bob-metcalfe
Business Management

Ethernet Inventor Bob Metcalfe Still Rings the Changes

“It’s a great story,” says Bob Metcalfe, speaking down the line from his summer home in Maine, when I ask him if his family has British roots. The man who gave the world Ethernet has a bunch of great stories and, like the stand-up comedian he’s thinking of becoming (more of which later), he can improvise on seemingly any topic.

“We won the battle of Agincourt. We fought with the longbow that had a greater range and higher firing rate than the traditional bow and arrow. Four hundred Metcalfes slaughtered thousands of French. We were from Yorkshire but we blew our money and went to New York.”

He adds that the two-finger salute used by Brits to denote contempt for the recipient comes from the same page in history. The French cut off the fingers of captured archers and the English would show them two fingers to show their digits remained intact. In a clarification email he adds that he considers himself a Viking-American: “Marauding is my game.” It’s the sort of zig-zag way his thought processes go: a brilliant mind but restless in its computations.

I’m trying to get a psychological angle on what made Metcalfe because he’s an unusual character. The self-confidence, way with words and forays into venture capitalism might be classic Silicon Valley shtick, but who else decides spells in publishing and academia might be smart career moves after changing the world through computer networking?

His father was an aerospace test technician who never graduated college and Metcalfe has said in previous interviews that he didn’t get on well with Harvard where his dissertation was initially rejected in 1972, hinting there was a class divide.

“I still contend Harvard doesn’t like engineers much. They prefer the liberal arts. Even when they finally built an engineering school they had to call it the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences,” he says, spitting out the last few words.

That rejection (he finally received his PhD a year later) might have served to give him a thicker skin. He went to the renowned Xerox PARC research facility where his major achievement was the invention of Ethernet, the networking protocol that is the highway of the modern, hyper-connected world. Incidentally, he rebuts the notion of Xerox as a company unable to translate inventions (the graphical user interface, computer mouse and laser printing, for example) into real money. Instead, he says Xerox built a powerful printing business and spies some shifting of responsibilities.

“Usually [ex-Xerox] people say they failed but we worked there.”

He will always be associated with Ethernet but he generously shares credit with many others, even if he was the leading force.

“People tend to think it happened in a day—and it’s a myth I promulgated—but it’s been a 40-year effort. There was punctuated equilibrium. Slow and steady progress punctuated with some sort of breakthrough.” [To be referred to as the Father of Ethernet’ and such like] it’s a little bit cringing and I bend over backwards to include as many people as possible."

However, it wasn’t the invention of Ethernet that brought him wealth but rather the ability to sell local area networking at 3Com, the company he co-founded in 1979.

“I had to learn sales quickly,” he says, and it was the years of long trips across North America, and later the world, that made 3Com a powerful force.

Another myth is that he was ousted from 3Com in some sort of “bloody boardroom battle”, he says.

“3Com’s board of directors twice decided that I shouldn’t be CEO. The board of directors did their job. Both times they chose somebody else and both times their judgment was vindicated.” He only left because he didn’t think it right to have a former CEO contender second-guessing the CEO.

Always quote-worthy, his digs at 3Com CEO Eric Benhamou weren’t based on animosity, he says.

“I think the world of Benhamou. I made a crack that he was successful despite not being very charismatic. To me it was a revelation that a person lacking charisma could be so successful. He still lacks charisma!”

I express surprise that his next move wasn’t to build another company but into computer-sector publishing, at IDG [this site is part of the IDG group] where he became a publisher, columnist and, later, a board member.

“[InfoWorld magazine editor-in-chief] Stewart Alsop asked me if I wanted to be his boss. Next thing, [the late IDG CEO] Pat McGovern called and invited me to visit corporate [in Framingham, Massachusetts] and San Mateo where InfoWorld was. I insisted on the title of CEO and publisher. Pat said, ‘You don’t want that: publishers sell ads to media buyers’, but it was the opportunity to learn a whole new business and hang out with my peeps. [Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison actually signed off insertion orders and laboured over the copy.”

Those were go-go days for tech publishers and Metcalfe says it didn’t feel like a slower or more conservative environment than tech itself.

“A printing press is much more high-tech than a personal computer. Then the web hit and I was at the heart of it. I watched as one publisher after another either succeeded or failed.”

Metcalfe made headlines himself after predicting the collapse of the internet in a column published in InfoWorld. I’d always suspected this as stemming some controversialist tendencies designed to cook up debate and Metcalfe concurs.

