Robert Metcalfe? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I recently read a collection of quotations highlighting wildly inaccurate technology predictions. One faulty forecast was made by Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet. He contended that the internet was going to collapse in the 1990s. Would you please help me to find a citation?
Quote Investigator: On December 4, 1995 Robert Metcalfe published a column in “InfoWorld” magazine titled “Predicting the Internet’s catastrophic collapse and ghost sites galore”. The column began with the following words. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet, which only just recently got this section here in InfoWorld, will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.
Metcalfe offered several reasons for the collapse. For example, he believed that the internet’s crucial data links would be overloaded, and the “naïve flat-rate business model is incapable of financing the new capacity it would need to serve continued growth”. He contended that investor’s would be unwilling to “absorb projected continuing losses”. He thought that “another series of major security breaches will drive the rest of the productive Internet to safety and out of reach.” Yet, he was incorrect, and internet continued to grow exponentially in 1996.
Below are additional details and selected citations in chronological order.
In January 1996 a columnist in “Florida Today” of Cocoa, Florida reprinted Bob Metcalfe’s column including his eye-opening prediction. 2
In April 1997 “InfoWorld” discussed the prediction and Metcalfe’s statement that he would eat his words if he was wrong. He fulfilled his promise while on stage during a conference: 3
Metcalfe produced a cake decorated to look like his weekly column, but audience members would have none of that. So he then took out a blender he had hidden on stage at the Santa Clara Convention Center, ripped a page from a Dec. 4, 1995, copy of InfoWorld, tore his column into pieces, put it into the blender with water, and whipped it into the kind of goop you get when you mix paper, ink, and water.
He then took out a spoon and ate his words.
In April 1997 “The Economist” discussed Metcalfe’s faulty prediction and his penance, but the magazine only mentioned the cake: 4
He spent much of the next year crowing about every hiccup and brownout. But as catastrophe failed to ensue, the wireheads demanded revenge.
On April 11th they got it, as Mr Metcalfe was heckled at a conference in California until he wheeled out his column, adorning a cake, and after some grumbling about his sensitive stomach, consumed it. “Okay, I was wrong,” he said. So were many other people. Their mistake: to underestimate the power of the Internet’s distributed technology to evolve with demand.
In 2008 “PC World” published an article about “The 7 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time”. Number five on the list was Metcalfe’s prognostication: 5
Foolish Tech Prediction 5
“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”
Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, 1995
In conclusion, Robert Metcalfe deserves credit for his bold prediction in 1995 although it was inaccurate. He also deserves credit for keeping his pledge by eating his words.
- 1995 December 4, InfoWorld, From the Ether: Predicting the Internet’s catastrophic collapse and ghost sites galore in 1996 by Bob Metcalfe, Quote Page 61, InfoWorld Publishing Group: IDG International Data Group, San Mateo, California. (Google Books Full View) ↩
- 1996 January 17, Florida Today, One man’s outlook for future of web by Mark DeCotis, Quote Page D1, Column 1, Cocoa, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1997 April 28, InfoWorld, From the Editor in Chief: Fulfilling his promise columnist Bob Metcalfe dines on his own words by Sandy Reed, Quote Page 75, InfoWorld Publishing Group: IDG International Data Group, San Mateo, California. (Google Books Full View) ↩
- Website: The Economist, Article title: Why the Internet failed to collapse, Date on website: April 17, 1997, Website description: Business, economic, and international news. (Accessed economist.com on March 9, 2020) link ↩
- Website: PC World, Article title: The 7 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time, Article author: Robert Strohmeyer, Date on website: December 31, 2008, Publisher: IDG Communications, Inc. Website description: Computer news centered on the PC. (Accessed pcworld.com March 9, 2020) link ↩