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Has your stance on open-source software changed? Are you still critical?
Metcalfe: Once again there is a certain amount of mischaracterization of what I actually said. And fortunately it is in my book, so people can go and see what I actually said. I didn't say that Windows was better than Linux. I was attacking Microsoft and Linux just as furiously, but of course the Linux people said I was cashing my checks from Microsoft while I was attacking open source. What really annoys them is that I coined the term "open sores," which is just a little too apt, because it really annoys them that whenever they say "open source" it sounds like "open sores." That is really cool that I nailed them on that.
But also two things have changed. I have changed and open source has changed. The open source that I attacked deserved attacking. But it's kind of evolved substantially since then. For example it doesn't mean free software. And it doesn't elevate all those loopy free-software people to the top of the list. But Linux didn't kill Windows and Windows didn't kill Linux, even though they are both deserving of being killed. They are both old, clunky software. And they should be replaced by something slick and new.
But the question remains. Do you end up with better software if you develop it at a rapacious software monopoly? Or do you develop better software if you do it with a ragtag group of amateurs? That question remains.
You mentioned that you have changed too. How?
Metcalfe: Well, I am an investor in a supercomputer company that runs Linux open source. The whole model is based on open source. So I am a big fan of it now.
There has been a lot of talk about Net neutrality over the last year or so. Your contemporary Vint Cerf, who is credited with helping invent the Internet, is a huge supporter of Net neutrality, saying it's important to keep the Internet open. Otherwise, the big Bell phone companies could stifle innovation by controlling the pipes of the Internet. What do you think?
Metcalfe: I'm no fan of the big Bell phone companies. I've been attacking them since 1972. And they are coming back, the bastards. On the other hand, I am not an expert on Net neutrality, I'm sure there are nuances to that issue that I have not bumped into. But I have a hunch that Vint and his intelligentsia may just be alarmist. But that is just a hunch. I haven't really looked at the details, and I wouldn't put it past the Bell system, now refurbished, to be up to no good in Washington, because that is what they are good at.
But you are someone who really understands how the Internet operates. Would it be fair for one of the phone companies to give priority or charge companies a fee for priority on their network?
Metcalfe: Now you have opened a different topic, which is what is wrong with the Internet. It's not necessarily about Net neutrality.
Well, what is wrong with the Internet, in your opinion?
Metcalfe: The network that we have built--that Vint built--is broken. It lacks three things: It lacks security, it lacks economics and it lacks dedicated bandwidth. It's the last point that you've touched on.
Priority isn't good enough. This best-efforts stuff--have you heard that term? It was coined in my Ph.D. dissertation in 1973, I might add. So I am an expert on best efforts. The Internet was originally designed to carry teletype packets across the United States in half a second. But now it's carrying full-length feature films. That is a different thing. So the Internet, in addition to its other two bugs, needs quality-of-service improvements. In particular, it needs to depart from the best-efforts model at its core and allow for the reservation of the bandwidth and not merely priority.
The intelligentsia would argue, "Let's just keep what we've been doing for 30 years. We'll just throw bandwidth at it." An excess of bandwidth means you can get away with best efforts, because best efforts will suffice.
But I disagree. I think that we need to have bandwidth reservation and not merely priority. So then go back to network neutrality. You could have these evil Bell people, not to mention the MSOs (cable industry), not to mention the ISPs, who are just as evil as--well I don't want to go too far. Anyway, if they can allocate dedicated bandwidth to their particular properties that would be a major attack on so-called network neutrality.
Once again, I'm not an expert, but my hunch is that isn't really a big problem. In fact, it could be that what we are doing is fixing the economics problem of the Internet. The Internet was developed by grad students who didn't know from money. Still, economics has for some time been invading the Internet. Advertising is the big one now. But eventually we're going to have to pay for things like in a real economy. And what happens in order to have a real economy is that people have to own things and pay for them and buy and sell them.
So network neutrality may be an issue all tangled up in the fixing of the economics of the Internet. And that is an ideological question. Should the Internet be free to all people at all times equally, network neutral? Or should it be a place where value is exchanged and investments are made and profits are earned? I'm a big fan of the latter model.
How do we monetize the Internet? You don't think advertising is enough?
Metcalfe: No it isn't. You also want to have access to content that can't be advertising-supported or government-supported. Content that is not supported by foolish venture capitalists.
At the moment advertising does seem to work pretty well. It's what is paying my salary.
Metcalfe: Yes, but there is a lot of content which is not supportable by advertising. CNET works because there are enough people in the world who buy enough computer equipment that you can influence their purchase decision. And therefore you can get people to advertise there. But there are a lot of things worth talking about that don't influence major amounts of purchasing decisions or are read by people who have no purchasing power at all and therefore, are of no interest to advertisers.
So how do you get that content? You pay for it, like music. Like iTunes, where you are able to get a song by actually paying someone for it. iTunes is not advertising-supported, right? Advertising tends to drive toward the common denominator content. And we complain about that all the time.
You mentioned that security is another major problem with the Internet. Can you explain?
Metcalfe: The network is fragile. We have spam; we have viruses. We have phishing and all sorts of screwy things on the Internet. And that's due to the Internet being insecure at its core. Security and privacy will never be solved. There is always a tradeoff. But the best efforts nature of the Internet goes too far. No one is inspecting source addresses on packets at the very bottom. And therefore packets can pretend to come from places that they didn't come. Or they can pretend that they are from nowhere. So we can't allow that. We have to fix that.
What would you say is your proudest achievement?
Metcalfe: That's a very sensitive topic. I think I haven't done it yet. I'm not dead. It's not over. I'm a mere 61 years old. I plan to live forever so the thing I hope to be remembered for hasn't occurred yet. I'm hoping that my mid-life crisis is still ahead. But if you push me, I'd say that Ethernet is good enough. If I were to rest on my laurels, that wouldn't be a bad laurel to rest on. Of course, there is my family, my children. They might want to get mentioned. Of course, they haven't quite succeeded yet. So it's hard for me to be that proud of them. No pressure or anything.
I'm pretty proud of 3Com. I did work on the Internet in ways other than Ethernet, so I take some pride in the entire Internet.
What about your work as a venture capitalist?
Metcalfe: I'm new there. I've only been at it a little over six years. None of my personal investments here at the firm have exited yet, which is what VCs are supposed to do. So I am a couple of accomplishments short of being a complete venture capitalist. I haven't gotten liquid, and I haven't raised money for the firm. And those things are related. So it's way early. Of course, I've got these great companies in my portfolio. I am already proud of them, but I am hoping that they will go on to bigger and better things. And that will be great.
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