Bob 'Ethernet' Metcalfe looks to the future

The inventor of Ethernet gives his take on ZigBee, network speeds, software radios, Cisco, RFID, Web services, and why company boards need more engineers

Bob Metcalfe changed the IT world back in the early 1970s when he invented Ethernet though his work at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre. Thirty years on, his invention is ubiquitous in the local area network and is making big strides into the metro space too. Metcalfe went on to found 3Com, and is now a general partner at venture capital firm Polaris Ventures.

Last Saturday Metcalfe delivered a speech at the NetEvents conference in Barcelona, giving a visionary's take on the future of networking and the wider IT space. Metcalfe predicted that ZigBee will have a very bright future, warned about the problems of cramming so much technology into a mobile handset, and joked that whichever networking technology manages to usurp Ethernet will end up being called Ethernet.

ZDNet UK was there to get Metcalfe's take on the future of networking and technology.

Q: Which other technologies can have the success of Ethernet in the future?
A: You mean that won't end up being called Ethernet?

Will ZigBee be called Ethernet?
If I have anything to say about it...

We're pretty excited by ZigBee, and we [Polaris Ventures] have invested in several ZigBee companies, so we're now corrupted and you can't believe anything we say.

Frequencies are becoming available that have not been used much before, at between 50GHz and 100GHz, and they can be accessed by new chips that are coming. There's very high bandwidth up there. One issue with such frequencies is that they tend to be more dependent on line of sight, but that can be solved by software.

Mesh is another exciting technology. I mean, the Internet is a mesh, but all wireless systems will be meshes soon.

Can enterprises keep up with the increasing speed of networks? Do we need ever faster networks?
When 10Mbps Ethernet came along they couldn't keep up with it, and when 100Mbps Ethernet came along they couldn’t keep up with that either.

But in a system where you have clients and software and other components, it's a bad strategy to argue that "since everything else is the bottleneck then I won't improve what I do". The problem with that is that no-one improves anything very much, because it's never their turn.

If your attitude is "I'm not the bottleneck but I'm moving to the next-generation of my product anyway", then you'll have people complaining that "you don't need to upgrade".

The right answer is to keep innovating even if it is overkill at the time. 10Mbps Ethernet was overkill in the 1980s, but soon it was necessary.

What lessons can we learn from Ethernet being 'good enough' for networking rather than heavily deterministic as many of its competitors were?
This used to be a big debate when it was Ethernet versus Token Ring. Determinism was the issue. Ethernet no longer has collisions, but it never was a real problem because the whole issue was overplayed, often by salesmen making the best arguments for their products.

Being deterministic was not really an issue. With Token Ring, if you lost a token then you were very non-deterministic.

One of Ethernet's strengths was that because it came out of the Arpanet initiative it understood its place in the protocol hierarchy. So it did what it had to in that place, in levels one and two, and it was good enough to cope in the hierarchy.

Token Ring, though, competed too much with the protocols working at other levels.

As well as token ring being too expensive?
Twice as expensive [as Ethernet].

In your speech (at the NetEvents conference) you mentioned the problem of cramming multiple radios into one mobile phone. Is a software radio the answer?
Not yet, but it's another area that's coming. Software radios are one way of having many radios in one bit of silicon. There's no danger of it happening suddenly.

There's a company in the US called Vanu who are already doing software radios. It's run by a man called Vanu Bose, but his father had already used the name Bose for his own company.

They're beginning to have base stations based on software radios, but it'll be a long time before it is practical.

How can the current regulatory structure for spectrum sit with the ZigBee world when we'll have upwards of 16 billion radios that can reprogram themselves to use any frequency they like? Will we see more unlicensed spectrum, or a rush of people trying to police unpoliceable radio?
I'm not an expert in this area, but guessing what regulators do is a world unto itself. There is a trend towards a more unlicensed spectrum.

With the arrival of technologies like ZigBee, RFID, and Near Field Communication it looks like the people who will win will actually be the software and services industry. If we have billions of devices doing billions of transactions, will someone like IBM be the winner by providing the services to manage it all?
There's a big opportunity above the layer of the wireless technologies. With all these sensors and control points, we'll need to Google them. Their information will enter the Google stream and Google will process it.

Could the lack of these end-to-end business models be a bottleneck?
Yes, we won't see these new radio technologies shipping in mass-market quantities until the business processes are fixed.

