, except it ran on a quarter inch thick piece of coaxial cable and 
didn't use big heavy connectors, but small tiny little connectors.

And by then, Sun was using 3Com cards to get started, so 3Com and Sun sort 
of took Ethernet in its initial days and started projecting it. And then we 
got into the IBM PC with our thin cables. But then other companies starting 
interfering, excuse me, intervening, competing with us on Ethernet, which 
was really annoying. Competition usually is annoying. And so guys over at, 
it became Nortel, before that it was Bay and before that it was Synoptics 
came out with a twisted pair version of Ethernet in the mid '80s. And that 
was the death knell of Token Ring because until the twisted pair telephone 
wiring version of Ethernet came out, Ethernet was a shared coax system and 
the Token Ring method of a star of twisted pairs was found to be superior. 
So Token Ring, both because of its wiring and because of IBM's support was 
even in the mid to late '80s was used as the inexorable industry standard 
that would eventually kill Ethernet. But then when Ethernet switched to 
twisted pair and then got hubbed and eventually switched, then the 
remaining features of Token Ring, benefits of Token Ring went away and then 
Ethernet inexorably killed Token Ring. Hooray.

Taylor: So we have become network speed and capacity junkies. Is there any 
end in site?

Metcalfe: Nope. So the Ethernet was, I mentioned 2.94, then 20, then 10. 
Briefly when it was being reinvented with twisted pair it went from 10 to 
one megabit per second. But that didn't last long. So it popped back up to 
10. And then came 100 meg, fast Ethernet, 100 megabits per second. And that 
would have been in the '90s. And then we went from 100 to gigabit Ethernet, 
so my McIntosh here has an RJ45 port on it that will either be a 10, 100, 
or 1000 megabit per second Ethernet, depending on what hub you plug it 
into, what switch you plug it into. And 10-gig Ethernet is now in volume 
being used for long haul and back offices and so on. And we're now 
wondering about the next step. It will either be 40 or 100 gigabits per 
second. There is no end in sight. But speed of course is not the only 
evolution of Ethernet, but it's certainly in the LAN, now we routinely use 
100 megabits and gigabit in the office.

Taylor: So when you say it's not the only evolution, what other major 
evolutions can you point to that really mattered in terms of performance?

Metcalfe: Going wireless is one of the evolutions of Ethernet. And we're 
seeing that in many ways, not just WiFi. And whether it's Ethernet or 
something else that's akin to Ethernet, the whole movement of packet 
Internet connectivity, which sometimes is synonymous with Ethernet and 
sometimes it isn't, that's proliferating. Then you see Ethernet is now 
going downstream below PCs. So, embedded microprocessors are now being 
networked with schemes that vaguely resemble Ethernet, vaguely or not so 
vaguely resemble Ethernet. The so-called ZigBee Standard, 802.15.4 for 
embedded mesh wireless networking is a direction. There are eight billion 
microprocessors shipped every single year, about 98% of them aren't 
networked yet. And that's what ZigBee is about, it's about networking them. 
So that's another direction that Ethernet is going.

Taylor: In your opinion, what's missing today, whether in the United States 
or elsewhere, in terms of research? If you had one systemic problem or 
issue that you could wave a wand and fix, what would it be?

Metcalfe: I think, I don't often think in these terms, but of course 
getting the National Medal of Technology sort of provokes you to think big 
like that. So I've had one thought, which is that we're in transition now 
on research. Until now, and for a very long time, especially in the 
computer area, we've relied on monopolies, business monopolies to fund our 
research because only monopolies can afford to do research. So you had the 
AT&T telephone monopoly supporting Bell Labs. You had the IBM computer 
monopoly supporting Watson Research. You had Xerox's copier monopoly 
supporting Xerox PARC. Today you have Microsoft's Windows monopoly 
supporting its fantastic research activities. But I don't think monopolies 
are worth it. Nor do I think they're the best way to proceed with research. 
So I see a transition going on away from relying on monopolies. In fact, we 
should have fewer monopolies. They're very hurtful to our economy and to 
innovation.

Taylor: Including in research, the government monopoly.

Metcalfe: Well, the government is the ultimate monopoly. And I claim that 
research has to be funded by the government. And it is a monopoly, and they 
can afford it because it's a monopoly. And that the best way for us to get 
research done now is no longer relying on a monopoly, corporate monopoly 
research labs, but relying on research universities funded by government to 
do research. So, if I could have one thing it would be a blossoming of 
government support. Not for government labs and not for monopoly support of 
corporate labs, but government support of research universities, with the 
goal of not jobs program. It's a problem with government funding is it 
often becomes a jobs program. But I mean government money focused on 
supporting research universities to do the most urgent research on our 
agenda. And why are research universities so good at this? And the answer 
is very simple. It is the job of universities to graduate people. Students 
who then graduate, they are the best vehicle for the transfer of technology 
from the lab into companies and markets. So I'd do that if I had my druthers.

Taylor: Bob, as always it's a delight. Thank you so much for the time 
today. And again, our great congratulations.

--

Kelley
Ink Works Publication Services
http://www.inkworkswell.com
+1 (727) 942-9255



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