Why you should wish Ethernet a happy birthday

commentary Last week, engineers, scientists, and technologists convened to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the networking technology known as Ethernet.

commentary Last week, there was a big birthday bash in Silicon Valley.

The party didn't attract Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Nor was it held for any such celebrity. Instead, the gathering consisted mostly of engineers, scientists, and technologists who had convened to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the networking technology known as Ethernet.

While the invention of arcane computer communications protocols may not seem like an occasion for you to put on your party hat, it's a milestone we all should mark. The reason: Ethernet has shaped, and will continue to shape, the way we work and play, and in truly profound ways.

It began in 1973, when researchers at Xerox's storied Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) started looking for a way to connect early personal computers to a laser printer they were developing. They initially conceived of it as an in-building broadcast network, over which every device could converse with any other without the intervention of a centralized intermediary.

To manage conversation between machines, PARC researchers embraced the same approach pioneered by the developers of the Arpanet (the precursor of today's Internet): bundling data into short packets. They stuck the sending address at the front of each packet, the receiving address at the end. Machines on the network would listen to the traffic passing across the network; when they heard a space of silence, they'd send out their packets.

Conceptually, it really was that simple.

The real killer app
PARC researcher Bob Metcalfe, now 57 and a venture capitalist, suggested naming it an "ether network." Why ether? He didn't want to restrict the technology to hard wires. "Who knows what media will prove better than cable for a broadcast network; maybe radio or telephone circuits, or power wiring or frequency-multiplexed CATV, or microwave environments, or even combinations thereof," he wrote in a memo dated May 22, 1973.

It was a prescient vision. Metcalfe's little packets now zip not just through CAT5 cable but across phone lines, cable TV connections, and the airwaves.

In February 1980, work began to sanctify Ethernet as an official electrical engineering standard. The standard's official name is "802.3," to denote the year ("80") and month ("2") standards development started. Note, by the way, how that designation connects Ethernet lineally to Wi-Fi, aka 802.11b.

Since then, Ethernet has become one of the few true worldwide standards. I can plug my laptop into a LAN in Japan or France, and it will work just as well there as it does here in the office. You can't say that about electrical circuits or cell phone networks.

This standard way of connecting machines into local area networks gave rise to new forms of communication, including e-mail. Teamed with the PC, it led to unprecedented gains in productivity. It produced thousands of jobs and a windfall for investors, as companies such as Cisco, 3Com, and Sun Microsystems formed and burgeoned into multibillion-dollar enterprises.

Networking pioneer Judy Estrin, now CEO of Packet Design LLC, got it right when she said, "In the end, connectivity is the killer app."

It is, and it remains so. It's had that staying power because the connectivity Ethernet afforded just made us hungry for more. We had Ethernet in the office. When we got the Internet, which connected us beyond the office, we gobbled it up. Now we're building networks at home, and can't wait to connect from the car, plane, or beach. And we're scarfing up a new generation of devices and services that will allow us to do just that.

Ethernet wrought all this.

What about privacy?
Looking back at Ethernet's history also provides an occasion to look ahead. Appropriately enough, a PARC researcher named Judith Grinter, who specializes in the social implications of technology, addressed the birthday gathering.

With Ethernet having set the stage for ever faster, ubiquitous, and even mobile data connectivity, she raised some important, emergent issues that we'd all be well-served to consider.

For example, what happens to privacy in a world where we're always connected? What happens to families when work is always as close as your pocket? What happens to kids in a world where instant messaging is becoming a staple form of social interaction and where having a network connection determines who can get homework help from a friend and who can't? "It's a case of 'be online or be out,'" as Grinter succinctly put it.

These are huge stakes. And they stand as the reasons that even those of us who could care less about the difference between a router or a hub need to bid Ethernet a happy birthday, with best wishes for more good years to come.

Patrick Houston is editorial director at ZDNet's AnchorDesk