Forty years ago, on May 22 1973 to be exact, a young engineer named Bob Metcalfe wrote a memo about a technology that was about to change the face of computing.
Metcalfe worked at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where every researcher had a Texas Instruments Silent 700 terminal on their desk. The TI terminals looked liked portable typewriters but they incorporated an acoustic modem so they could communicate with mainframe computers over a telephone line at 300 bits per second.
Xerox wanted to replace these terminals with its latest Alto “microcomputers” and the company tasked Metcalfe to come up with a way of connecting these early personal computers together.
“The notion of having a computer on the desk was at that time controversial, having a building full of PCs was revolutionary,” remembers Metcalfe. “That may have been the first time it ever occurred, and our great fortune was to be given this problem that had not previously existed.”
The solution that Metcalfe and a handful of other engineers came up with was a local area networking technology called Ethernet.
Metcalfe was speaking at the Ethernet Innovation Summit, a two-day event held last month at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, which was timed to coincide with Ethernet’s 40th anniversary. He related how Ethernet first ran over co-axial cables at 2.94 Mbps (roughly 10,000 times faster than the Silent 700), but has since evolved to run over twisted pair and fibre optic cables at 10 Mbps and later 100 Mbps.
Since 1973 Ethernet has seen off many competing technologies, the most formidable of which was probably IBM’s Token Ring LAN in the 1980s. It is now dominates local area networking and is widely recognised as being one of the key enablers of the internet.
“Ethernet has also left the LAN and entered the WAN, where it is slowly wiping out SONET, which is the previous WAN infrastructure,” says Metcalfe.”It’s gone over the airwaves, hence wi-fi across the telechasm. Thanks to the MEF, the Metropolitan Ethernet Forum, Ethernet has now become a service offering of the carriers, going across the telechasm between the LAN and the WAN.”
Metcalfe says Ethernet has plenty of life in it left yet.
“We’re now going to network-embedded microcontrollers, about 10 billion of which are shipped every year, and most of them are not networked yet, and that’s being taken care of now. So that’s where Ethernet’s still going.”
Metcalfe also promises that Ethernet, particularly in its role in fabric computing or ‘the Internet of Things,’ is going to play its part in a raft of disruptive technologies that will turn the transport, healthcare and education industries on their heads.
He predicts that the most “exciting surprise” will happen in education, specifically as a result of “MOOCs” (Massively open online courses).
“Most of us in this room probably got educated along the way, and that whole thing is about to get - you know like iTunes did to music?”
If anyone has questions about the loss of interpersonal contact between the teacher and the student, Metcalfe says they should consider another invention, the book.
“It was obviously a very bad idea, because before books, we would sit around the campfire and we would hear the story directly from the storyteller, but now we have these damn book things.
“You’ve read The Great Gatsby, but you’ve never met F Scott Fitzgerald. That’s a problem. So the MOOC is really a bad idea.”
• Michael Foreman attended the Ethernet Innovation Summit in Mountain View, California as a guest of NetEvents.