At home, I’m the unofficial “Tech” responsible for ensuring that our home computer network runs smoothly. At last count, we have a dozen different devices running on the network, including several smart phones, a few laptops, a printer and just recently a new smart TV. Of all those devices, the one with the potential for the biggest headache is the printer. With my high school and university age children always choosing to print their assignments either late at night or in the morning before they leave the house, my job is to make sure the printer is always up and running, ready to print at a moment’s notice.
40 years ago last month, Robert Metcalfe, a member of the research staff for Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), faced a similar challenge – but one that proved to be infinitely more profound. Metcalfe was tasked with networking hundreds of computers at the PARC facility so that they could all print on the world’s first laser printer Xerox had just developed. As history tells it, Metcalfe’s efforts (aided by many others in the industry) resulted in the invention of the computing industry’s default networking protocol, Ethernet. All because they wanted to share a printer.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a world without Ethernet. It’s changed the way we communicate and basically ushered us into the digital age. Pick up a cell phone, check your Facebook status, download an HD movie, check your bank balance – all of these are enabled by Ethernet.
In the camera world, Ethernet has left an indelible mark on machine vision, video surveillance, medical imaging, you name it. According to the Automated Imaging Association’s Machine Vision Camera Study, a third of all industrial cameras sold have a Gigabit Ethernet interface. And IMS Research tells us that 2013 will be the year that sales of network video surveillance equipment will finally overtake analog equipment. Advances in processing power, image sensors and software have obviously contributed to the move from analog to digital but it’s Ethernet that has provided the glue.
What I find most interesting, and particularly given the pace at which technology changes, is just how long it takes for an enabling technology to stick. Looking again in the history books, Ethernet was already 23 years old before video surveillance camera company, Axis Communications, introduced the world’s first network camera in 1996 (capturing one image per second at 0.1 megapixel resolution). On the industrial side, it was 10 years later, in 2006, that the GigE Vision interface standard was introduced (DALSA had introduced its first two Gigabit Ethernet cameras a year earlier). The various machine vision vendors coming together to standardize on GigE created a boon to megapixel cameras and signaled the impending demise of analog cameras.
What does the future hold for Ethernet? By all accounts, it appears to be full steam ahead. The IT industry is currently undertaking a massive upgrade to its infrastructure to accommodate huge demand from mobile traffic and the trend towards cloud computing. 10-Gbit is expected to grow to about half of the $28 billion Ethernet switch market by 2016, and many parts of the industry are already jumping into higher speed 40-Gbit and 100-Gbit gear. With that level of investment, Metcalfe’s Ethernet invention from 40 years ago continues to have a lasting and inescapable gravitational pull that’s sure to present many opportunities in the digital imaging industry – and just about every other industry you can think of – for many years to come.
Now, if I could just get a toner cartridge to last that long…