Where were you 15 years ago? Just starting out? An embryonic Young Turk? Asking daddy for the car keys? If you were in technology, you were witness to a string of unprecedented advances, each building on the one before. Some were pure technology; others were applications. Applications create stress; stress creates the need for products; products increase the ability to handle volume and lower costs which brings on new applications. So before we look at my choices for the top 15 products of the past 15 years, let's look at the applications and technologies that set the stage.
* The rise of e-mail. In 1981, approximately 100 million e-mail messages were sent, compared with about 130 billion first-class letters. This year an estimated one trillion to two trillion e-mail messages will be sent. E-mail has been growing at 100% per year for 15 years and in 1999 surpassed first-class mail, which had been growing at less than 2% per year. But more importantly, e-mail has changed the world. It was the first computer application that everyone could, and did, use.
E-mail was the driver for all sorts of technology. With e-mail came the need for attachments, which pushed the need for storage. Back in 1986, some were debating the importance of word processing, which turned out to be a trivial and silly application next to e-mail. E-mail stressed the corporate networks, and cost justified the billions that were invested.
* The emergence of voice mail. Before voice mail, the world was abuzz with pink "While you were out" slips. Telephone tag was not the exception but the rule. Voice mail was the first new application of voice telephony in 75 years. It gave companies a reason to upgrade their PBXs and let managers use the telephone as a nonreal-time device. The PBX never fulfilled its promise as an intercompany data-switching device, but it did start the process of justifying telecommunications expense on a return-on-investment basis. Voice mail also morphed into an application for telephone companies, as users who had voice mail at work wanted the same functionality at home.
* LANs. Before 1984, the responsibility for inside wiring in any company lay with the telephone company. After 1984, companies took control of their destinies and began to run their own internal networks. Originally, LANs were justified because printers were expensive, and it was possible to share the cost by connecting several users together. Today, printers are cheaper than water, and LANs don't even have to be cost-justified anymore.
Structured building wiring was a capital expense that made all the applications possible. It simplified management, and its success triggered even more applications, which overloaded the early LANs until entire departments were dedicated to delivering a guaranteed service level. The need for an intelligent approach made users cognizant of the need to build along some common set of standards. So LANs and structured wiring were pushed by corporate users' need to handle larger files. This was the driver that made routing a reality.
* Signaling System 7 (SS7). Every communications advance is, in effect, a microcosm of the worldwide telecom network. Everything from the most rudimentary LAN to 3G wireless networks has a need to diagnose problems, restore the network and guarantee successful completion of an event. SS7 is used to send signaling information from exchange to exchange and to control central office switching equipment from remote locations. Without SS7, all those new Advanced Intelligent Network applications would never work. What makes SS7 important is that it is a signaling and control solution. Think of it as a platform that works. With the growth in traffic came the need for a network control system ¥ and a byproduct of network control was interesting new applications such as automatic identification of dialing.
* Packet switching. Behind LANs, behind ATM, routers, switches and the Internet, stands packet switching. More money has been made from this technology than any other since the semiconductor. Packet switching is really more than 40 years old, but we keep recreating new applications. Today, we are talking about bringing broadband services to 101 million homes - all based on the idea that we can packetize transmission and switching at gigabits per second.
* Protocols. Imagine the Tower of Babel. People couldn't understand one another. Frustration reigned. Without protocols, we would be in a similar situation.
What we used to have was a one-vendor environment (IBM) in which we knew the products worked together, but were loath to introduce any competing products because they might not work as well together as that one-vendor environment. With protocols, multivendor environments could flourish, which brought out new competitors, lowered costs and fostered innovation.
The Top 15
These six applications and technologies were the catalyst for what I consider the top 15 products of the past 15 years. Each product has some common characteristics; each was the market leader, showed innovation and was brilliant in its timing and appeal.
15. Newbridge 3524 Channel Bank. Newbridge gave brains to the channel bank, a formerly dumb piece of telecom equipment in the central office that converted analog signals into digital to be carried over higher-speed lines to other exchanges. In doing so, Newbridge sparked the concept of the intelligent network.
