A Google Of Things

Aug. 1, 2006
“Suppliers are wrong who think the road to long-term success is giving away non-standard software with their non-standard chips.”

It’s not often that you get the chance to hear an industry legend speak, so when I learned that Dr. Robert Metcalfe was giving a keynote address at the recent Sensors Expo, I made sure I was in the audience.

Bob Metcalfe is best known for inventing Ethernet, as he puts it, “in a memo I wrote at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center on May 22, 1973, before there were personal computers.” His other claims to fame include: founder of 3Com (maker of Ethernet hubs, interface cards and switches), columnist for InfoWorld, recipient of the 2005 National Medal of Technology, and, most recently, chairman of Ember Corp., a provider of ZigBee-compliant chips and solutions for wireless mesh networks. And yes, this is the Metcalfe of “Metcalfe’s Law,” which states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of its users. (Google it, and you’ll find a Wikipedia discussion on whether the Law overstates or underestimates the value of adding network connections.)

In any case, Metcalfe is a recognized network expert, and was invited to Sensors Expo, held June 5-7 near Chicago, to share his thoughts on the future of embedded networking. Said Metcalfe, “Today’s millions of Ethernets bear little resemblance to the first Ethernet that Dave Boggs and I built in 1973.” But the rationale behind his talk was that “the history of Ethernet can inform the future of embedded networking.”

A winning business model

Metcalfe states that Ethernet today is not any specific technology, but is rather a business model built on: “de jure (based on law), not de facto standards; implementations of these standards owned by companies; fierce competition among standards-

promoting companies; market ethics that prevent competing by being incompatible; evolution of standards based on market interaction; and backward compatibility to interoperate with installed bases.” According to Metcalfe, this winning Ethernet business model can and should be used as the model for embedded networking.

“Thanks to the relentless onslaught of Moore’s Law…our computers are so small and cheap that we’re embedding 10 billion of them a year.” Metcalfe has come up with a structuring nomenclature for the huge embedded networking space, based on one of his favorite television shows—CSI. But, Metcalfe’s CSI stands for Control, Sense, Identify.

CSI networking sits below the personal networking space, which includes WiFi, WiMax, cellular and Bluetooth. At its bottom is Identification (I) networking, an embedded wireless networking subspace Metcalfe says is commonly referred to as radio frequency identification, or RFID. Above the “I” network is Sensor (S) networking, which uses long-life batteries, low-end microcontrollers and more capable radios to collect sensor data. At the top of CSI is Control (C) networking, which is where, says Metcalfe, embedded networking standards such as ZigBee exist.

Will embedded networking need standards to succeed? “Of course,” notes Metcalfe. “But, the people currently selling proprietary embedded networking will argue otherwise. I have been listening to these arguments for 33 years—they are all eventually false.”

As proof, Metcalfe offers his vision for the future of embedded networking. “A ‘World Wide Web of Things’ would enable easy publishing and spontaneous viewing of control-sense-identify information. A ‘Google of Things’ would interconnect CSI data to enable powerful search and inference.” Protocol stack standards will matter as much as radio standards. Forecasts Metcalfe, “Suppliers are wrong who think the road to long-term success is giving away non-standard software with their non-standard chips.”

Admittedly biased, as Ember chairman, Metcalfe nonetheless has posed an interesting future, where we can Google our machines just as easily as we Google everyday information.