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Q&A: Ethernet's creator describes its past, future

May 16, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Robert M. "Bob" Metcalfe invented the local-area networking standard he called Ethernet on May 22, 1973, at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Ethernet originally meant a shared media LAN. It is greatly changed today, but the name still sticks for a set of networking protocols that have become ubiquitous during the past 30 years. Metcalfe went on to co-found 3Com Corp. in 1979, then became a publisher and pundit in the 1990s, serving as CEO of InfoWorld, where he also wrote a column. He recently became a venture capitalist and is in his third year as a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, Mass. He spoke with Computerworld about Ethernet as a venture model and where the technology is headed.

Why celebrate the 30th anniversary of Ethernet? The world needs some good news. We're in an economic funk and a war funk and a terrorism funk, and there are still some things out there working. And one of them is Ethernet, and it's 30 years old and going strong. On May 22, we're having a celebration at PARC, and that's the very date of the anniversary of a memo I wrote describing it. The focus of that celebration is what is working with Ethernet ... and how it sets a model for other activities in our economy moving forward and what is likely to happen to Ethernet in the future.

Robert M.
Robert M. "Bob" Metcalfe invented the local-area networking standard he called Ethernet
OK, since you mention it, what is working today with Ethernet? Here it is 2003, it's certainly not the thing I invented in 1973, and a lot of people have gotten involved, so I'm not claiming credit for Ethernet. But it's my good fortune that the word Ethernet has been chosen. Occasionally, I even hear 802.11 wireless even referred to as wireless Ethernet. So, what is Ethernet today? It's quite a bit different than the CSMA/CD [Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Collision Detection] thing that Dave Boggs and I built in '74 and so forth. The packet format has persevered, so you might call that the Ethernet. Ethernet's collisions, which were the source of such controversy in the '80s, seem to have disappeared. There hasn't been one reported recently. [Laughs.]
I claim that what the word Ethernet actually refers to now is a business model. Of course, there is a physical set of networks there, and you can argue about to what extent it is what was originally Ethernet, but we still call it Ethernet. But there is a business model


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