SNS in the News - March 5, 2002

Clinton fits the bill at a presidential-style congress

Sydney Morning Herald
By Sue Cant

They came from the four corners of the globe to discuss and debate the future. Sue Cant was on the ground.

The Queen may have been there but the taxi drivers knew most of the suits scurrying around the streets of Adelaide last week were rushing to hear IT royalty.

Still, when the crowd of technology brethren gathered at the entrance to the city's convention centre, even they were unprepared for the presidential nature of the event.

At least a hundred latecomers were stuck outside waiting to enter the World Congress on IT, which had issued stern warnings to delegates and media that if they were late they would be locked out.

So there were a few chastened faces, waiting to see if the threat would be carried out, before they were eventually ushered in.

The gathering of world IT luminaries - drawn together by the World Information Technology Services Alliance - included Australian-born executives, Silicon Graphics' Bob Bishop and IBM's Doug Elix, as well as the chief executives of Fujitsu, Naoyuki Akikusa and Sybase Inc's John Chen.

Also in attendance were the president of Nasdaq, Al Berkeley, Sun Microsystems chief technologist, John Gage, and Microsoft's chief technical officer, Craig Mundie.

Australian CEOs included Telstra's Ziggy Switkowski and Commonwealth Bank's David Murray.

Little wonder then that delegates from the South Australian Government's key technology provider, EDS, spoke approvingly of the accessibility provided by the congress, with dozens of federal and state government bureaucrats massaging their multinational contacts in early breakfast meetings.

It was also a showcase for local IT talent, with the two days before the conference devoted to high growth start-ups, including Australia's successful security innovator, Wedgetail Communications and winners of a Federal Government innovation competition.

With all the pizazz of the Olympics, the congress opened to 250 singing school children, local performer Callum Campbell and an act combining violinists and didgeridoo players.

Media veteran George Negus brought a light-hearted touch to the sophisticated surrounds before John Howard belted out his speech, oblivious to two microphones on the podium.

The Prime Minister, usually a reluctant IT spokesman, was attempting to drive home the message that Australia was serious about ICT and, in particular, broadband.

He used the occasion to announce new expert councils to advise the government, close on the heels of a Microsoft report critical of its lack of broadband policy.

It was the former president everyone wanted to hear. After a confusing pause, Bill Clinton made his way to the stage to rousing applause.

With a subtle dig at the Howard Government's refugee policy, Clinton launched into an eloquent, statistic-packed, virtually note-free lecture on the need to ensure that technology reached every village in the world.

He also saw the role of technology in combating the roots of terrorism and driving the development of a world view, allowing religious and ethnic differences within a global community.

"Technology has a profoundly important role in achieving both these objectives,'' he said.

"Can technology accelerate the movement from poverty to opportunity? The answer is plainly yes."


The theme of technology's power to solve world poverty was strong, particularly with the invitation of the key organiser of the World Trade Organisation's Seattle protests, Juliette Beck.

Sparks flew at a press conference when Beck, from the organisation Global Exchange, went head-to-head with the senior manager of the infomatics programs at the World Bank, Dr Carlos Braga.

Telecoms steal the show

Alcatel Australia chief executive Ross Fowler made the biggest impression - even though he was not a speaker - when his company made what it claimed to be the first third-generation mobile telephone call in the southern hemisphere.

He summed it up thus: "Here we have an IT conference and it's all about telecoms. Telecoms have stolen the show."

Indeed, press conferences for the big names at Microsoft, Fujitsu, IBM, Nasdaq, Infosys and Tata struggled to attract the largely Australian press corp while it was standing room only for Telstra's chief and his key offsider, Ted Pretty, who were under pressure over anti-competitive claims concerning broadband roll-out.

With the one hand Ziggy Switkowski dismissed Microsoft's view that Australia was lagging in broadband development as politicking, while with the other he doled out $50 million to stimulate take-up.

With the Federal Government and Telstra announcements, it was a broadband feast.

Call for refunds

In keeping with the telecom theme, a less well-known speaker came up with a suggestion out of left field. Mark Anderson, a technology adviser to Merrill Lynch and publisher of a newsletter Strategic News, purportedly read by Bill Gates and Michael Dell, vigorously took up the telecom carrier's cause, with an idea even he conceded seemed a little crazy.

Anderson lambasted governments involved in spectrum auctions, arguing the $US180 billion "extorted" from telcos should be paid back. France is already beginning that process by returning 87 per cent of the money it received. The idea is that telcos such as British Telecom, which are on virtual life-support, could use the money to roll out broadband, necessary for the next stage of the IT and communications revolution.

The real wreckers

The biggest surprise of the conference was the tongue-lashing the industry received from the Commonwealth Bank chief executive David Murray.

The speech, which was peppered with popular swipes at Microsoft, culminated in him blaming the US IT community for "single-handedly wrecking the world economy through an over-hyped market which lead to unrealistic investments".

His company outsources most of its computing systems to EDS and is a significant buyer of IT products and services.

Complex Elix

IBM Global Services chief executive Doug Elix warned IT was becoming so complex it was almost unmanageable, even by the top technical minds.

"The facts are that it has become more and more complex to manage," he said.

"If we don't do something about it, this technological complexity will grow to such a scale that it is impossible to manage."

Elix's solution was to rely less on human intervention to the point "where the technology manages itself".

Stifling technology

Californian Stanford University law professor and author of Code and Other laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig, proved one of the most thought-provoking speakers with his warning that media organisations were dictating and stifling technology trends.

He called on the IT community to challenge the current regulatory, political and legal barriers in the US to innovation, saying the creative spirit of the Internet was being corrupted by powerful corporate interests.

"Now judges decide which technology will be allowed," he said. "Cable TV is picking which applications work and which don't according to their legacy ideals. This is a corruption of what the core of the Internet is about.''

He called on the programming community, which had shunned politics, to get politically active.

"There's no such thing as code that doesn't have politics built into it. Until they can defend the values they are encoding into the world than we won't get progress."