[FoRK] Metcalfe's greatest PR hack owes something to JP Barlow :)
rkhare at gmail.com
Wed Dec 23 20:15:14 PST 2009
> “That was my greatest publicity stunt of all time,” beams Dr
> Metcalfe, whose intermittent vainglory obscures an underlying charm.
> “I am probably more famous for the collapse prediction, and the
> eating of that column, than I am for inventing Ethernet,” he says.
> Most famously, he was challenged at an industry conference over a
> column, published in December 1995, in which Dr Metcalfe predicted
> that the internet would collapse under the weight of traffic in
> 1996. Would he eat his own words, Dr Metcalfe was asked, if he
> turned out to be wrong? Dr Metcalfe said he would.
Ahem, that would be yours truly. WWW95, a snowy December day in Boston
at the Copley Sheraton IIRC.
> He was wrong. The internet did not collapse. Two years later, he
> made good on his promise to eat his words—but not without great
> fanfare involving blenders, investigation into the ingredients of
> newspaper ink, cakes meant to look like newspapers and lots of
> audience-baiting. “He has a flair for the dramatic,” says Dr Cerf,
> who was in the audience that day.
I, in turn, was heckling him based on a stunt another IDG columnist
invented at a sister publication I happened to be a stringer at --
John Perry Barlow's column at NeXTWORLD Magazine:
> Eating Well
> By John Perry Barlow
> Winston Churchill once said that there is no meal quite so
> nutritious as that of one’s own words. In that case, the astonishing
> NeXTWORLD Expo ’93 certainly improved my diet. (Actually, I found
> Expo a cornucopia in general...but I digress.)
> As you may recall, I last used this space to write what might be
> called a premortum of NeXT, saying that if NeXT were anything but
> dead or mighty moribund by late May, I would use the occasion of
> Expo to eat my own words.
> Well, I wish to hell we used tastier newspring for this rag.
I can't be sure anymore in my old age, but I believe JP shredded it
and ate it straight, for the fiber value. Too bad there weren't
websites in '93 to document that, eh? <ducking> :)
Beyond the ether
Dec 10th 2009
Bob Metcalfe has grabbed opportunity at every turn in his multiple
careers—ever since he invented Ethernet at the age of 27
SUFFERING from jet lag and insomnia while staying at a friend’s house
in Washington, DC, in 1972, Bob Metcalfe came across the proceedings
of a conference held by the American Federation of Information
Processing Societies. It certainly looked sleep-inducing, even for a
young computer scientist. So Mr Metcalfe settled down and started
reading. But rather than falling asleep, he became intrigued by an
account of a wireless network in Hawaii, called ALOHAnet.
This nocturnal encounter was the spark that prompted Mr Metcalfe to
create a new networking technology, now known as Ethernet, that would
help him finish his PhD at Harvard, become a multi-millionaire and
revolutionise computing. And it highlights an ability to observe,
synthesise and improve things that would serve him time and again as
he progressed through his multiple careers of academic, entrepreneur,
pundit and venture capitalist. “Some call it luck,” says Vint Cerf, a
founding father of the internet. “But Bob has an ability to detect and
take opportunities. And he is willing to take risk.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1946, Mr Metcalfe grew up on Long Island. He did
well at high school, graduating second in his year, and went on to the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His parents paid for his first
year of studies, but thereafter the young Mr Metcalfe paid for his own
tuition by working the night shift programming computers at Raytheon
and other companies. He was also captain of the varsity tennis team
and graduated in 1969 with two degrees, in electrical engineering and
industrial management. “I don’t remember when I slept,” he says. He
went on to Harvard, initially to study for a doctorate in business
administration, and switched to applied mathematics instead, earning a
master’s degree. But in 1972 his dissertation for a PhD in computer
science was rejected. “It wasn’t theoretical enough,” he explains,
still rankling over his antagonistic relationship with Harvard. “It
was too much engineering.”
This did not stop him from getting nine job offers, however. Mr
Metcalfe ended up working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC)
in California, writing the networking software for a new computer
called the Alto, the machine that later provided the inspiration for
the Apple Macintosh. While at PARC he also taught at Stanford and,
after his fateful encounter with ALOHAnet, finished his PhD by adding
more “theory”—a chapter on ALOHAnet—to his dissertation. He then
applied some of the principles from that network, which linked
computers at the University of Hawaii, to his work at PARC.
