Bob Metcalfe, October 2009

Bob Metcalfe has been involved—as a direct catalyst or a prominent observer—in a number of key milestones spanning the evolution of the IT industry: the birth of the Internet, the invention of Ethernet and local area networks, and the rapid adoption of the World Wide Web as the platform for linking information and people. Today, as a partner in Polaris Ventures, he invests in clean, low-cost energy solutions. Gil Press spoke to him at his office in Waltham, Massachusetts.

In the 20 years since the invention of the World Wide Web, what has surprised you most?

Bob Metcalfe: Tim Berners-Lee invented the URL, HTTP, and HTML standards. None of them is particularly impressive; so many high-tech people have found them to be in some way deficient. But Tim came up with three adequate standards that, when used together, ignited the explosive growth of the Web. The power of good standards is they leave you with no options. As we used to say about Ethernet, “anything which is not prohibited is mandatory.”

Think about that. We designed some plumbing at the lower levels of the hierarchy, and 17 years later Tim comes up with the World Wide Web, which Ethernet and TCP/IP carried just fine. That’s the surprise. What this has demonstrated is the efficacy of the layered architecture of the Internet. The Web demonstrates how powerful that is, both by being layered on top of things that were invented 17 years before, and by giving rise to amazing new functions in the following decades. Based on the artfulness of the design of the interfaces, you give rise to serendipity. In the design of his standards, Tim nailed down both expressive power and simplicity, allowing people to easily get started. It’s those three standards plus Mosaic, which added visual and graphical veneer, plus the evangelical verve of Tim Berners-Lee himself that were probably all pivotal in that early takeoff.

What has been a disappointment in the context of the World Wide Web—something you expected that didn’t pan out?

There’s no room for that. The Web has been so successful, there’s nothing disappointing about it. Tim Berners-Lee tells this joke, which I hasten to retell because it’s so good. He was introduced at a conference as the inventor of the World Wide Web. As often happens when someone is introduced that way, there are at least three people in the audience who want to fight about that, because they invented it or a friend of theirs invented it. Someone said, “You didn’t. You can’t have invented it. There’s just not enough time in the day for you to have typed in all that information.” That poor schlemiel completely missed the point that Tim didn’t create the World Wide Web. He created the mechanism by which many, many people could create the World Wide Web.

And the mechanism to connect not only information, as was his original vision, but now also connecting people with Web 2.0 applications. You recently started to use Twitter. Why?

I’m using Twitter because one of my partners, Mike Hirshland, accused me of having a generational problem. Young, hip people use social networks, and old farts don’t.

I used to be on the other side. I was helping to introduce LANs when there were all these old farts who thought that punch-cards were the way you did computing. The joke was that Ethernet would be adopted one funeral at a time. These people had to die. There was no way of changing their minds. So, I understand generational ossification. When my partner accused me of it, I decided to participate in this phenomenon so as to better understand it.

I’m beginning to find uses for Twitter. By tweeting my weight, I have involved my followers in a support group to help me lose weight. Knowing that I’m going to be tweeting my weight bears on my behavior. So there’s one application—the support group application.

My daughter is about to graduate from college, and she’s looking for a job. I have tweeted this fact, and I’m actually getting inquiries about my daughter from people who might want to see her résumé. So, that’s the job search application.

One of my hobbies is math puzzles, and I tweet them now and then. The most response I’ve ever gotten on Twitter was when I tweeted the fact that 111,111 squared equals 12,345,678,987,654,321. Then I noticed that in a lot of the re-tweets there was a tag that I was unaware of: number sign, nerd porn—this particular fact was considered nerd porn.

In the early 1990s, you argued in an InfoWorld column against wireless computing, advising readers to “wire up your homes and stay there.”

Let’s divide that into two discussions. I think that “wire up your home and stay there” is truer than ever. We’re at a time now where energy conservation is the next big thing, and one of the opportunities we have is the substitution of communication for transportation.

But you ask about one of my regrettable columns. In the early 1990s, there was a wireless bubble. There were a bunch of companies touting their modems and wireless mobility. But the modems didn’t work very well, and they were bigger than the computers. I said that wireless mobile PCs would be like porta-potties: Porta-potties are good and useful things, but as a general rule, the bathrooms that we use have pipes. So yes, there will be some wireless computers, but mostly we’ll use pipes because pipes have so much more capacity. I was right about it in 1993: That bubble burst, and all those mobile wireless companies went away.

I went on to say in my column that wireless computing will never be important. That’s where I went wrong, because along came Wi-Fi. When I was writing my column, I was often torn between being right and being interesting. Many columnists make the mistake of trying too hard to be interesting. You use various forms of hyperbole, like “There will never be anything like this.” Well, maybe there will be. But that’s not nearly as interesting as these hyperbolic comments.

I would like to point out that there is a figure of speech called hyperbole. It’s a Greek word. It’s been around for a long time, so I offer it in defense of some of my hyperbolic columns.

Around the same time, George Gilder coined the term “Metcalfe’s Law” to describe your idea that bigger networks are better. In the context of the layered architecture of the Internet, don’t you think one can apply “Metcalfe’s Law” to the layer of networking computers (the Internet), the layer of linking information (the Web), and finally, the layer of connecting people (Web 2.0)?

