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World IT jamboree in Taipei a wossat

Just what was its purpose apart from puff'n'spin?

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Analysis The World Conference on IT, a two yearly event, opened last Sunday night in Taiwan to dragon dancers, drummers, wicker baskets and rain that drenched anyone that peeked out of the all-over thunderstorm prophylactics supplied by the organisers.

While it was undoubtedly a coup for this little island to drag together Bill Gates, John Chambers, the representative for Burkino Faso (who stayed in our hotel) other politicos including our very own Patricia Hewitt, IT people and assorted delegates from 84 countries, by the fourth day of the conference we were scratching our head and wondering what the hell this was all about.

Unfortunately for Australia, which hosts the next event two years down the line, many of the media and a chunk of the delegates wondered what the hell the point of it all was.

The three working days of the conference were wall-to-wall keynote speeches, which, for the press at least, were punctuated by press conferences which were often better value.

Monday: Impact of IT on World Economics

The conference was opened by Taiwan's new president Chen, who proclaimed that the country was to be a "green global village" and by that he meant environmentally friendly. "The spirit of respect for nature, concern for people, will gradually be fostered so that technology will not overburden nature during this time of vast development," he said. He also was happy that Taiwan, like mainland China, is on the verge of joining the World Trade Organisation. "All of you present today are the best witnesses and participants in Taiwan's march toward the new century," he said, showing that he, at least, understands the millennium has not yet begun.

That day, Monday last, we listened first to MIT's Lester Thurow, who was reasonably good value. He said that half the retail stores in the world will be closed by 2010, in the business-to-business sphere, GPS will soon come down to one metre accuracy and that "if you're not willing to destroy, you can't create". In other words, "you need chaos to get creativity". We hung round for Carleton Fiorina from HP, who appeared festooned in the finest pearls, and duly reported that speech later that day.

Stan Shih, CEO of the Acer Group, spoke about organising companies in a different way, based on the Internet economy. Shih has not been very well in the last year or two, but put on a solid performance, and said that Acer itself had formed two separate groups to re-engineer its business activities.

Nobel prize winner Robert Mundell's main thrust was that the major Asian economies should create a common currency. But they should base it on the dollar, not the yen. The problem with the Euro was that it was based on the mark, not the dollar. At which point we wondered why the whole economy didn't just base itself on the dollar, and cut out all of this shilly-shallying. The IT industry, for example, is firmly based on the mighty dollar. Ericcson's Kurt Hellstrom's speech was boring, but his press conference was more interesting, as we already reported.

Tuesday: IT Strategies, Business Models, Apps

Cisco's John Chambers, an ex-Intel guy, startled the Asian press by holding a press conference on Tuesday, at 7.30 am, again in our hotel. He apologised for holding what he understood to be the earliest such event in Taiwanese history, but then launched into a whirlwind presentation which left many of us reeling. Quick Reg Summary: We're in the new industrial revolution which will take 30 years to achieve and we're already 10 years in. He knows every world leader on this planet, and possibly those on other planets too. Tony Blair is a fab guy, so is Clinton even though he's a Democrat.

We were all waiting for Mr William H. Gates III, who delivered his "The Next 10 years of Windows" thing. He had a slide presentation for this, but we only managed to get our mitts on this when we crashed a Microsoft Taiwan press conference later in the day. We can report from the latter gig that both IDG and The Register were nearly killed by fevered TV crews and snappers who prevented us from getting photos of said CEO apart from in the first case the back of his head and his right ear, and in our case his nose.

Next came Robert Young of Red Hat, whose activities and hosiery we have already reported, followed closely by John Chambers, or as the press there calls him Mr Internet. No way. We'd had enough Chambers for one day.

Tadashi Sekizawa, chairman of Fujitsu, promised a strange future made up of underground tunnels all connected together which would deliver goods all round the world. We wanted to hear more about this but unfortunately Sekizawa San didn't hold a press conference. Joe Tucci, EMC's president, was next, but we were too busy talking to other delegates to discover what's new and exciting in storage.

The afternoon session started with Mr George Newstrom, EDS corporate senior vice president, who spent much of his keynote speech talking about how many emails a day he got, and totally neglecting to mention a profit warning which seemed to be highlighted in that morning's Asia Wall Street Journal. Corel's Michael Cowpland was next. According to Cowpland, StrongArm and Transmeta had decked Intel's monopoly. There was light at the end of the tunnel. We reported his press conference from the conference. Isn't StrongArm an Intel product though, we wondered...

Wednesday: IT for a Better World

Dr Michael Dertouzos, director of MIT Labs, ducked out of the conference first thing, which was a shame. But the mayor of Taipei, Ying-jeou Ma, was good value on Building the Taipei Cybercity. He vouchsafed that his mother, 80 years of age, was an avid Internet fan, (Hi, Ma's Ma) but as she lived in an apartment next to his, frequently didn't reply to his emails but just popped in for a natter. That was followed by our own Patty Hewitt, minister for small businessmen and e-commerce. She painted a picture of the UK as an Internet paradise, as we've already reported. But at a press conference later on, she confessed that not all gov services would be online by 2005. Legacy IT systems inherited from the previous Labour government prevented rapid implementation. Plus the social security benefits system was unlikely to hit that 2005 target. So now you know.

Unfortunately, we missed Risto Linturi from Finland, who talked about life in the information society. But here's some facts for our own Patty Hewitt: "Between fifty and 70 percent of Finns use the Internet weekly, with over 30 per cent having a working Internet connection at home. Over 95 per cent of people between the ages of 15 to 60 have mobile phones, with over 50 per cent of families having more than two mobiles. Over 90 per cent of all government and authority services are online now, while every form for taxes and other government departments are already available online. The Finnish government has donated two billion sterling for a Future Packet to make the Internet better, and typical Internet rates are a fiver a month for unlimited access, with each Finnish sould paying five pence a call and a penny a minute. As one delegate said: " It seems that Finland is now what UK wants to be in 2005. Or, Patricia thinks that western Europe lies west from Berlin."

We missed Doctor William P. Magee, founder of Operation Smile Inc and had to high-tail it out of Old Taipei.

Summary

Most of the delegates we spoke to had their doubts about the thousand bucks they'd paid. First of all, the congress was wall-to-wall keynotes. One Indonesian delegate said that there were not enough workshops. In his country, for example, there were 15 different comms standards and there was little real talk about the Internet. A delegate from Sweden said he believed the real function of the congress was as a major spin and idea laundering event. It let government leaders be seen next to IT leaders, and so gave the clear impression that the world was doing something.

Education was high on the agenda, but we couldn't help wondering if cyber-education is on balance a good or a bad thing.

A CIO of a major US PR company (Edelman), said that he thought the congress was a good thing because it would give him a broad brush view of the way the industry was going.

The delegate from Burkino Faso refused to comment when we cornered him in the lift in our hotel. You can find more info about the congress here. ®

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