What Ethernet (which is 50 years old today) taught me about technology (open and cheap and easy and good enough wins)

Today the Ethernet is 50! It’s the dominant networking standard in the world and important enough to merit a Turing Award for it’s creator, Bob Metcalfe (well deserved).

If you had asked me what I thought of it back in the 80s when it first came out, I would have told you it was dumb in so many ways. As Network World explains:

Basically, the (Ethernet) protocol makes sure that the line (bus) is not in use before sending any frames out. Today, that is far less important than it was in the early days of networking because devices generally have their own private connection to a network through a switch or node. And because Ethernet now operates using full duplex, the sending and receiving channels are also completely separate, so collisions can’t actually occur over that leg of their journey. Other than when encountering a collision situation, there is no error correction in Ethernet, so communications need to rely on advanced protocols to ensure that everything is being transmitted perfectly.

And that was the problem. Early networks could be half duplex, so device A on an Ethernet network would try to send information to device B on the network, but if device C tried to do this at the same time, a collision would occur and A and C would have to retransmit. If you only had a few devices on the network, it was ok. If you had many devices, collisions would happen frequently and communications was a mess.

Other / better technologies like Token Ring were designed to get around that. I was sure that they would beat Ethernet and become the standard. I was wrong.

Ethernet may have been not as good as the other technologies, but it was more open, cheaper and easier to use. And it was good enough. Anything open, cheap, easy and good enough wins. C beat other languages by being that way. DOS+Windows 3.1 won over OS/2 for similar reasons.

The next time you see a new technology that has those features, you can bet wisely that it will end up being a dominant technology. People will adopt that technology over others that lack those four features. Once adoption occurs, that tech will get better, become more than simply good enough.

Happy birthday, Ethernet. You weren’t very good in the beginning, but you were enough. Stay easy, stay cheap, stay open.


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