IT Laws: What Do They Mean To You

Updated: Apr 19 2002, 05:30am hrs
Information technology is more of a profession than a science. Accordingly, there are no laws in the sense in which we think of laws in other sciences such as physics. In other sciences, laws mean universal truths that are always true, for example, Newtons Law or Ohms Law. However, there are deep observations made by renowned scientists that have stood the test of time. These observations, though empirical in nature (not proven through a systematic applications of basic principles or through a long list of observations using well-planned experiments), are generally referred to as laws in IT; it is more because of their profound impact on the entire growth of this profession.

Such a status accorded to these observations is also derived through the respect commanded by the proponents of these observations (though they themselves did not call it a law). These are individuals who are extraordinarily bright, have attended some of the best universities, obtained doctoral degrees, made fundamental contributions through their individual research, invention & discovery, led large groups of researchers in laboratories and research corporations, and, finally leaders, entrepreneurs and CEOs of some of the most admired corporations in the hi-tech arena collectively justifying the status of a law for the observations they made.

Moores Law

Probably the most widely known law in IT is Moores Law, originally proposed in 1965, named after Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel (the corporation that is one of the world leaders in microprocessors, accounting for more than 80 per cent of the market for the PC processor chips with 80,000 employees spread across 45 countries, annual turnover of more than 26 billion dollars). The number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubled every year from the day integrated circuits was invented.

Subsequently the growth slowed down a bit, yet the data density was doubling approximately every 18 months this is the form in which it is currently used. Combined with the reduction in cost, reduced power consumption, higher reliability and reduced unit cost of the processor, the raw computing power available even to ordinary mortals like you and me has grown phenomenally over the years. For example, in terms of computing power what was available to an entire university campus (MIT or IIT Kanpur) is available on your desktop computer today (the chances are that the Sony PlayStation that your kid is using or the Nokia cellular phone that your daughter is using might have a comparable power too); what cost million dollar two decades back is available for hundred dollars or less, takes much less space and is far more reliable. In the process, Moores Law has created and sustained the billions of dollars worth microelectronic revolution, semiconductor industry, the PC revolution, internet revolution, fuelled the growth of the global e-business and in short the very basis of todays IT revolution. But for Moores Law, Indian software companies could have never accessed the global software industry markets, delivered those services or hired professionals who could get educated in skills that were needed by their global clients. It is expected that Moores Law might hold for at least another decade; that means the opportunities for growth of the Indian IT industry are still very much there!

Metcalfes Law

The second most widely acknowledged Law in IT is Metcalfes Law propounded originally by Robert Metcalfe. Metcalfe invented Ethernet that is de facto standard for local area networking around the world during his days at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, the place where many key inventions such as PC, GUI, Mouse and Page Description Language were made. Later, he founded 3COM Corporation, a leader in networking, the company that acquired US Robotics which in turn had acquired the famous Palm Inc the maker of Palm Pilot hand-held device).

Metcalfes Law states that the usefulness, or utility, of a network equals the square of the number of users. In a limited sense there is nothing new in this law given a set of points if you join all of them the number of links you get is square the number of points. What is great about Metcalfes Law is the appreciation that the utility of a network increases not linearly but much faster as the number of links increase. Take for example, the case of the internet. As long as internet access was limited (during 1986-1995) to IITs and a handful of institutions (through Ernet) and IAS officers (through Nicnet) only, it had not made any impact; the moment it was opened up to the general public through VSNL it completely changed our perception of the internet. Since you can reach not just your colleagues in research institutions but every uncle and aunty, ministers and bureaucrats, dancers and musicians, teachers and swamijis in the country, it has created a near revolution. The same is true earlier of the telephone, cable TV yesterday and may be mobile access tomorrow. Metcalfes Law underlined the fact that networking computers brings people together; the connection to computers is incidental and unless there is a near universal connectivity (such as Ethernet) the networks do not become useful enough. That is the power of Metcalfes Law.

Professor S Sadagopan is the Director of the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. The views expressed here are personal. He can be contacted at ss@iiitb.ac.in