[FoRK] Metcalfe's greatest PR hack owes something to JP Barlow :)

Rohit Khare 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.

viz.,

> 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:

http://www.blackholeinc.com/Library/93%20Aug.html
> 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> :)

Best,
   Rohit

http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/tq/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=15048791

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.

Nativity story

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  
the issue.”

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.”


http://www.blackholeinc.com/Library/93%20June.html
Exaggerated Report?
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  
are discouraging.

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  
say no."

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.


http://www.blackholeinc.com/Library/93%20Aug.html
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.

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  
Distortion Field.

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  
last hurrah.)

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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