Tuesday, February 14, 2006

imho Most influential in networking over past 20+ years


Beth Schultz of Network World recently asked me and other columnists to list up to 20 people who have been most influential in networking over the past 20 or so years. This is convenient timespan, because it coincides with my entire career in IT. So it gave me a chance to trip down memory lane.

I started a list of industry-transforming "roles," and then quickly filled in the names that came first to mind. My list:
  • Visionary: George Gilder. His vision of the future of unlimited, no-cost bandwidth and any-to-any connectivity still exerts a powerful influence on everybody's vision of the Internet's potential.
  • Investor: Bill Gates. His longtime patient capital has built Microsoft into the unchallenged platform and application vendor, but his greatest legacy will be the William and Melinda Gates Foundation's ongoing grants to rid the developing world of infectious diseases.
  • Inventor: Tim Berners-Lee. His invention of the World Wide Web truly revolutionized human society by turning the world into an open book, introducing a new addressing scheme that could be applied to any information or application anywhere, and a new protocol that allows us all to meander endlessly throughout the global cornucopia of human creativity.
  • Engineer: Linus Torvalds. His graceful stewardship over Linux has started open-source software on its inevitable path to industry dominance in all categories.
  • Enterpreneur: William McGowan. His principled persistence in the face of massive Bell System obstruction helped usher in the present age of freewheeling competition throughout the global telecommunications industry.
  • Executive: Lou Gerstner. He kept IBM at the industry forefront by successfully evolving the former mainframe monolith into a global professional services powerhouse, just in time for the emergence of platform-agnostic service-oriented architecture.
  • Legislator: Al Gore. As US Senator in Spring 1991, he spearheaded the passage of a bill to fund the National Research and Education Network (NREN), which was a bridge project that sought to transform the R&D-focused Arpanet into the commercialized Internet. Gore's legislation had the desired catalyst efffect. I distinctly recall 10am, June 5, 1991, in room H-137 of the U.S. Capitol Building--when Sen. Gore and three other legislators took the initiative to stimulate the development of the commercial Internet. I was there, in attendance when they announced the legislation, and spoke to the then-senator, who was the acknowledged leader in pushing for this initiative. Let the record note. I still have my notes.
  • Regulator: Harold Greene. The judge who presided over the AT&T divestiture stuck to his guns as long as he could, and gave the newly competitive telecommunications industry just enough breathing room to flourish in the interregnum between Ma Bell and the rapidly reconsolidating Baby Bells.
  • Agitator: Shawn Fanning. He ran a massive civil disobedience service that helped musicians everywhere to find their audiences, overcoming obstructionist record companies, restrictive radio station programmers, and others who try to deny the people easy access to their soul grooves.
  • Standardizer: Jon Postel. He was the maestro who coordinated the development of many of the most fundamental open standards without which the Internet and World Wide Web would never have risen so fast and spread so wide.
  • Lobbyist: Marc Rotenberg. His single-issue focus on privacy protection has kept the lawmakers, regulators, telcos, and others in positions of power in the networking industry continually on the defensive, and kept us all vigilant against encroachments on our civil liberties.
  • Marketer: Steve Jobs. His tiny little iPod has invaded the popular culture so fast that it's almost subcutaneous--and ushered in the age of podcasting--the portable all-in-one entertainment medium.

I realized I have close personal "degrees of separation" from several of these individuals:

  • Gates: My wife, before she moved to the US and met me, dated an American guy who later went on manage the Gates Foundation's finances for a while.
  • McGowan: I once worked for him. During the period in the late 80s when he had his heart transplant, he came into our office conference room one day and told us that "I haven't had a change of heart" re whether he'd keep our unit operating. Not true. But I liked him anyway.
  • Gore: I've actually met him twice, once as senator and once as VP. Nice guy, well-read (read at least one of my Network World columns). Didn't seem wooden at all. Someone I would trust with the keys to the car.
  • Fanning: The guy who temporarily managed Napster after Fanning left was in the senior honors seminar in economics at the University of Michigan with me in 1979-80.
  • Rotenberg: My wife currently works with his wife.

Yeah, I said "degrees of separation," not buddy-buddy. I haven't met Kevin Bacon. But I have met Jason Kobielus.