• United States
Senior Editor

A special nod of thanks to Al Gore, Bob Metcalfe, Ray Noorda – where would we be without you?

Mar 27, 20067 mins
Data Center

In 1986 some of the network-industry movers and shakers were poised to become leaders, some were about to become footnotes and others were nearing the end of their influence.

OK. Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet.  But he has been more influential in networking than many people realize.

Gore, Bill Gates, Bob Metcalfe, Ray Noorda, these were folks making waves back in 1986, when Network World was launched.

Their vision, verve and tenacity helped shape the industry we know today, and for that they deserve some extra recognition.

In terms of the leading personalities of 1986, it would be hard to ignore Sen. Al Gore. In March of that year he sponsored the Supercomputer Network Study Act, a plan to get the nation’s resources linked to a national network. The bill wouldn’t become law for two years, but it was only the beginning of his efforts.

“Libraries, rural schools, minority institutions and vocational education programs will have access to the same national resources – databases, supercomputers, accelerators – as more affluent and better-known institutions,” he said at the time.

This is the legislation he referred to in a 1999 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “During my service in the U.S. Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

While that quote was later twisted out of proportion and he received a lot of heat for it, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician that had as much influence over the development of today’s Internet as Gore.

For example, in 1991 he led the push for the High Performance Computing and Communications Act. Known as the “Gore Act,” it supported the National Research and Education Network initiative that became one of the major vehicles for the spread of the Internet beyond the computer science realm. A variety of other technology legislation bares his mark as well.

Today the “recovering politician” can be found helping to run his cable and satellite venture, Current TV, which encourages anyone with videos to upload them for the Current TV community. It hosts interactive blogs and a variety of other media activities mostly targeted at younger people.

Gore recently appeared in the environmental documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which was the buzz at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

While everyone knows where Microsoft’s Bill Gates is, he, his company and some of the key executives must be included here, because 1986 was a milestone year for the company.

Microsoft started 1986 by loading up the trucks at its Bellevue, Wash., offices for a February move down the street to its campus in Redmond.

Spirits were high as the 11-year-old company was abuzz about its IPO slated for March 13. Once that day had come and gone, Microsoft co-founder and then-CEO Gates was officially one of the world’s youngest billionaires, with MSFT trading at $21 a share.

A month later, the company released MS-DOS 3.2, but it would still be more than three years before Microsoft would introduce the first version of its Office suite.

A 30-year-old Steve Ballmer, now CEO, was head of the Systems Software group.

Together, the operating system and Office would eventually provide more than 90% of all revenue for the company. For 1986, that yearly revenue stood at $198 million. By contrast, in the first quarter alone of fiscal year 2006, revenue was $9.7 billion.

Greg Lobdell, who was then group program manager for languages before later becoming product manager for the first release of Exchange, remembers the intensity of a company that housed its employees in three buildings on a campus that now has more than 40.

“The company was a lot smaller, but in some ways it was more intense. People were more visible. Decisions were more visible,” he says.

The not-yet-high-powered in the executive ranks included Nathan Myrvold, who was the applications guru that eventually became CTO, and marketing wunderkind Jeff Raikes, who now heads Microsoft’s Business Division, which oversees the Information Worker Group (Office) and the Business Solutions Group (enterprise applications).

Myrvold left in 2000 to dig for dinosaur bones and eventually founded Intellectual Ventures, a start-up that develops and patents inventions.

If Gates & Co. are perceived by some as the dark side of the industry, Metcalfe and the technology he created – Ethernet – would have to be the sunny side. There have been very few success stories as widespread in the network industry as Ethernet.

Metcalfe and the bright side

In 1986, Metcalfe was at the helm of 3Com, which he co-founded in 1979.

Life was good, but a serious new threat had just emerged: IBM’s Token Ring network. Introduced in 1985 and shipping in volume by 1986, IBM Token Ring and Ethernet would fight a battle that would last well through the 1990s. While Token Ring networks were faster, they were usually more expensive than Ethernet. The development of switched Ethernet and lower Ethernet costs eventually signed the death warrant for Token Ring.

IBM’s Token Ring was a “monopolistic technology that wasn’t interoperable with any standards,” and when IBM did decide to push for standardization it was too late. “Ethernet killed it,” Metcalfe says.

Metcalfe is now a partner with Polaris Venture Partners and still puts in a long week of work as interim CEO of Ember, an embedded network controller company and part of other firms including Mintera, an optical transport firm.

Noorda: Enter the LAN

In 1986 Novell’s Ray Noorda was struggling to lift Novell out of financial trouble and was counting on the third version of NetWare to help. It ultimately did, as NetWare came to dominate the network operating-system market by the early 1990s.

But that wasn’t Noorda’s largest concern. Microsoft was nipping at Novell’s heels and eventually became Noorda’s biggest foe. Still, staying true to his belief that networking requires openness, Noorda coined the term “co-opetition” and worked with opponents, including Microsoft, to create an open platform for business LANs. His battle with Microsoft continued full throttle, however, and in the early 1990s he acquired WordPerfect, Borland’s QuattroPro spreadsheet and Digital Research’s DR-DOS in an attempt to compete with Microsoft on the desktop. Finally, in 1993, Noorda acquired Unix Systems Laboratories, which developed and marketed the Unix System V operating system. That acquisition and its subsequent sale of Unix to SCO are at the crux of SCO’s copyright claim against Novell.

Noorda, who is retired, went on to create the venture-capital firm Canopy Group, maintaining ties with Novell, but eventually cut off contact in 1996, when he saw that Novell was not recognizing the value in open source technology, including Linux.

Ironically, today Novell is banking on the Linux and open source Noorda embraced to turn itself around.

But wait, there’s more

Those are just a few of the major personalities of 1986. There were many others. Here’s a snapshot of some of the most visible:

  • John Akers was at the helm at IBM in 1986. He was named CEO in early 1985 and added chairman to his title in June 1986. Akers retired from both positions on April 1, 1993, after 33 years with IBM. Today he sits on the boards of PepsiCo, Lehman Brothers Holdings, Hallmark Cards, W.R. Grace & Co., and New York Times Co. When he became chairman in 1986, current CEO Sam Palmisano already had 13 years under his belt at IBM.
  • David House was at Intel in 1986 but played a large part in the network industry in the past 20 years. While he was CEO of Bay Networks he negotiated and led that company through its merger with Nortel and served as president of Nortel after the completion of the merger in 1998. He formed Allegro Networks and is still active in the industry, sitting as chairman of the boards of Brocade Communications and Credence. He is also on the board of Azaire Networks, a broadband supplier. He also works with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Still, he finds time to engage in his passions: heliskiing and auto racing.

Senior Editors John Fontana and Jennifer Mears contributed to this report.

Previous story: $20 goes further now | Next story: Bill Yeager, router man >