ALOHAnet’s nodes all transmitted data to a central hub on the same
radio frequency, and received data on a second frequency. So if two
nodes tried to send packets of data to the hub at the same time, the
resulting “collision” would garble both their transmissions. ALOHAnet
solved this problem by having the hub acknowledge every packet it
received. If a node failed to receive an acknowledgment, it would wait
a while and then try again. This was a cheap and simple way to allow
many devices to communicate using a common transmission medium.
Dr Metcalfe, as he now was, adopted this approach for the system he
was building to enable Alto computers to talk to each other, and to
printers, on a network. He improved the rules that determined how
nodes should handle the retransmission of failed packets (they were to
continue to transmit for a while in the event of a collision, to
ensure that all nodes realised that a collision had taken place, and
were then to retransmit after a random interval). David Boggs, a
Stanford graduate student who was working at PARC, helped Dr Metcalfe
adapt his ideas to wired networks based on coaxial cables. Several
names were suggested for this new local-area network technology, such
as Bulletin Board, Parliamentary Procedure and Lazy Susan. But the
name that stuck was Ethernet.
Years later, as a marketing ploy, Dr Metcalfe thought it wise to
pinpoint the birth of Ethernet. So he fixed on May 22nd 1973, the day
he circulated a memo about his ideas to PARC colleagues. Now, over 36
years later, Ethernet is widely deployed in networks around the world.
It has been improved in many ways, but the way in which the protocol
breaks information into packets and then checks for errors in their
transmission is still recognisable.
Dr Metcalfe did not make money from the actual invention of Ethernet.
As he frequently points out to starry-eyed engineers dreaming of fame
and fortune, it was the standardisation and commercialisation of
Ethernet that lead to its runaway success and his own personal
fortune. “Nothing happens until something gets sold,” he says. Dr
Metcalfe persuaded Digital Equipment, Intel and Xerox (the so-called
DIX consortium) to make Ethernet an open standard, available to other
companies for a modest, one-time licensing fee of $1,000. Perhaps even
more important, notes his friend and former PARC cohort David Liddle,
Dr Metcalfe also got Microsoft and Sun on board.
As he built market momentum behind the technology, Dr Metcalfe
recognised the business opportunity presented by the emerging market
for Ethernet-compatible products. So he left Xerox and started a
consulting company, 3Com, in June 1979. It soon moved into hardware:
in September 1982 it started shipping “EtherLink” adaptor cards for
IBM’s new personal computer. 3Com’s sales skyrocketed along with those
of the IBM PC, and in March 1984 3Com went public and raised $10m.
When Dr Metcalfe started promoting Ethernet, one big problem was to
convince people to adopt a networking technology that almost nobody
else was using yet. Dr Metcalfe pointed out that each new user would
increase the size of the market for Ethernet products, and that as
more people adopted the standard, it would make more sense to be in
the club—what is today called a “network effect”. On a slide, he
quantified a network’s value as roughly proportional to the square of
its number of users. But it wasn’t until a dozen years later that
George Gilder, a technology pundit, called this Metcalfe’s law.
This argument helped boost sales, but there were missed opportunities,
too. Bill Krause, a former HP executive who worked at 3Com in its
early days refers to a “$100 billion mistake” that he and Dr Metcalfe
made in overlooking the gold mine of linking entire networks together,
rather than just computers. “A little company called Cisco” saw that
bit of the future and became the main supplier for “networks of
networks”, Mr Krause observes ruefully. Indeed, by 1996, Cisco was
selling more Ethernet equipment than 3Com, says Eve Griliches, an
analyst at IDC, a market-research company. (In November 2009 HP said
it planned to acquire 3Com for $2.7 billion.)
Dr Metcalfe left 3Com in 1990, and his communications prowess then
found a new outlet: he became the publisher at InfoWorld, a weekly
computer magazine based in San Mateo, California, and started writing
a column called “From the Ether”. Soon he was widely known for his
hyperbolic, often caustic critiques (he once called the FBI to report
death threats provoked by his column)—and for his incorrect predictions.
