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In Depth: The Edge
Switching to new domain

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In Depth: The Edge
} From the December 29, 2000 print edition

Switching to new domain

Inventor sees Internet as next site for interactive entertainment

Douglas E. Caldwell

The man thought by many to have invented the Internet now wants to invent it again.

This time, Larry Roberts wants to make it easier to use and universal in its use, replacing radio, television and information-sharing as we now know it.

"Five years from now [the Internet] will have grown... to the point where every individual in developed countries will have TV bandwidth available, full time over the Net, so that they will get full entertainment as well as full video communications and Web communications at a speed and quality that is so much better than we see today," he says.

Mr. Roberts is credited with being perhaps the one key individual who "invented" the Internet around 1962 when he was working for the Defense Communications Agency. His work helped develop what is called packet switching, which is the basis for Internet communications.

He first proved it would work back in 1966 as architect and chief scientist of ARPANET [the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network].

His new company, Caspian Networks, where Mr. Roberts is board chairman as well as chief technology officer, is developing optical-switching technology.

While today's Internet was not a clear picture in his imagination, Mr. Roberts certainly knew that what he was onto would have a dramatic impact.

"I had the concept that it would dramatically change the pace of human technological innovation," he says. "Once you change the speed at which knowledge is communicated to seconds... rather than months, then you've changed the pace of evolution of civilization."

Getting the embryonic Internet up and running wasn't easy. It wasn't a problem with the computers or even writing the programs. It was much more basic: the telephone companies. "The communications system was totally inadequate," Mr. Roberts recalls.

"Unreliable. Much too slow. Much too expensive."

This resulted in one of the key inventions leading to the Information Age called "packet switching" which, as defined by Webopedia: "Refers to protocols in which messages are divided into packets before they are sent. Each packet is then transmitted individually and can even follow different routes to its destination. Once all the packets forming a message arrive at the destination, they are recompiled into the original message."

"I knew what would work," Mr. Roberts says, "but the communications people at AT&T and the Defense Communications Agency were about the most obnoxious set of people I can believe in saying `this won't work, you're crazy.'"

Nearly 40 years later, this is still vivid in his memory. "Even after it worked these people couldn't believe that it worked," he says.

Ever hear of someone who passed up IBM or Xerox stock when it was first offered for sale? Descendants of those folks still exist.

"When I got all through with building the [initial] network and had done the experiment, had 25 nodes working and we had proven the theory, I offered to sell it to AT&T and let them take over and build the Internet from then on as a monopoly," Mr. Roberts says.

"They turned it down, said it was not compatible with their network. They didn't get a second chance," he says with a smile.

Since then, of course, the Internet has spawned the World Wide Web with its more than 1 billion Web pages, along with repeated efforts to stream video and audio to consumers. While there are thousands of Web-carried audio services available, full-action video streaming has been more difficult, something Mr. Roberts believes Caspian Networks has solved with its optical switching.

"The reason Caspian is in such a good position is that the market is just taking off as we're doing this," he says. "The market needs this new technology dramatically fast at this point in time."

He predicts that "radio and television broadcasting licenses will dramatically change in value" as people migrate to the Internet for entertainment and leave traditional transmission methods.

"You'll see a tremendous shift to entertainment on the Net. People getting whatever they want, whenever they want, and interactively," he says.

"The biggest issue with the Internet is many see it as a panacea," says Edward Balassanian, CEO of BeComm, Inc., a company in Redmond, Wash., that is developing a multiplatform approach to integrating the Internet into everyday uses. "The Internet is a long way from becoming part of our daily lives because it's so technical."

Mr. Balassanian says it will take significant innovation "until the Net is part of our lives so Mom can use the phone and TV set she always used, but with the Internet as the backbone."

While not dismissing the Caspian developments, which no outsiders have yet seen, "it is not enough to swap out one switch with an optical switch," Mr. Balassanian says, because the Internet by its very nature has always been "very chaotic, very organic."

Caspian plans to roll out its revolutionary optical switches in mid-2001. Mr. Roberts says the concept has support from some of the most critical of all observers: the venture capitalists who continue to pour millions into the firm.

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