Originally created for local area networks, Ethernet is 30 years old today and, according to its inventor, "nothing like" its first incarnation.
Ethernet's birthday is attributed to May 22, 1973, when Robert Metcalfe, a member of the research staff for Xerox at its Palo Alto Research Center, wrote a memo to his bosses stating the possibilities offered by linking together via cables the computers in a building.
Metcalfe left Xerox in 1979 and founded networking firm 3Com, where he was for a while its chief executive. After seeing the potential of Ethernet, Metcalfe convinced Digital Equipment, Intel and Xerox to work together to promote it as a standard. He is now a general partner at IT venture capital firm Polaris Venture Partners.
While the patent (#4,063,220) describes Ethernet as a multipoint data communications system with collision detection, the rapidly evolving technology has advanced from coaxial to twisted pairs to optical fibers, from 10Mb to 100Mb to 1Gb to 10Gb, and from shared to switch.
And today the international computer industry standard, with more than 250 million installed ports, is currently emerging as a major driver of telecoms networks.
"Today's Ethernet is nothing like the Ethernet that Dave Boggs and I built starting in 1973," Metcalfe told vnunet.com.
"For example, our first Ethernet ran at 2.94Mbps over a shared coaxial cable, and today's Ethernet runs at 10Mbps or 100Mbps, or 1Gbps or 10Gbps, to and from hubs over telephone wires and optical fibers and wirelessly.
"Ethernet is mostly a business model based on current standards, fierce competition among proprietary products, interoperable products, rapid evolution based on market engagement and preservation of the installed base."
Forrester Research analyst Rob Enderle described Ethernet as an example of a technology underdog coming through because it was an open standard rather than a proprietary system.
Token Ring, he said, was a better, more well-funded technology, but it lost out because it was developed by IBM.
"Ethernet was backed by most of the rest of the market and, through widespread adoption, obliterated Token Ring," Enderle said.
"It provides a constant reminder that cooperation, not funding or technology ownership, can provide the most lasting solutions."
According to Enderle, Ethernet is a shining example that customers will buy "good enough" technology rather than the best, if the price is right. Ethernet remains, for the foreseeable future, both good enough and more cost-effective than the alternatives, he added.
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