Dr Metcalfe says he learned from Stewart Alsop, InfoWorld’s editor,
that it was more important to be interesting than to be right. “I
wasn’t as wrong as people like to claim,” he says. “But on several
occasions I was famously wrong.” But he even managed to turn those
mistakes to his advantage, using them to raise his own profile. Most
famously, he was challenged at an industry conference over a column,
published in December 1995, in which Dr Metcalfe predicted that the
internet would collapse under the weight of traffic in 1996. Would he
eat his own words, Dr Metcalfe was asked, if he turned out to be
wrong? Dr Metcalfe said he would.
He was wrong. The internet did not collapse. Two years later, he made
good on his promise to eat his words—but not without great fanfare
involving blenders, investigation into the ingredients of newspaper
ink, cakes meant to look like newspapers and lots of audience-baiting.
“He has a flair for the dramatic,” says Dr Cerf, who was in the
audience that day.
“That was my greatest publicity stunt of all time,” beams Dr Metcalfe,
whose intermittent vainglory obscures an underlying charm. “I am
probably more famous for the collapse prediction, and the eating of
that column, than I am for inventing Ethernet,” he says. But he is now
reluctant to be drawn into predictions about the internet’s future.
When asked about the “exaflood”—the latest incarnation of the idea
that the internet is in danger of being overloaded with data—he
concedes that he has not been following the debate closely. “I don’t
really know the facts,” he says. Likewise for network neutrality: “I
think I’m supposed to be in favour of neutrality,” he says, “but I
refuse to take that position because I just haven’t been focused on
A communications specialist
Instead, he has moved onto his latest career: since 2001 he has been a
venture capitalist at Polaris Ventures in Waltham, Massachusetts,
where he is trying to apply lessons from the computer industry to
clean-energy start-ups. This has required him to deploy his
communications skills in a new way. “Most of these VCs don’t really
give you advice or get back to you right away or introduce you to
important people,” says Chris Stone, the former chief executive of
SiCortex, one of the firms in Dr Metcalfe’s portfolio. “But Bob is
always there to tell you the truth. He is extremely and brutally
honest.” So much so, in fact, that SiCortex was one of two companies
Dr Metcalfe dropped from his portfolio earlier this year.
In whatever profession he has taken up, there is nothing Dr Metcalfe
enjoys as much as a good argument. But his vigorous defence of his
views, whatever they may be, does not stop him from seeing the other
point of view. During heated board meetings at GreenFuel, the other
portfolio company that Dr Metcalfe dropped this year, “he could very
clearly synthesise everyone’s perspective in a brief statement,”
including the views with which he strongly disagreed, says Simon
Upfill-Brown, the energy start-up’s former boss.
Dr Metcalfe delights in a paper published in 2005 by two academics,
Andrew Odlyzko and Benjamin Tilly, that presents a detailed refutation
of his law. The authors argue that if the law were true, network
operators would be merging left and right to achieve rapid growth in
value. But such mergers do not in fact seem to create as much value as
the law suggests.
“The law is not any amazing math,” Dr Metcalfe responds. “It’s a
vision thing. It’s vague. I said the value is approximately the square
of the number of users.” And with Metcalfe’s law, as with so much
else, the technology community is willing to cut him a bit of slack.
“Only geeks care about this stuff,” says Dr Cerf. The basic idea was
right: bigger networks are more valuable. As Mr Alsop puts it, neatly
characterising Dr Metcalfe’s career, “Bob’s so smart and so confident
that he gets away with it.”
By John Perry Barlow
Mark Twain is reported to have encountered his own obituary and
written its author a terse note, "Reports of my recent demise are
grossly exaggerated." NeXT users have special reason to relate to this
quote right now.
Trouble is, "right now," as I write this, is mid-March. You won’t read
this until the end of May or later. By then, Steve Jobs may have
pulled his greatest resurrection stunt yet. If he hasn’t, an obituary
of NeXT Computer might not seem so exaggerated.
For the first time, and even though NeXT is doing most things right
for a change, I’m having serious doubts that the company can become a
serious player. If I’m wrong and NeXT is looking at a real future two
months from now, I will gladly use the occasion of NeXTWORLD Expo to
eat these words. I’ll literally chow down on this page of the magazine.
If I’m not eating paper come Expo, it won’t be because of technology.
