Amplify – Colourful mavericks, persistence and the Internet’s non-linear path of innovation

Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook and inspiration for the movie The Social Network , is not the only Internet entrepreneur that fell foul of the authorities at Harvard for his inventiveness.

Whilst pursuing a doctorate in computer science at Harvard, the man who would co-invent the Ethernet was refused permission by Harvard to connect the university to the brand-new ARPAnet . So Bob Metcalfe did what any reasonable person would do. He obeyed and toed the line, right?

WRONG! This born entrepreneur and outspoken maverick then took a job at MIT working on their ProjectMAC (Machine-aided Cognition & Multiple Access Computer), and built some of the hardware that would link MIT’s minicomputers with the ARPAnet. He became so enamored with ARPAnet, he made it the topic of his Harvard doctoral dissertation. But alas, Harvard flunked him.

Did he give up then? Wouldn’t you? Not him. Drawing inspiration from his work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) where he read a paper about the ALOHA Network at the University of Hawaii, he wrote a fresh dissertation in which he identified and fixed some of the bugs in the AlohaNet model and made his analysis part of a revised thesis. This time the powers that be at Harvard were persuaded and awarded Metcalfe a well-earned PhD in 1973. And the rest as they say, is history.

Aside from multiple honours for his leadership in technology and contributions to the invention, standardisation, and commercialisation of the Ethernet, including the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Fellow Award from the Computer History Museum, Metcalfe is probably best-known to the layman for coining the law of networks, named Metcalfe’s Law. Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2). If you have time, read the wonderful blogpost penned by Bob Metcalfe himself on the circumstances around this controversial law and some tongue-in-cheek references to the argie-bargie about who actually “invented” the internet.)

Given the Amplify 11 theme of “Everything connects”, and its core purpose of exploring the role of emerging technologies on human behaviour, society and business, it’s only fitting to drop in and see what Bob Metcalfe is up to these days and where he sees all this internet connectedness going in future.

In this interview by the CEO of Juniper, Kevin Johnson, Metcalfe sees no end to the growth, and says this is only the beginning. He talks about the importance of

open standards and the internet as platform for fierce competition and entrepreneurship,
the risk of monopolies and over-regulation
the challenges that large-scale deployment of video and embedded devices bring,
anonymity on the net as a bigger security threat than real identity
Metcalfe concludes with his predictions for the next killer apps for the internet as

Energy solutions
But be warned before you rush out to invest. Bob doesn’t have a fantastic track record as a forecaster. He was famously wrong for his 1995 prediction that the internet would suffer a catastrophic collapse the following year, promising to eat his words if it did not. During his key note speech at the Sixth World Wide Web Consortium’s Conference in 1997, he took a printed copy of his column that predicted the collapse, put it in a blender with some liquid and then consumed the pulpy mass. At least his word is good!


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