One of the most liberating things a writer can do is stop caring whether readers disagree with him. That’s what Bob Metcalfe did 10 years ago when he started writing a column for InfoWorld, the dominant trade weekly in the personal computer industry. As a result, he has felt free to make outrageous predictions, call people names, attack popular companies and organizations and deflate hype that everyone else would prefer to keep mouthing. It’s all in the name of provoking thought and debate, which is what being a pundit is all about, and Metcalfe is one of the computing industry’s best.
Metcalfe is the inventor of Ethernet, the founder of 3Com, the author of Metcalfe’s Law (bigger networks are better) and-in the interest of full disclosure-a board member and patron of this magazine and a former employer of this reviewer. His best and most controversial columns, collected in Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry, showcase Metcalfe’s unique perspective as a battle-scarred entrepreneur on a decade’s worth of earth-shattering events in the information-technology realm, anticipating problems and proposing reasonable remedies long before the mainstream catches wind of the issues. Metcalfe was writing in 1991, for example, that the operating-systems monolith Microsoft should divest itself of its software applications business, a conclusion that took the courts another nine years to reach.
Metcalfe is an equal-opportunity provocateur, as willing to anger Microsoft’s enemies as he is Microsoft itself. For example, he dismisses the opensource software movement-“open sores,” he calls it-as a “giant quilting party run by people with a tendency toward antisocial behavior.” He denigrates the free Linux operating system as 30-year-old technology that will likely be trounced by Windows 2000. He criticizes the Electronic Frontier Foundation for suing the U.S. government to end export restrictions on strong-encryption technologies, calling instead for legislation to balance the needs of law enforcement and privacy. And, most of all, he criticizes Internet service providers and telephone companies for downplaying the threat of catastrophic traffic jams on the Internet and for being too slow to deliver high-bandwidth connections to homes.
Metcalfe isn’t always on target, but what keeps his readers coming back for more is that when he’s wrong, he’s always willing to eat his words-sometimes literally. (He once famously drank a blend containing a 1995 column predicting the Internet’s total collapse in 1996.) And that’s a diet that would probably benefit all of us writers.