Internet Buzz with Richard Wiggins | 6 | WebReference

Internet Buzz with Richard Wiggins | 6

Volume 1, Number 26 June 26, 1998 Internet Buzz main page

An Interview with Vint Cerf - Part 2


Dr. Cerf, when were you astonished that this Internet thing was taking off? What was the evidence that really knocked you…


I have thought about this, and there was really one incident that convinced me that this thing was going to become a big commercial enterprise – or at least enough people believed that it would be that they were willing to spend a lot of money on it. In 1988, I went to one of Dan Lynch's Interop shows. That's a trade show showing off a number of Internet services and software products – and I happened to walk into Eric Benhamou, who is currently CEO of 3Com.

And I remember stopping dead in my tracks looking at these enormous booths that had been set up, and I turned to Eric, and I said "Eric -- how much does it cost to put one of these booths up?" He said, "Well, if you take the whole week and all of the preparation that goes into it, it could be anywhere from a quarter of a million to half a million dollars."

And I remember just sitting there, with my jaw dropping, thinking, "My God, people are spending real money on this stuff! They must think it's real."

What's interesting is that as we look back on the statistics of Internet growth, 1988 was the knee of the curve when we started seeing it double every year. I don't pretend to be prescient by any means, the year in which the Net took off was the year when I began to think people were spending serious commercial money on it. That's before there was any commercial service on it….

[Discussion of the role of the NSFnet in the 1980s ....]


There were some things that the higher education community thought were going to happen that didn't. For instance, a lot of us thought that electronic mail would take industry by storm. We had known since 1970 how valuable e-mail was. It's a tremendous mechanism for co-ordination, collaboration, and everything else. And so when I went to MCI the first time, in late 1982, we built an electronic mail system called MCI Mail. We called it, you know, the nation's next digital post office.

Frankly, it was not a huge commercial success. We didn't convince every industry to use electronic mail, and we scratched out heads about that. How could they not understand this? Well, 10 or 15 years later, of course, e-mail is an important tool for industry – it just took a while before they had the facilities in place to make use of it.

[turns to Van Houweling] So the question for you is, what are the things that are happening in the research community now, that are like e-mail, that we don't yet see in any serious way in some of the commercial spaces? I think maybe the collaboration thing…


I think so. Back to the e-mail thing for a second, I just saw a statistic yesterday – and this really surprised me – 61% of the adult population in Michigan exchanges e-mail at least once a week.


Sixty-one percent?!


Sixty-one percent!


That's amazing…


It's hard to believe, but this was a big sample, done by a professional polling organization with no axe to grind.


That seems a bit high.


It does seem high, doesn't it? But remember, that could include an individual doing his work – this is not exclusively at home – but it's an interesting statement. One way of describing this is it's a majority technology now.


Yeah. What's interesting about that statistic is that the current estimates are that the Internet has penetrated about 35% of the potential market in the U.S., including both residential and maybe more than that, business as well. But that statistic, and the other observations about the demographics of the Net, are starting to get very interesting. We're seeing a much broader age group using the network than even two or three years ago. Some of it, I'm sure, is kids that are in college who prefer to use e-mail to talk to their families, and so Mom and Dad get e-mail so that they can talk to their kids in school. Then, Grandma and Grandpa want to talk to the grandchildren, and they get on e-mail.

The story that I hear repeatedly is that my 80 year old mother is now on the Net, and surfs the Net, and uses e-mail and everything else. So we must be seeing a fairly significant demographic footprint of the use of these technologies, that mirrors the national population, much more so than 10 or 15 years ago.


It almost has to be. Given the age structure of the population, if it's going to be a majority technology, it's got to be moving into the more senior parts of the population.

But back to your previous question, will these technologies roll out further? We have no way of knowing, right? But I think one of the most fundamental characteristics of human beings is they want to communicate. And, if this network provides an increasingly effective way to communicate, I think those services will get used.

The other thing about human beings is they love to be global. For a while, a lot of us were frustrated, we couldn't understand why mobile cellular telephony wasn't taking off, but look what's happened when it did take off. So I think these technologies have a startup curve. But if they appeal to things that human beings find fundamentally valuable, then once they get started, they go pretty fast.


Comments are welcome

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Created: June 26, 1998
Revised: June 26, 1998