Bob Metcalfe, going with the flow

By Lew McCreary, CIO |  Networking

Ironically, Metcalfe, who airs his libertarian-conservative viewpoints both loudly and proudly, is one of the charter members of the revolutionary cadre who gathered in Palo Alto, Calif., in the early 1970s to overthrow the established computing order. "It was a crusade," he emphasizes vehemently, looking as though he might pound his fist on something. He'd pound it on a centralized computing model, if it were handy.

Metcalfe's baby, Ethernet, is one of the seminal enablers of letting the information genie out of its well-guarded bottle. As a networking technology, Ethernet let information roam. Without being able to roam, it would have remained in the iron-fisted grip of those custodial eminences in the information services function, unavailable to you and your kind except through a process of laborious petition -- during which you'd be told to bloody well wait your turn (frequently in the hope that you'd eventually give up waiting and just go away).

As the brainiac denizens of Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Metcalfe and his antiestablishment cohorts were inventing personal computing -- doing the basic spadework that would trigger the broad evolutionary trend to distribute computing power: Out of the white rooms and into the streets! If, back then, IBM's model was to confine all authority over, and access to, computerized information within the IT priesthood, what Metcalfe and the others at PARC were doing was laboring to set it free, to democratize access and governance. After all, the information belonged to the enterprise, not to the archdruids who ran the mysterious machines (machines so persnickety that they needed the pampered, air-conditioned sanctuary of special rooms that no mere mortal dared enter).

The creation of the personal computer was arguably the Manhattan Project of IT. What the "controlled" triggering of nuclear fission had done for hitherto stable matter, the computer scientists of PARC would do for ones and zeros: make them grow, gallop, frolic, rampantly multiply -- and wreak havoc on the usual way of thinking about and applying technology.

Now the crusade is over. Metcalfe and his colleagues at PARC won hands down. IBM has, of course, long since capitulated and broadened its vision and portfolio. Mainframes know their place and keep it. (Modern mainframes are for the most part fat, happy bins of stored information waiting to be summoned by whomever needs it.) Metcalfe went on to found 3Com Corp., the company that first commercialized Ethernet (3Com is now a $6 billion networking powerhouse). Data flows everywhere like water, swift and mostly unimpeded, across fast Ethernet cabling. Nobody even thinks twice about it -- or about the fact that a key religious belief of the early days of computing was that the users couldn't be trusted with the stuff.

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