“I’d go much further and say it was a monumental publicity stunt,” he says. It was designed to court publicity for an imminent book, Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry (“you can still buy it for $1 on Amazon”).

“People had made fun of [IBM founder] Tom Watson saying there would only be 11 computers in the world and Bill Gates saying you only needed 640K of RAM, and in that vein they made fun of me. It was a self-denying prophecy.”

Ever game, Metcalfe literally ate his words after whizzing them into an edible soupy sludge. Later he predicted the failure of wireless networks.

“In 1993, wireless was in one of those bubbles: the modems were bigger than PCs. I went too far in one of my columns and said it would never catch on… never say never.”

But, he says, the success of wireless only increases demand for Ethernet and back-haul networks. “LTE stands for ‘Leads To Ethernet’,” he quips.

In his writing, he was also among the first to take aim at Microsoft, criticising its business practices and foreshadowing its later conviction as a monopolist abusing its market power. Although some traced his criticisms back to a falling out over licensing, Metcalfe says there was nothing personal.

“It wasn’t Bill Gates; it was the twenty-something petty monopolists at Microsoft. [What I wrote] cost me my relationship with Bill Gates.”

He says he remains an admirer of Gates but recalls being in a room with Microsoft’s PR agency rep at the time of the brouhaha.

“She said how disappointed Bill Gates was. Disappointed! As if it was my job not to disappoint Bill Gates…”

However, the tensions between having been a tech industry star turned media all-rounder were becoming apparent.

“The unusual thing was that I’d crossed over to the dark side. It was confusing to people. I’d attack companies in my columns and then try to sell them ad pages.”

A conflict of interests, surely?

“It was a separation of church and state that took place entirely in my head,” he concedes with characteristic drollery.

“Before I continue I’d like to insist that I was right about Microsoft,” Metcalfe says with mock pomposity. “They were eventually convicted.”

To be just, Metcalfe also coined the term “extranet” and may have done the same for “ping”, as well as giving us Metcalfe’s Law, stating that the value of a network is proportionate to the number of potentially connected devices.

Returning to Microsoft, I ask him whether the US and the wider world is getting better at handling abuses of power in technology.

“We got better at it when we took down IBM and AT&T in the 1980s,” he says. “I think we’re getting worse now. The US has a bad government now and anti-trust has become anti-business.”

“Cronyism” in DC lets the powerful slip away, he says, but then the Europeans don’t get away scot-free either. He considers the recent “right to be forgotten” law relating to Google: “What a stupid thing that is.”

Regrets? He appears to have fewer than Sinatra although he beats himself up for not getting IBM to admit defeat on Token Ring, leaving the road open for a two-decade battle with Ethernet.

“IBM gave me two shots to convince them. My contention is that I hadn’t learned to sell yet. I wouldn’t have used the word ‘collision’ [to describe Ethernet traffic handling] and that was a mistake. That related to blood, breaking glass, like a car crash.”

He should have used the “mot juste”, he says, citing his recent discovery of the French term for an appropriate word.

He adds that today’s networking king of the hill Cisco “wouldn’t exist if I were a better person” although he admires the company and its CEO, John Chambers.

His current mission is helping beautiful Austin “become a better Silicon Valley” and is enjoying his work to that end at the University of Texas. He says that he is living his life in 10-year cycles. Having been an engineer/scientist (Ethernet/Xerox); entrepreneur/executive (3Com); publisher and pundit (IDG); venture capitalist; and Professor of Innovation (University of Texas).

In seven years’ time he might, he says, create a startup, picking up where he left off decades ago. Then again he might become a stand-up comic, he says, as if the two options were a ‘blue socks or red socks’ choice.

He could do the standup patter as he has something of the classic-period Steve Martin in his bearing, dryness, self-mocking and capacity for surprise. Say you were plumping for the former career move though, I ask.

“It’s a way off but if I were starting a company today it would be in computational biology. I know a bit about computation and I have a sense biology is about where computing was in 1980. All the trial and error is starting to give way to science and engineering.”

On the economy he is pessimistic and positive at the same time.

“It’s a bubble and it’s going to burst pretty soon but I like bubbles: they’re tools of innovation. There’s the debt bubble too. Everyone’s in debt, including the US to the tune of $17 trillion.”

I ask if he ever considered a career in politics but he says his contribution is limited to tweeting.

And with that our time is up. Metcalfe says he is getting ready to return to Texas after having the summer off and mentions that he was once a visiting professor in “the real Cambridge” in England.

“I loved it but in the end I was getting stir crazy and needed a change.”

I bet.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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