As a venture capitalist, what are you looking at to ensure your investment in ZigBee is not a failure because it's too hard to use?
I have a new Apple Powerbook with a 17-inch screen. It's really gorgeous, and heavy, and power-consuming. I bought a mouse, because it's marginally easier than using the touchpad, and I chose a Bluetooth one. The Powerbook told me that it was a Bluetooth mouse and invited me to turn Bluetooth on. Consumers shouldn't need to know that it's Bluetooth and they shouldn't have to be turning it on.

A big issue with ZigBee is configuring and managing the systems. If you want to associate a switch with nine lights, how do you do it? Do you crank up the Cisco command line at home and do it?

People in the ZigBee space are working on how to do it. Do you bring the switch next to the light and press a button saying "this one", and then go to the next light and press the button again? It's an endless series of little consumer interface problems.

How many years has Cisco got left as the leading network company?
I was very wrong about Cisco on the upside, since had I been very cool there would be no Cisco. We at 3Com were doing routers before they even existed. So because I was so wrong back then I don't want to be too definitive now.

I also wrote in the early 1990s that Microsoft was going down the tube. Of course, it's a long tube.

A number of very sharp people work at Cisco, and the company has about the right orientation for consumers -- it's not inward-looking and distracted by political battling. That bodes well for the perpetuation of its monopoly a little bit longer. Cisco's competitors should not be prepared for its imminent demise -- unless it gets bought by Microsoft...

A lot of big companies are saying they have significant problems with the performance of their applications, be it CRM, ERP, SAP. Who is going to get hold of the software side, in the same way you got hold of networking. And how tightly can we get software to work with the network.
I haven't got any insight to share on this.

There's lots of Linux and open-source work being done which will be disruptive. I'm not sure that open source will ultimately be the model that everyone uses, but it certainly is disruptive. It is good, as it should get them to move along a bit faster. Also, we've just invested in a new supercomputing company -- maybe they'll have the answer.

What do you think about 3Com's alliance with Huawei?
I only recently became aware of Huawei -- it's a multi-billion dollar company I wasn't aware of.

This is an assault on Cisco -- bringing routing products to market that are much cheaper than Cisco's. Up to five times cheaper, in fact. OK, they have some headaches but at that price some people are prepared to put up with that. Companies will have to work out if it works for them. It's a really great initiative, but will it work? I'm not sure yet. Is a 500 percent price improvement enough to get someone to switch from Cisco to Huawei?

Sony used to be seen as cheap junk, and now it makes....well, high-end junk. I'm not saying Huawei is junk, but the perception is that it sells Chinese knockoffs of Cisco kit. The perception of Sony changed - maybe could the same happen to Huawei?

Which technologies in the networking space do you think are destined to remain niche or are outright losers?
There's a bunch. In the last couple of years there have been a lot of 802.11 start-ups, offering 802.11 security, management or quality-of-service. But they are different companies, and that's the flaw because you want an 802.11 system that includes all these things.

Another [area for losers] is optical components. In the bubble, approximately 900 new companies launched offering optical component products. When one show up in our [Polaris Venture's] office, we say "not another one", and then we're kind and we explain that "we're waiting for the other 900 to go bust before we launch a new one".

Also Web services. It's a buzz word, and we have backed some Web services companies, but we are getting to the point now where we are tired of them.

These are still promising areas, but sometimes there are just too many companies.

Are there enough engineers on the board of networking companies in general?
No there aren't, but the trend won't turn around and that's because of the way politicians have over-reacted to the scandals of the bubble -- by the way, this is a US-specific answer. Europe is probably two years behind.

Laws are being constructed which mean company boards must be filled with accountants and lawyers. It doesn't leave much room for engineers, and that's bad. There should be more engineers on the board of companies, but the way things are going they will all be retired accountants and lawyers. Most board meetings are just CYA [cover your ass].

Most companies won't go public, just so they can avoid the morass of over-regulation. Others will find a way of running themselves where lawyers and accountants do what they must do, away from the overall guidance of the company.

Of course, it's not just engineers. You also need sales, marketing, a couple of visionaries.

But aren't visionaries the first to get fired?
The reason I'm nervous of doing this kind of visionary talk is that when you run a company and they describe you as a visionary, you won't be running the company much longer.