That’s a great point. I’d never thought of it that way. It wasn’t even called Metcalfe’s Law when I first used it. It was a slide in a 3Com sales presentation. The goal of the slide was to give people a rationale for building bigger Ethernets. I drew a picture that put the three-node network below a critical-mass point, arguing that you needed to get to some higher number to achieve critical mass. That was the diagram that I gave to George Gilder in 1993. He called it “Metcalfe’s Law,” for which I’m grateful. The value of the network grows as N-squared—“N” being the number of machines connected to the network.

Networking PCs was a novel idea at the time. So what did you tell people they could do with the network?

When Ethernet first came out, our sales proposition was PFMTS—Print, File, Mail, Terminal, Stubs.

You may remember the IBM PC XT that came out in 1982. It had a 10-megabyte disk on it. No one could imagine what you’d do with 10 megabytes on your disk. So the idea that you might want to buy one PC with a 10-megabyte disk on it, and then share it over the LAN with cheaper diskless PCs, had traction. The same thinking applied to laser printers that were new and expensive. So share the printer, share the disk.

I like to think about it as shifting gears. The second gear was LAN e-mail. The big e-mail carriers of the time, like AOL and MCI, didn’t consider it e-mail, because my e-mails never left the building. But already in the early days of the Internet, we observed heavy e-mail traffic between Internet nodes within the same building. We called it “incestuous traffic”; it was surprising, even embarrassing, because Internet e-mail was originally conceived for long-distance communications.

T stood for terminal. There were all these minicomputers and mainframes still around in those days. You couldn’t throw them out, and all of them had dumb terminals. People would have a dumb terminal on their desk, and then they would have a PC on their desk. That didn’t make any sense. So you’d just write software that allowed your PC to be a dumb terminal so you could access the minicomputer or the mainframe.

Stubs were the APIs for accessing the underlying networking functionality, opening connections, closing connections, etc. This is the serendipity idea again. One such new idea came from Novell, which used the stubs to share access—not to a file, but to a database. This led to the first use of multi-user accounting systems that ran on top of the LAN. That’s how NetWare got its foothold and eventually blew past 3Com’s operating system.

You have been drawing interesting analogies from your experience with Ethernet and the Internet to what you invest in and speak about nowadays: Energy or what you call the Enernet.

I’ve been on this Internet speaking tour, a two-year book tour without a book. I felt I had a valuable contribution to make, looking at how we built the Internet and extracting the lessons from that, and then applying them to energy so we could solve energy problems sooner, better, faster. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned, such as the value of decentralization, designing for abundance, or over-reliance on Washington.

I used to defend that analogy. I’ve now come full circle: I believe that energy is the Internet’s next killer app. We did mail, we did telephone, we did commerce, we did publishing, we did newspapers (we’re about to kill newspapers), and now we, the Internet, is going to solve energy. For example, they talk about a smart grid. A smart grid is a bunch of folks out there who want to build new networks to solve energy and they call it the smart grid. But instead of building an entirely new network, another silo, why not use the Internet as the control plane for the smart grid?

But it’s even deeper than that. That is, the very structure of the energy network—the actual transmission and distribution—needs to be like the Internet. So, it needs to be de-synchronized. Right now, to put energy on the grid, you need to synchronize frequency and phase to get onto it because it clicks with this 60-hertz centralized clock.

What the Internet did for communications was to take the clock out and put the clock in the packet so there wasn’t a big global ticking clock. I sent you the clock, and you were able to tick the bits at the rate that I told you to, so we de-synchronized the Net. We will end up de-synchronizing the power switching network and end up with power packet switching, like the Internet.

What’s more, the other thing we did to telecom is we added storage. The original Internet had no storage in it. Then these geniuses came up with the packet switch, with core memory for storing packets. Then we added disks to our computers. If you look at the Internet now, there is storage everywhere. So we’re going to “storify” the energy network. Right now, they have no place to put energy, so when they have excess energy, they don’t know what to do with it. Also, if renewables such as solar and wind are going to play any role, you need storage. I think storage is going to be big in this new energy network we have to build.

What will the Web look like or should look like in 20 years?

Thinking about the future of the Web or the Internet, I came up with a three-by-three matrix. On one axis are the three new kinds of traffic that the Web has to deal with: video, mobile, and embedded. On the other axis are the next three societal applications that the Web has to solve: energy, healthcare, and education. I look in each of those nine boxes for companies, opportunities, and progress.

Those three kinds of traffic have started arriving, but we have a long way to go. Video is brand new on the Internet, as far as I’m concerned. The mobile Internet has arrived, but it’s still happening. Then there’s embedded traffic. Ten billion microcontrollers are shipped every year, and only a tiny fraction of those are networked. Then there are the three new killer apps—energy, healthcare, and education—just sitting there. The Web has got to solve all three of those problems.

What will the Web look like in 20 or 30 years? It will be comfortable with those three new modes of traffic, and it will be solving those three problems.

[First published in ON magazine]


About GilPress

I launched the Big Data conversation; writing, research, marketing services; &
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5 Responses to Bob Metcalfe, October 2009

  1. Pingback: InfoStory Links: Metcalfe, McAfee, Davenport | The Story of Information

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