Around 11:00 CST this morning I see the news, and immediately post it to Slashdot. What do you know, my first article. Meanwhile, I cross-post the story to infojunkies.
As you might expect of Slashdot, the response of 200-odd posts within an hour consisted partly of "Vint Cerf, OMGMCIPOLARBEAR, father of the Intarweb!1!!ELEVEN" and part of "meh, but what has he done for me lately". There were a few cogent followups, but the "OMG" and "meh" extremes both largely miss the point. Scientists such as Cerf, KFL, et cetera, consist of several elements: the reputation they have built up by developing things; the visionary know-how they bring to the table; and supplementing and amplifiying this, their "box office draw", the fresh technical blood they can bring into a company and the charismatic rapport and managerial relationships they can build with new scientists. These people are the elan vital of a company such as Google is now, such as Microsoft once was, and such as many other companies have squirreled away in their campuses.
We could really take a lesson from the Eastern Empire in grad recruiting, and that's a fact.
Cerf's contribution, TCP/IP, is a major achievement that is still used everywhere you want to be, and KFL's Sphinx formed the backbone of Kurzweil's speech engine (a predecessor to Dragon Systems and IBM's dictation systems). Not to compare KFL's latter achievements to TCP/IP, but he's been around the block. At Apple he was later head of the groups that developed the Apple Newton (the first PDA), QuickTime VR and several versions of QuickTime, and of course PlainTalk. At SGI he was head of the VRML division that became a spinoff company (Cosmo). At Microsoft, he headed up a big interactive services division with speech as the main technical focus.
"But that was all in 1981 or 1988 or 1995! What can these people do nowadays?" Think about what a Bill Joy or John Gustafson does at Sun nowadays. For that matter, think about what an Eric Horvitz or David Heckerman does at MSR. These particular researchers don't just sit up in their offices pondering the esoterica. Of course, some people do rest on their laurels, but in many cases, a great achievement affords someone the chance to explore and to reflect on the important directions in which technology will go. For that matter, even the attainment of seniority, through longevity (or tenure if the person is in academia) can temper their creative talent. It doesn't always happen this way, but meanwhile the big names are doing whizbang things, publishing books and founding labs and research centers, and above all: fostering new talent.
"Does the Internet need an evangelist?" asked many. See, I don't really know what that title means. It really could mean just about anything, just as "Director of Search Quality" (Peter Norvig's title) is pretty nonspecific. For all we know, "CIE" could mean evangelist for Google. Or it could mean proselytizer of its Internet strategy, in the sense that Guy Kawasaki was a Mac evangelist. Time will tell, and we shall see. I'm looking forward to it.