Technology will always be a ‘work in progress’


6 May 2004

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If there’s one thing I got out of eWeek, it was the impression that there are a lot of brilliant, determined people at all levels of society working hard to make things happen, not only in Ireland but across Europe, against the backdrop of challenging economic times, an historic EU enlargement and perhaps the most troubled fraught and troubled geopolitical environment since the Cold War.

eWeek, the brainchild of Enterprise Ireland and the Dublin Chambers of Commerce, was sponsored by the Government, O2, Esat BT, Eircom and Oracle, and proposed to highlight to Irish people and an overseas audience the level of technological innovation taking place in Ireland, as well as giving Irish people an opportunity to sample for themselves the practical applications and benefits of technology.

With countless events taking place across Dublin and the rest of Ireland, eWeek achieved its aim. However, it also brought home the truth that technology will always be a work-in-progress. With so much to see and do, I endeavoured to get a cross-section of some of the activities and debate taking place during last week’s eWeek, which I attended between Monday and Thursday:

Monday

The first day of eWeek started damply, and I don’t mean in a rainy sense. I tried to log onto the official eWeek website only to find that the website was down. A quick phonecall to a contact close to the eWeek organisers fixed the problem – but it wasn’t a good start.

I made my way to the O2 Digital Media Conference at the Alexander Hotel to see and hear how Ireland’s dreams of a digital media industry might be realised. PricewaterhouseCooper’s Sinead Parker told the conference that the overall entertainment and media market in Ireland was valued at over €1.9bn, but warned that funding is an issue. “Access to funding represents a real challenge for digital media enterprise. However, with innovative business models emerging and value being created for both the customer and industry, we believe that it will become less of a challenge in the future.”

One of the most obvious sectors that Ireland should target is the US$20bn computer games market, however, funding and broadband issues are hampering progress. Despite the existence of world beating software players like Havok, which makes the graphics engines behind many of the leading Xbox and PlayStation 2 titles, and the passion exhibited by new players like AxisThree, the Irish games industry is still pitifully small by international standards.

According to Peter Mee of games company Meedja, at the close of 2003 there were only 19 games development companies employing 360 people in Ireland. Digital Hub’s Stephen Brennan told the conference: “There’s a high potential for Irish games companies. We are growing a testbed for new games through the roll-out of broadband and finally games companies are able to trial network-enabled games. But there is a greater need to get people interested in this potential and this means a greater need for showcasing the technologies at home and abroad.

Tuesday

Addressing the European e-Business Legal Conference at Dublin’s Mansion House as part of eWeek, an event sponsored by Beauchamps Solicitors, Raimo Näätsari, vice president of e-business for Nordea, a leading bank in the Nordic region, told leading lawyers and businesspeople that a proposal created by the Finnish Ministry of Finance to develop an electronic format for transferring invoices, payment and other important business documents such as credit notes and bills of lading could save European businesses €50bn a year.

Wednesday

Ireland key technology industry exhibition ICT Expo got underway with a keynote speech from European enlargement expert Hans-Juergen Zahorka, a former member of the European Parliament. Zahorka said that developed EU countries like Ireland have a lot to gain from nearshore IT outsourcing opportunities in eastern European countries like Belarus and Ukraine, where senior programmers could be hired for €5 an hour.

The highlight of eWeek also took place at the ICT Expo, with the launch by ICT minister Mary Hanafin (pictured) of Mobaile, an umbrella term for a range of e-citizen services being deployed by the Local Government Computer Services Board as a user-friendly front end for e-citizens to access a wide range of local information. “A single source for local authority services such as planning applications, travel reports and development plans, Mobhaile will act as an all-compassing, 24-hour guide to local services which citizens, businesses and local organisations can readily access. This is ultimately what eGovernment flourishing at grass roots level is all about,” said Hanafin.

That evening saw the ICT Excellence Awards, sponsored by MCI Ireland, take place in Jury’s Hotel, Ballsbridge. The Industry Person Of The Year award went to Dr Jim Mountjoy, who has a long and distinguished career in the technology industry. He has founded a number of companies, helped numerous others to grow and profit, advised Industry and Government and participated in such a way to help demonstrate to the world that Ireland has got the technological talent and brain power to compete with the best – anywhere. One of his companies, Euristix, was sold in 1999 to Fore Systems for US$80m, and later to Marconi for US$175m.

Thursday

The Irish Software Association (ISA) annual conference at the Mansion House was told that the Irish software sector has more to gain than lose from the 10 accession countries joining the EU this Saturday, and should not be blinded by unfounded fears. Summarising the overall opportunities in the region, ISA chairman Cathal Friel commented: “We do not view the accession states as competitors who will steal our jobs; rather we view them as new markets where we can sell more software.”

His comments were echoed by Jan Muehlfelt, Microsoft’s vice president for Eastern Europe, who said: “I don’t believe that a lot of people from Eastern Europe will come and take your jobs. There’s much more demand for IT skills in those countries than there is supply. I don’t think there should be any prejudgement.”

By John Kennedy