TR: Sure, but lots of people have said video on the Net was the next big thing. So why does your gut say that it will actually materialize now?
Metcalfe: Well, in microprocessors, we went from one-bit to two-bit to four-bit to eight-bit to 16-bit to 32 to 64. Bill Gates got to be the wealthiest man on earth because he knew this progression would continue. And he made his money on the transition from eight to 16. A lot of people said, “Well, we’re not really fully utilizing the eight-bit microprocessor, and there’s no software for the 16-bit microprocessor, so it’s ridiculous that anyone would bet on that.” And Gates knew 16 was next and 32 was after that. Now, in the bandwidth world, the same thing is happening: one kilobit, 10 kilobits, 100 kilobits, 1,000 kilobits. It’s sort of an obvious progression related to the unfoldings of bandwidth. The backbones are now 10 gigabits, but it’s going to 40 gigabits.
Metcalfe: I’m on the board of a public company called Avistar [Communications] that does desktop-enterprise videoconferencing. This dates back to before my involvement with Polaris.
Gilbert: Well, we’re still waiting for good videoconferencing. We’ve been waiting for years, and there may not be good videoconferencing for another 20 years.
Metcalfe: Well, this company is the next attempt. I’m watching them introduce new versions of their software with new features, and then we all watch with anticipation at the usage levels, measured in minutes per day and how many users there were and how long it takes to sell the new feature. The sales cycle is long because there are so many people walking around who have had their hearts broken in previous versions of videoconferencing.
TR: What else will be needed to make the video revolution go?
Metcalfe: Well, there’s a company I can’t name but whose business plan is before Polaris. They make a chipset for editing HDTV. And there isn’t a lot of HDTV around now.
Gilbert: Not a lot of broadcasting yet.
Metcalfe: Yes, but we think that HDTV is the coming thing.
Gilbert: And your basis for thinking that?
Metcalfe: The inexorability of progress and the fact that HDTV is gorgeous. More people will want it eventually. And it’s not enough to have the TVs, and it’s not enough just to have the broadcast facilities. You’re going to need the editing facilities. Therefore you need these chips. The consensus among the partners is that we should probably do this investment, because these chips are going to be needed. My own attitude was triggered by the fact that my 12-year-old son gave me as a Father’s Day gift a movie that he made using [Apple Computer’s] iMovie on the Macintosh, with a digital camera, titles, music. So this is coming.
TR: Are the chips for professionals or consumers?
Metcalfe: The initial plan is based on professionals. As the prices come down, this will become a widespread phenomenon; just as people write letters, they can make movies for grandma and send them over the Net.
TR: If your grand vision is correct, does it matter to you when it comes true?
Gilbert: It’s very easy to pick things that will prove profitable. The question is, when? The entire issue is, can you invest in a way that produces a return very very soon?
metcalfe: Timing is everything.
gilbert: Timing is everything. Timing is every element of the next strong investment.
TR: Dr. Gilbert, Bob Metcalfe has gone out on a limb and said video is the next big thing in IT. What do you think is the equivalent from within biology?
Gilbert: I don’t think I know anything that’s going to be as important as Bob thinks video is going to be. In biology now we have some very large fundamental problems that need to be solved, problems of basic scientific knowledge. We now have a very good view of the human genome. But we don’t have good ways of understanding how many genes there are in the human genome or how many relevant proteins there are. That is, in fact, a bioinformatics problem, and it hasn’t been solved.