14. Cisco 4500. Cisco didn't invent routing, but revisionist history will give it all the credit. This product let LANs be segmented and interconnected to WANs. Routing went from a cute little tactical technology to a strategic one. Not every company needs routers, but every company needs routing. Cisco took that simple fact and built an empire.
13. Ciena MultiWave CoreDirector. This was the first commercial product to split light, launching the entire optical market. Before Ciena, wave division multiplexing was thought to be five years away and then only experimental. But Sprint saw the need early on and became the poster child for the rest of the industry.
12. 3Com network interface cards and bridges. 3Com commercialized bridges and at a price we all could afford, thereby creating plug-and-play networking. Ethernet was a joint venture of Digital, Intel and Xerox, but 3Com led the way.
11. Cascade 8000/9000 frame relay switches. Cascade was the first player to make a cost-effective wide-area data switch for carriers. This product brought carriers into the 21st century. Before this, they couldn't even spell d-a-t-a. Frame relay was a market that grew like kudzu; every year the market doubled, and the carriers found the first common ground with their most sophisticated users.
10. Redback SMS 1000. The first product to exploit the opportunity for subscriber management in DSL networks. This year, like last, the market for DSL will be constrained by supply rather than demand. The DSL networks that are succeeding are running on the Redback 1000.
9. Sonus Networks GSX9000 Open Services Switch. The first commercially viable carrier-class replacement for a Class 4 switch exploiting voice-over-IP technology. How the industry let Sonus sneak in and garner the market is going to be a Harvard Business School case for the next decade. Right product, right time.
8. Sun Java. The first open language that was extensible and independent of an operating system. And to think Sun almost overlooked it. Many of the innovative products in the industry started as quasi-skunk works projects until somebody realized that, like Java, they solved a real problem.
7. Ascend RAS 4000. Like working from home? Thank Ascend. This product invented work-at-home; it let remote users dial in to their companies and extend the corporate data network to their front porches.
6. Art Technology Group (ATG) Dynamo Applications Server. These guys invented personalization by building the first content Web server that allowed for dynamic information serving based on a user profile. All those "myWhatever" companies use this technology today. The future of the Internet is personalization, and ATG built it.
5. Microsoft Windows. Proved once and for all that stealing is the best strategy. What Apple proposed, Microsoft now owns. But what Windows did is give the rest of the developers a large target to aim at. Those who built to OS/2 standards are now pushing up daisies.
4. Palm Pilot. We are the Palm generation. This product made us forget the Apple Newton and begin building the blueprint for wireless information. It extended our contact and database files. Very infrequently does the industry get the right product in the right form at the right time. All the Handsprings and BlackBerries and other products that will follow owe a debt of gratitude to the team from U.S. Robotics. It created a revolution.
3. Nokia/Ericsson/Motorola cell phone. The service sucks, but you will never give up this product. What you lose in quality you make up for in flexibility. The cell phone revolutionized the world. Even mighty Motorola underestimated demand but the product made so much sense that it just plain took off.
2. Lancity cable modem. You will give up your first born before you give back your cable modem. As addictive as cocaine.
1. Apple Macintosh. My Macintosh was my best friend. I loved it; it loved me. It had anticipatory intelligence; it knew what I wanted before I did. It understood me. There was this implicit contract between my Macintosh and me: We would look out for each other. The Macintosh was, without question, the single greatest product of the past 15 years.
If you build it, they will come
Robert Moses was a builder of roads and bridges in the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Moses truly had a black belt in spending and was unafraid to overbuild.
Yet he found that every time he built a superhighway or massive bridge, the traffic rose beyond even his optimistic projections.
The same is true with networks. Networks became necessary as we added applications such as voice mail, e-mail and streaming media. The applications clogged the networks, so we had to find solutions, such as packet switching and protocols, which worked to increase availability and reduce cost ¥ which led to even more applications.
Every time we reached a roadblock, such as the need for network control, we found solutions that made our networks more failsafe, more vigorous. And we ain't seen nothin' yet.
This is the Network Century.
Anderson is senior managing director of Yankeetek Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm in Cambridge, Mass. He is also founder of The Yankee Group and the William Porter Distinguished Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.