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Ethernet's inventor sounds off

Posted: 01 Mar 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:patrick mannion? ee times? robert metcalfe? bob metcalfe? venture capitalist?

Metcalfe: The blogosphere is perhaps the most interesting thing going on. I'm watching the blogosphere dismantle old forms of journalism.

So, what about Bob? Engineer-scientist, early internet developer, ethernet inventor, entrepreneur, pundit, a man who eats his own words and now, a venture capitalist!Bob Metcalfe has seen it all in 40 years on the front lines of engineering and technology. From his perch at Polaris Ventures, Metcalfe recently sat down with EE Times to chat about the future of the Internet and the rise of the blogosphere.

EE Times: What technologies excite you right now?
Bob Metcalfe: Anything to do with video and anything to do with latitudes and longitudes. GPS is spreading, so companies that produce, consume or manipulate information containing latitudes and longitudes are a big thing. It's exciting.
I'm looking at my first energy deal right now. I'm determined to get the world out of its current energy mess. I don't like being beholden to monopolists in foreign countries or to the crazies currently running the environmental groups.

What are the options?
Better gas mileage would help. Nuclear would help. Removing pollutants would help. Carbon sequestration would help.

How many companies have you invested in as a venture capitalist?
Five. First was Narad [100Mbps service over hybrid fiber/coax], then Ember [Zigbee], then Paratech [tunable circuits for RF front-ends] and SiCortex [a supercomputing company designing a dense Linux cluster]. The fifth is Mintera [optical transport gear].

How do you see the role of the VC?
I began with a conceit that I have since tempered. VCs split their time between choosing companies and helping companies. And my conceit was that since I had built a successful company [3Com], I was going to be helpful. What I've learned over the past five years is that it's much more important to choose, rather than to be helpful. You have to do both, obviously, but if you're going to generate a big return for your investors, which is our job, then you have to be sure that you choose very carefully, as there's a limit to just how much help you can give a company.

Did you expect rapid turnaround and has that happened?
There was a period during the bubble when rapid turnaround was the rule. Now it's the exception. We plan on five to seven years between initial investment and liquidity.

Why did you become a VC?
I had been a high-tech publisher and pundit for 10 years, and I was finished. I wanted to do something else, but wanted to stay in the innovation business. Ten years is about the right time to do something new. So, I published my book, Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry, based on columns I wrote over 10 years chronicling the rise and fall of the Internet. Then, I went into the VC business, as it allowed me to stay in the innovation business.

What's the premise of your book?
Just a collection of columns with some fierce rebuttals. The title comes from a series of columns predicting that the Internet would collapse in 1996. I quantified the nature of the collapse and was only off by a factor of eight, but I ate the column anyway. [In a stage appearance, Metcalfe put the column in a blender with some water and ate the resulting mixture with a spoon.] For many people, I'm better known for eating my column in 1997 than for having invented the Internet.

What did the book say about the Internet's future?
I had written a column on the seven or eight ways in which it would collapse; one of them was security!that's certainly true. And then there's spam.

Are there solutions to spam?
There are two. One is economics and the other is permission. These were left out of the original Internet. Now, we have to retrofit. Putting some economics around e-mail would greatly diminish spam. Permission means you can't send an e-mail to someone without their permission. And since e-mail should be strongly encrypted at all times, e-mail filtering is really the wrong way to go, since you shouldn't have third parties reading your e-mail. The best option is a combination of economics and permission.

What about security?
I wrote the first RFC [request for comment] about how the Internet is vulnerable to security attacks. It was a warning. We forgot to put security in, and one of my pieces of advice was that anonymity should not be the default, as it is now. Source-field packets are not inspected routinely and they should be. There should be ways of achieving anonymity in certain circumstances, but it shouldn't be the default. It's the cause of spam, viruses, worms and the denial-of-service attacks. All rely on anonymity.

Is that being addressed?
No. It requires that the router vendors start inspecting source fields, although I believe some of that has already started. I think Juniper's routers inspect source fields, but no one turns it on.

Do you still predict the collapse of the Internet?
I never predicted the fall of the Internet. What I predicted were collapses, which are outages. I even quantified it. I predicted a 'gigalapse' or 1 billion lost user hours in a single outage. The biggest one that year was 118 megalapse!pretty close to a gigalapse, but not quite, which is why I ate the column.
The Internet remains fragile, but it has inherent resilience. My dire warnings were somewhat exaggerated. The Internet is getting better all the time. We're moving to video this decade!video mail, videoconferencing, video-on-demand and video merchandising. Our children are currently stealing CDs, but they'll be stealing DVDs soon.

What do you see as the most interesting development today?
The blogosphere is perhaps the most interesting thing going on. I'm watching the blogosphere dismantle old forms of journalism. I'm watching the daily newspaper go down the tubes, as it so richly deserves. Blogs are blossoming. And I see that as a beautiful future. They provide choice, freedom, competition and multiplicity.

But there's no editing.
Some blogs will get edited and filtered over time. Reputations and variations will evolve. Let a thousand flowers bloom. The secret to progress is an acronym I have called FOCACA, standing for freedom of choice among competing alternatives.
We're learning how to search and filter. Google searched Web pages and now we're developing the ability to better search the blogosphere!connecting facts, opinions and information better.

