Ethernet papa makes Invent Now Hall of Fame

Before his induction ceremony, Bob Metcalfe reflected on network tech, patents, Net neutrality and bold predictions.

At age 61, Robert "Bob" Metcalfe has led a storied career, but he isn't resting on his laurels just yet.

The engineer-turned entrepreneur-turned columnist/publisher-turned venture capitalist insists his greatest achievement is yet to come. That said, the man who helped invent Ethernet , the most widely used packet switched technology in the world, was honored for his work on that invention this past weekend as he was inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

The Brooklyn native graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969 with bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering and management. In 1973, he earned a doctorate from Harvard in computer science, writing his dissertation on packet switching.

He left the East Coast for Silicon Valley, where he landed a job at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. And it was there, in 1973, that he and Stanford University graduate student Dave Boggs described the concept of Ethernet in an attempt to connect computers to a new laser printer that was being developed.

Five years later, in 1979, Metcalfe founded 3Com, a company that later went public and peaked with a market capitalization in the billions. Metcalfe left 3Com in 1990 and began his third career as publisher of IDG's InfoWorld Publishing Company and an industry pundit. For eight years, he wrote a weekly column that at its height was read by a million readers, Metcalfe claims. It was during this period when Metcalfe made several bold predictions, some of which never came to fruition and still haunt him today.

The secret for getting credit for things is not to claim credit for things. The secret is to make bold predictions that people think are ridiculous and then have them come true.

In 2001, he left the world of media and became a venture capitalist at the Boston firm Polaris Ventures, where he currently works today.

Along the way, Metcalfe has racked up several awards and honors, including the Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in 1980 and the Alexander Graham Bell Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1988. In 1995, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2003, he won the Marconi International Fellowship and received the National Medal of Technology from President Bush "for leadership in the invention, standardization, and commercialization of Ethernet".

From his office in Boston, Metcalfe chatted with CNET News.com last week to talk about the invention that has made him so famous. He also shared his views on what's troubling the U.S. patent system and the Internet at large. He even took some time to poke fun at himself for some of those infamously bold predictions.

Q: You're being inducted this week into the Invent Now Hall of Fame for inventing Ethernet, which in the 34 years since it's been invented has become the de facto standard in local area networks and generated billions of dollars in revenue. Did you expect it to be such a huge success?
Metcalfe: Of course not; it was invented in a memo I wrote on May 22, 1973. Dave Boggs and I were asked to build it by our colleagues in order to network the world's first personal computers. Our mindset then had more do to with building our own tools.

I believe others shared the four patents you developed describing Ethernet. Who were they and why do you seem to get all the credit?
Metcalfe: I got more credit than I deserved, that is for sure. Success has many fathers. And failure is an orphan. So I look to the predecessors of Ethernet like the ARPAnet packet-switched network from which Ethernet got packet switching and the Aloha packet radio network from which Ethernet got randomized retransmissions. Those were the predecessors, and I am quick to acknowledge that frequently.

Then there was Dave Boggs. He was a grad student at Stanford. And I was the new member of the research staff at Xerox's Research PARC. I recruited him to help me. So he and I would be the co-inventors, if I were to choose. But the Ethernet patents have four inventors on them: myself, Boggs, Butler Lamson and Chuck Thacker. Butler and Chuck now both work at Microsoft. Dave Boggs is a consultant in Silicon Valley. And I am here at Polaris. I was the principal inventor, so my name appeared first on the patent.

Speaking of patents, a lot of people say the U.S. patent system has gotten out of control. What do you think?
Metcalfe: The patent system will always be broken. It's a very good thing, and it's worth fixing. But it will always be broken because there will always be bad actors hanging around any system trying to game the system.

A big problem was that for 20 years the Patent Office did not issue software patents. It was against the rules. So, for example, when I patented Ethernet I spent a lot of time with Xerox attorneys explaining how you would build Ethernet using hardware, even though we actually built it using a lot of software. But since software was not patentable, we had to express it as a hardware embodiment. And then somewhere along the line, for some reason I don't know, the Patent Office started allowing software patents. That created a big problem, because there was this big gap in the prior art. A lot of patents got issued that shouldn't have been issued, because there is prior art out there that just hasn't been discovered.

