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August 08, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Inventor of Ethernet offers comparisons between that initiative and the gigabit efforts

Bob Metcalfe was the inventor of the Ethernet, something he did while working for Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in 1973. He later founded 3Com Communication and served as its head until selling the company to Hewlett-Packard in 1990.

Metcalfe was one of the featured speakers at the recent “Gig Tank Demo Day” in Chattanooga where he engaged in a lively, humor-filled conversation with Bill Wallace, Chief Executive Officer of U.S. Ignite.

  • COMPARISON BETWEEN EARLY DAYS OF INTERNET AND GIGABIT EFFORT. In the early days, “we had to make the infrastructure argument.” He said that “every time we built it, they came.”
  • TECHNIQUES FOR APPLICATIONS DEVELOPERS. “What does the term Ethernet mean? It’s a brand, a promise.” He said the Ethernet promised to base networking on international, open standards. The first Ethernet I sold cost $5,000. Today, it is zero. The principles established 40 years ago have worked.”
  • WHAT’S THE NEXT SOURCE OF INNOVATION? “I distinguish innovation from invention. People being innovated on don’t take it well. Most new ideas are bad, so status quo is OK. I’ve chosen in my fifth career to promote start-uppery.”
  • WHAT UNIQUE ASSETS DO YOU SEE IN CHATTANOOGA? “It begins with this army of Mayors you have. I’ve met six in the last two days. You have wonderful bastions of this community. I also noticed Austin and Chattanooga have a lot in common – a river, a railroad and a UT. I’ve never seen a more dynamic utility executive than Harold DePriest.”
  • WHAT ARE THE NEXT KILLER APPS?  He said the first killer app was the Electric Power Board’s use of the gigabit to ensure reliability of grid – the smart grid of Chattanooga. “U.S. Ignite is looking for killer apps,” Metcalfe said.  He cited education, energy and healthcare as his next favorites, building on disruptive things like email, iPods for music, and Amazon.
  • DO YOU HAVE HIGH HOPES FOR A VIDEO PLATFORM TO TRANSFORM HEALTHCARE? “I don’t feel particularly insightful on this subject.” Medical applications may be more on the side of monitoring patients.
  • WHAT IS METCALFE’S LAW? The cost of the network goes linear, but the value is related to the number of connections. The value of the network goes as the square of the users. “I told my customers they had to buy my products. It worked, and it was right.”
  • HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR CHATTANOOGA TO GET CONNECTED TO OTHER GIG ISLANDS? “You have to seek critical mass in networking and entrepreneurship. You struggle not to be an island. Chattanooga and Kansas City have a special reason to be connected.” He said that he had only been here two days, but he had not detected that the “other UT,” meaning UT Chattanooga, and other higher educations were as involved as they needed to be.
  • WHAT ARE SOME LESSONS LEARNED? “You have to sell your idea to yourself, then your co-founders, then your customers.” He said investors are ranked too high.  Metcalfe added that start-ups cannot allow animosity between nerds and suits to derail their company.

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