Initially, there was hope the Internet would open up intersocietal communication and eliminate borders, but some see it as having enabled more closed groups, with like-minded users feeding among themselves. Is that a reversal?
That's rubbish. The Internet is spreading freedom around the world and that's a very positive thing.
Print isn't going to die suddenly, but it is dying. Be careful. Still, it'll take a long time. Computer displays are getting better. However, keep in mind the four B's: beaches, bathrooms, buses and!I forget the fourth. You can't bring your computer there. On the other hand, I guess you can, now.

Ethernet has changed since you invented it in 1973. How would you define Ethernet today?
Ethernet has evolved considerably over its 33 years and the word has lost its original meaning. I've often given the speech that its one enduring quality is the business model with the follwing six features.
First, it's based on a de jure industry standard. Second, the implementations of a standard are owned by companies vs. the open-source model. Third is fierce competition among vendors!it drives progress. Fourth is that this competition is not based on incompatibility. Interoperability is required by the market so that buyers can choose vendors. Fifth is that the standard evolves based on market interaction, meaning rapidly. And sixth is that no matter how rapid this evolution, there's a high premium based on backward- and forward-compatibility. This is the most enduring part of Ethernet.

What is the relationship between Ethernet and your work now in Zigbee?
Ethernet was proposed and became the solution for networking PCs. Zigbee is the proposed solution for networking embedded computers. Ethernet began as standard IEEE 802.3, while Zigbee began as IEEE 802.15.4, so they both have standards. Also, there are the protocol stacks that go on top. For Ethernet, it eventually became TCP/IP; for 802.15.4, it's proposed to be Zigbee. There's an argument about that, as there was about TCP/IP on Ethernet!so for 802.15.4, it's still an open question, although Zigbee is the leading contender. Others include Millennial Net, Crossbow, Dust Networks, Zensys and then the whole TinyOS world. Zigbee is the commercially supported control standard.

Does Zigbee have the same forward- and backward-compatibility strengths as Ethernet?
Yes. Right now, Ember believes that the 15.4 standard's 2.4GHz radio will be the most important medium, but not the last. There will be magnetic, subgigahertz radio and UWB, so the stack has to evolve to assume a variety of media below it. There will also be some accommodation for more profiles as more and more applications are developed for Zigbee. There's still a debate over whether to put Internet Protocol over an 802.15.4 radio for monitoring and control purposes. That's a respectable debate. If the addresses weren't so damned long, it might even win the day.

What are Zigbee's chances vis-┐-vis the competition and how will it evolve?
If you look at the industrial control markets, one of the markets Zigbee is in, it is a very fragmented industry that traditionally was based on proprietary lock-in. Selling into that market is tough, since the notion of a standard is not automatically accepted. In fact, it was fought by the vendors. Ethernet was rejected because of its collisions, since they said they needed guaranteed real-time response. Ethernet didn't offer that and they were allowed not to buy it. You hear a lot of those same arguments now aimed at Zigbee. 'We have to be wired!mesh won't work. It's too non-deterministic.'

Magnetic, UWB, 2.4GHz!which will Zigbee sit upon?
I think they're all going to come. Our investigation indicates that 2.4GHz will have the most potential for the next few years.

Where do you sit in the 100Gb vs. 40Gb optical debate?
I need to disclose that I'm an investor in Mintera, which sells 40Gbps ultralong-haul optical transport equipment to carriers. So in this debate, I'm riding a particular horse. Carriers have tended to upgrade their networks by factors of four, hence, the move from 2.5Gbps to 10Gbps to 40Gbps. However, for the Ethernet world, we generally go up by factors of 10. We're now at 10G, so the next logical step is 100G. But the laws of physics do apply and it's harder to go to 100 than 40. So the question is: Will 100GbE be worth it and what will the price points be? So we're proposing and selling 40G to carriers, where you can actually send 40G over 3,000km. We just demonstrated that. The Ethernet world often goes just 10ft, so maybe you will get 100G there. Of course, since we're all using IP, the packets can fly at 100G in one place and 40G in another. So that will allow the network to have a mixture of speeds.

Is 40GbE regaining momentum?
Mintera managed to survive the telecom meltdown, as it was wisely managed. It cut its burn and went into hibernation. We decided to invest in it again a few months ago because we felt the Internet was continuing to grow and there was a measurable filling up in the optical fiber out there in the carriers. So we figured that in about three years!though we're not sure when!the interest in 40G would pick up. Evidence shows that the 40G uptake is increasing.

Any advice for someone wanting to become a venture capitalist?
Yes. They should not become a VC. There's already too many of us. There's a thousand firms; there's too much money. Go into medicine or become a blogger, an artist or a doctor. But don't become a VC!that's my job.

Are you still the same bombastic Bob or have you mellowed?
If anything, I've gotten even more opinionated. Like a lot of other people, I lament the quality of discourse around the world. But as long as people I disagree with are going to be nasty, I suppose I have to be nasty back.

- Patrick Mannion
EE Times




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