With NeXTSTEP delivering today what Microsoft, Sun, and Taligent hope
to have Real Soon Now, NeXT ought to be able to clean up, right? Maybe
not. There seems to have been a failure to communicate. The results
To name but one indication of this, I just read an entire issue of
UnixWorld devoted to Windows NT and the other new-wave vapor operating
system mentioned above. NeXTSTEP wasn’t mentioned once, even in
derision. It was as though it doesn’t exist.
Moreover, NeXT has been leaking brains as though from a massive head
injury. Peter Van Cuylenburg’s departure is meerly the latest in a
discouraging parade toward the exits. As one of the departed said to
me recently, "The only people left at NeXT are those who simply can’t
And left alone at the top of this chaotic organization is the
genuinely tragic figure of Steven Paul Jobs, a character with as much
hubris as anyone who’s shown up since Euripides quit writing plays.
Most of us yearn to do well the things we can’t and tend to diminish
the importance of our real gifts. Steve is no different. A truly great
visionary and myth-maker, he has strangely but consistently aspired to
be a businessman and manager, showing markedly less talent for either
of these dreary vocations.
As a businessman, he’s had a hard time remembering the role of
compromise in the Art of the Deal. While adherence to principle is an
honorable attribute, one must enter most negotiations prepared to give
something. But, as one industry leader told me, "I’ve tried to do
business with Steve Jobs on ten different occasions and it always
failed over some meaningless little detail."
As a manager, he has a curse for creating organizations that look more
like dysfunctional families, filled with people far too dependent upon
his whims for their own self-esteem to tell him when he’s wrong.
If NeXT fails, I will take it personally. I have staked a lot of my
extremely scarce credibility on the proposition that, despite the
worst marketing since the Edsel, anything as cool as NeXTSTEP would
sooner or later sell itself. Now the time has come to think the
unwelcome but nevertheless thinkable: This time, the magic may not work.
This column now goes in a time capsule to be opened at Expo. By the
time you read these words, their gloom will likely either seem
hysterically exaggerated or just another piece of the eulogy. See you
in San Francisco.
By John Perry Barlow
Winston Churchill once said that there is no meal quite so nutritious
as that of one’s own words. In that case, the astonishing NeXTWORLD
Expo ’93 certainly improved my diet. (Actually, I found Expo a
cornucopia in general...but I digress.)
As you may recall, I last used this space to write what might be
called a premortum of NeXT, saying that if NeXT were anything but dead
or mighty moribund by late May, I would use the occasion of Expo to
eat my own words.
Well, I wish to hell we used tastier newspring for this rag.
Not only does it appear I still have Steve Jobs to kick around, I may
have a longer future in this community than I could have imagined back
in March. And no, I don’t believe my faith in this most recent and
miraculous resurrection is simply a product of the ol’ Reality
For one thing, the RDF – or at least that large part of it that relies
on smooth theatricality – was barely discernible during Steve’s
keynote speech. He suffered a series of audio problems that would have
strained the patience of Job, let alone Jobs. He was down to his hole
cards, and they looked surprisingly good.
Of course, he’s still got NEXTSTEP, which most sensible people who
have actually experienced it agree is the best – I could say tastiest
– operating system in the universe. (I ran into Sun founder Bill Joy
on the plane to Expo and he expressed both this sentiment and his
genuine sorrow over what both of us, at that point, took to be its
But now we’ve got NEXTSTEP on hardware that doesn’t require a crazy
act of faith to buy. NEXTSTEP for Intel shipped on schedule, it works,
and it’s packing a whole bunch of cool new features.
Further, NeXT has lined up a very credible group of computer
manufacturers, nice beige outfits like Dell and Epson, who will
preload NEXTSTEP on the machines they market and sell.
Most importantly, NeXT now has the ObjectEnterprise arrangement with
Hewlett-Packard, which will provide terrific integration, depth, and
development speed to any company using HP servers and NEXTSTEP clients.
In the wildly unlikely event that I were running MIS for some oil-
futures brokerage house, I would go ahead and gamble on NEXTSTEP
whether or not UnixWorld knows of its existence.
There remain a couple of watch-outs that might bear attention. I’ll
get into those next month. But right now, I’ve got that nice feeling I
get after dinner.
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