Bob Metcalfe

Age: 56

Claim to fame: Inventor of Ethernet in 1973, a consulting associate professor at Stanford University, founder of 3Com Computer Corp. in 1979, creator of Metcalfe's Law, CEO of IDG's InfoWorld Publishing Co. (a sister company to Computerworld) from 1992 to 1995, and an InfoWorld columnist and industry pundit. Metcalfe is also the author of three books and the winner of numerous awards, among them the Grace Murray Hopper Award and the IEEE's Alexander Graham Bell Medal.

What he's doing now: Since January 2001, has been a venture capitalist focusing on Boston-area IT start-ups as a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners. He maintains various directorships and helps to run the Camden Technology Conference.

You might be surprised to know that it's not networking but rather the Internet that has been the biggest technology influence on Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe's life, and it has been since 1969. "Google has changed my life," he says.

Bob Metcalfe of Polaris Venture Partners
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Bob Metcalfe of Polaris Venture Partners
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Metcalfe has had a long and storied career, studded with multiple awards and many prognostications. He divides his 35-year career into four parts. The first three are engineer/scientist, entrepreneur/executive and publisher/pundit/author. The fourth and most recent phase is venture capitalist, with forays into conference hosting and, as ever, speaking out on industry issues of concern to him. Not the least of these issues is what he sees as the soft-pedaling of the remedy phase of the Microsoft Corp. antitrust trial. "That's the only reason I can think of for electing more Democrats," he cracks, but then reconsiders. "It's not reason enough."

He says half-kiddingly that CIOs and their teams will vanish in the next 10 years because everyone will have to know how to apply information technology.

"As information technology becomes more and more important and more prevalent, it will tend to blend into the woodwork," he predicts. A lot of what IT professionals do now is related to the fact that the technology today is "both wonderful and crap," Metcalfe says. Much of it rolled out the door prematurely. As technology quality improves, IT workers will be able to spend less time dealing with "incomprehensibility" and do more intellectually challenging things, predicts Metcalfe.

In the meantime, he can understand the hunker-down mode of many CIOs today. "It's not a bad thing, but while you are there, making better use of the investments already made, the company will start to outgrow what you've already built, and you have to be alert to signs of that," he says. Entirely new opportunities will be the lure to get IT out of this mode. "You'll see what you can't pass up," Metcalfe says.

That might include working with the next killer app - which is video Internet, according to Metcalfe. But be prepared to wait a while. He predicts that the technology will develop gradually over the next 10 years. That's because it will require massive re-engineering of the Internet - for example, a complete overhaul of TCP/IP and "all the Internet plumbing." Society will need to "broadband the planet," he adds, noting that people won't be viewing the "videonet" over a Digital Subscriber Line. "If it takes government intervention, then we are all doomed," he says.

Also coming are all forms of networked embedded computing. "There are 8 billion micros shipped every year, and only about 2% are personal and only about 2% are networked," Metcalfe says.

Among the advances he sees changing our lives are "major substitutions of communication for transportation," one example being the video Internet. The net result will be "a serious drop in commuting and business-related travel, less shopping in person, less investment in transportation infrastructures, less pollution and less money spent on wasting time and energy moving atoms around."

Looking ahead, if Metcalfe were forced to choose one technology to get involved in, it would be nanotechnology. "Wires, dots, wires. What the hell are they good for? We don't really know," he says.

In the shorter term, concepts like Tim Berners-Lee's semantic web - not people-to-people using HTML, but software-to-software using XML - will change the way business is done. "We'll be able to encode the information we put out in such a way that software agents related to business can be transacting, searching and interacting on our behalf continuously," he says.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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