The personal computer, universally hailed as the medium that brought the Internet into millions of homes and businesses around the world, is now the biggest single barrier to the further development of the web, says Alfie Kane, chief executive of Telecom Éireann.
The irony of this situation is the result of the Internet developing beyond the capabilities of the PC. As presently configured, the home computer is a jumble of different units connected by a tangle of leads, a latter day version of the 1970s stereo system. The computer buffs might love it, but it puts the Internet beyond the reach of those hundreds of millions for whom computers are not in themselves objects of desire, and until this technological hurdle is overcome the medium will not achieve anything like its full potential, says Kane.
The solution, he says, lies in developing a standardised access medium as simple to use, and as cheap to buy, as a television set. Ultimately, Internet access is likely to span two main media - the PC and web TV - the latter being a neat solution that marries different media technologies and producers, with the consumer switching from one to the other at the flick of a switch. Accessing Internet services via the TV screen would be a simple matter of using a pointer and control - a system which even the most stubborn technophobe would find agreeable - and up to 50 per cent of the web’s use could be conducted this way.
Mr. Kane sees huge potential for all elements of the multimedia spectrum. Voicemail, for instance, already has the technical capability to receive vocal, fax and e-mail messages on a single platform, and even to convert text messages to voice, thus enabling a number of delivery media to interact with the standard telephone handset.
Telecom Éireann will be the provider of these services, Kane says, but the chief task facing the company now is not so much how it will meet consumer demand for individual products, but rather how to position itself to exploit the coming telecommunications revolution to its own benefit, and promote the interests of the State as a whole.
This positioning phase will be crucial, as the die will be cast within a decade in terms of the new jobs that the Information Age will create, and their distribution around the world. "If this State is not to miss out on a major opportunity, then Telecom Éireann itself must adopt a leadership role," says Kane.
He points to the initiatives the company has already taken in regard. For instance, there is a close partnership arrangement with IDA Ireland, designed to attract call centre and other telecommunications projects to this State. Call centres are a perfect example of how jobs can be "imported" to this country via undersea cables and Telecom Éireann has its own specially formed company in the USA, whose function it is to seek out likely candidates in this field and attract them to here.
It is also intended to form "virtual" companies in coming years, to enable Telecom Éireann learn how these firms operate, what their telecommunication needs are, and how these needs can best be met. Only then can we create an environment in which such firms can flourish.
One area in which the Irish might establish themselves as niche players, Alfie Kane says, is in the future development of the Internet. At present, the web is analogous to a library whose books are heaped into a large pile of the floor; there is a huge volume of information there, but the difficulty for the user lies in finding the relevant tome(s), identifying which are useful and which are dross, and ascertaining if there are any gaps in the library collection that need to be made good.
A major effort will have to be made in coming years to take the web from its present poorly structured format to something more user-friendly, comprehensive, and relevant to user needs, and this State’s strong software development industry is a solid platform from which to launch a bid for this business.
The Information Age Town project will provide some of the answers to these questions over the coming few years, but this alone will not equip this State for the challenge ahead. Applying the lessons learned in Ennis will take a great deal of effort and vision by all the main players involved. Telecom Éireann will take a great deal of effort and vision by all the main players involved: Telecom Éireann itself, the information technology industry in Ireland, the business sector, and the Government and its various departments and agencies.
There has been enough talk in this State as to what we need to do to position ourselves for the Information Age, and the time for action is now, Kane warns. As things stand, this State ranks 23rd in the global rankings in terms of broad telecommunications abilities, which is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs if we are to garner even our fair share of the job opportunities the coming revolution will create.
Ideally, we should aim to get within the top 10 countries within five or so years, and this is quite achievable if we plan properly and act now, he continues. Despite its poor overall ranking, this State is rated highly on some of the key enabling criteria, including computer hardware manufacturing, software design, and software development. These provide a solid platform on which to build other initiatives, including the Ennis project, the Community Access Centres to be located in 45 other participating towns, and the company’s joint effort with the Department of Education to give every schoolchild in the country Internet access and other telecommunications skills.
Telecom Éireann’s chief executive emphasises that the effort at schools level is crucial to our hopes of success. The children who learn now will go on to become the workers who will fill the Information Age jobs that come our way. They will also play a central role in raising overall public awareness of how telecommunications technology is developing and how it will change all our lives, even to the extent of educating their own parents on the issues involved.
Alfie Kane sees some heartening portents in recent events. The sheer size of the response to the Information Age Town competition is a source of encouragement, as was the speed with which these towns moved along the learning curve as the competition progressed.
All of this might not have been possible even five years ago, so it may be that our timing for this effort is just right, he says. The key enablers are in place, and there are emerging signs of critical mass developing in the necessary areas. If all those concerned - Government, business, the IT industry, and Telecom Éireann - can redouble their effort every year for the next five years, then this State can take its place among the top 10 multimedia equipped economies.
This is a tall order, but the stakes being played for are extremely high. It is estimated that, within a relatively short time, 25 per cent of all jobs will be information-based, and if this State can capture just 1 per cent of the Information Age jobs of Europe and North America, the level of such employment in this country would more than double.