Had I been a better person there would be no Cisco today. Were I a better person there would be no Novell today, and the list goes on.

You started 3Com in 1979, and ironically Cisco Systems, not 3Com, is now considered the world leader in Ethernet.
Metcalfe: That's right. Had I been a better person there would be no Cisco today. Were I a better person there would be no Novell today, and the list goes on. 3Com was ahead of a lot of companies, most famously Cisco, and it got passed. But you know that is pretty normal for companies. IBM let DEC get formed. And DEC let Sun get formed. And Sun let Apple get formed. And Apple let Nokia get formed. So there is a lot of precedent for companies getting overtaken from below. So many of my former 3Com buddies work at Cisco now, Cisco being a fine company.

Do you feel bitter about that or disappointed?
Metcalfe: No, there is no bitterness here. I am proud of the company. It's still a substantial company, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. It may even be profitable again. I am delighted that the company is still independent and delighted it has done a series of mergers and each time has chosen to keep the name 3Com, which I gave it. So that makes me the founder of this company even though there are a bunch of other people who founded parts of it. But it's funny, they don't get credit for founding their parts of it, because the 3Com named survived.

You seem to get a lot of credit for things.
Metcalfe: Well, I have the knack for it. Some people hate me for that. The secret for getting credit for things is not to claim credit for things. The secret is to make bold predictions that people think are ridiculous and then have them come true. Then you get a lot of credit for that. That is how I have done it. I said a long time ago that Ethernet was going to be a standard someday and guess what? It turned out that way. I wasn't lying.

But some of your other predictions have not come true.
Metcalfe: I wrote a column every week for eight years. That's a lot of predictions. I think my batting average is pretty good actually. But I think I know which one you are referring to.

Yes, I'm talking about the December 1995 InfoWorld column where you said the Internet would suffer a "catastrophic collapse" in 1996. And then after the prediction didn't come true, you ate a copy of your column in front of a live audience.
Metcalfe: That was a huge PR stunt that I am proud of. I got the cover of Barron's. I got coverage everywhere for eating my column in 1997.

But do you think it hurt your credibility?
Metcalfe: I don't think so. Among some idiots, I guess. But I don't care about them. Anyway if you want the full story there is a book about it. I wrote it. It's called Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry, and it's still available on Amazon.com. You can buy it for $1.97 used. And it describes what I actually predicted. The problem is most people mischaracterized what I predicted. They say "Metcalfe predicted that the Internet would go away in 1996." Well, I didn't actually say that. They like to position it that way and attack me. I was wrong, and I did eat my column. But I was wrong in a different way than I am generally credited for. Anyway you should read the book if it's at all interesting.

Are there any other doozies in your list of unrealized predictions?
Metcalfe: Oh yeah, there is another one that is even worse than that. In 1993, there were various companies touting these little wireless modems that you would hook to your PC. As a pundit responsible for keeping everybody honest, I attacked. And of course, I overdid it. I actually wrote that "wireless PCs will be like pipe-less bathrooms, like port-a-potties. They will be used at rock concerts and construction sites and on vehicles. But in all other cases people will prefer to use pipes or wires." And then I wrote that, "wireless will never work."

Now, you have to understand, wireless was not working at the time. And the modems were bigger than the PCs. I was right to attack the sons of bitches, but I overdid it. I gave a speech at Motorola a couple of weeks ago, and there were nine guys there ready to rub my face into that one. And of course, I had to reach in my pocket and pull out my Motorola phone proving that I prefer to be right than to be consistent.

I have another doozy for you. I also attacked open source. The big mistake I made there was I didn't stop at attacking open source. I went after Linus (Torvalds) himself. And boy, I learned you don't do that. You don't go near Linus. I basically suggested he was being hypocritical going to his company Transmeta, whose software was not open source. So I called him on it. Well every open-source devotee is a vicious e-mail writer. And I got buried in hate mail. It happens to this day.

 

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