Seven Key Takeaways from Dr. Bob Metcalfe’s Talk on Connectivity and Innovation – SiliconHills

Seven Key Takeaways from Dr. Bob Metcalfe's Talk on Connectivity and Innovation - SiliconHills

“The most important new fact about the human condition is that we are now suddenly connected. And it’s only going to get worse. Connectivity is a thing, is THE thing,” Dr. Bob Metcalfe.

Serial Austin Entrepreneur Chris Taylor and Ethernet Inventor Dr. Bob Metcalfe discussed connectivity and more Tuesday evening at the Red Fridge Society, a cozy craftsman cottage once as Squareroot’s headquarters.

The talk was part of Silicon Hills News’ BigIdeasATX event series sponsored by Unnanu and Swyft and hosted by the Red Fridge Society,

Recently, Metcalfe received the 2022 ACM A.M. Turing Award, recognizing his contributions to Ethernet’s invention, standardization, and commercialization. The award is often called the “Nobel Prize of Computing.”

Metcalfe, an Emeritus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and a research affiliate in computational engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, invented Ethernet in 1973 while working as a computer scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center. He drew on ideas from ARPAnet, notably packet switching, and an idea from the University of Hawaii: Aloha Network, a method for sharing a communication channel.

Today, Ethernet is the main conduit of wired network communications worldwide, with data rates ranging from 10 Mbps to 400 Gbps, and emerging technologies with 800 Gbps and 1.6 Tbps.

Here are a few takeaways from his talk. The entire discussion is posted in the video below.

1. Gather a bunch of intelligent people in one place and give them autonomy and brilliant things happen. That’s the history of Xerox’s PARC campus and the beginning of Ethernet. “The spiritual leader of Xerox park was a guy named Bob Taylor who coincidentally is an alumnus of the University of Texas in Austin, and he had run computer science research at ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense for some years and then he went to Xerox,” Metcalfe said. Taylor recruited an exceptionally gifted group of engineers. Metcalfe said they had a rivalry with Bell Labs, which had about 2,500 people compared to Xerox PARC’s 25.

2. Have a problem worth solving. Xerox PARC envisioned a PC on every desk; all PCs needed to be connected to the laser printer. Metcalfe, the networking guy, got the job along with Dave Boggs. “He and I became the Boggsy twins, and we built the first Ethernet to connect these PCs.”  

3. “Never Slam a Door Behind You.” In 1979, Metcalfe left Xerox to found 3Com in Silicon Valley. He gave seven month’s resignation notice. “Xerox became my customer, and if I had slammed the door and ****** all over them, they wouldn’t have been my customer.”

4. 3Com was bootstrapped and later got VC funding. “For the first year and a half or two, I was a CEO, and we were funded from consulting revenue; we got a $750,000 order from Exxon Corporation to build an Ethernet interface. Then 3Com raised $1.1 million for a third of the company in 1980, and the company for “11 nanoseconds became worth $55 billion in 1999.”

5. Invent a law to sell more products. Metcalfe’s Law stemmed from a carousel slide Metcalfe created to sell more 3Com products. The law helped to explain to 3Com’s customers that “the reason that their networks were not useful is that they were not big enough, and the remedy to that problem was to buy more of our products, which they did, and we went public shortly thereafter in March of 1984.”  George Gilder named it Metcalfe’s Law.

6. Find a Time Machine.  Metcalfe spent eight years at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, which allowed its researchers to go a decade into the future. “I went into the future, and it was good, and then we came back into the present and started recreating the Internet we had built inside Xerox.” Today, laboratories at universities are the prime candidates for time machines, Metcalfe said.

7. Connectivity can create problems. According to Metcalfe, an onslaught of connectivity creates pathologies, and it’s not over yet. “We have so much connectivity so quickly we don’t know what to do with it.”  The Megabit Internet is now out there, but now we’re moving to the Gigabit Internet, so even though we were overwhelmed with the connectivity provided by the Megabit Internet, we are now going to be even worse overcome by the abundance of bandwidth from the Gigabit. The preponderance of bandwidth creates pathologies.”

To end on a positive note, Metcalfe advised all entrepreneurs to exercise, get plenty of sleep, and take care of themselves. In college, Metcalfe was captain of his tennis team and played tennis three hours a day. More recently, Metcalfe completed the Boston Marathon with all his family members. Metcalfe said that exercise is one of the most important things a person can do for their mental and physical faculties.