Digital media going off the boil?

6 May 2003

At the first Digital Media Conference in 2002 there was a real buzz around a packed O’Reilly Hall in University College Dublin. Not everyone in the audience was entirely sure what digital media was, but hell, it looked like it was going to be the next big thing so they wanted to be part of it. A year on and around 80 people populated the same venue that could have comfortably seated 300.

A succession of high profile speakers spoke enthusiastically about a “young dynamic industry with a huge future”, but as their words echoed around the sparsely populated auditorium you couldn’t help but wonder if a hot sector was already turning cold.

The fact that Microsoft and Sun had also elected to run events on the same day surely didn’t help (see separate stories). The end result was an event deemed to be about cutting-edge technologies that seemed curiously out of step with what was going on — particularly when it transpired that Vodafone had chosen to launch its Irish 3G network on the same day.

This was briefly acknowledged at the conference (sponsored by O2) in a question and answer session. Danuta Gray (pictured), CEO of O2, said her company was in no way disadvantaged by the launch of Vodafone’s 3G network. She stressed that mobile networks were about services that met people’s needs rather than infrastructure.

“It’s not about the technology and I’m sure Vodafone would agree that it’s very early days,” she said. “There is still some way to go when it comes to opening up services that people can use.”

Gray wouldn’t comment on a specific launch date for O2’s 3G network other than to say that it would be before the end of the year. “Both Vodafone and O2 applied for licences and both of us have to meet our obligations,” she said, referring to Vodafone’s ambitious launch timetable.

On the wider issue of Hutchison Whampoa entering the market as the third recipient of a licence, she was sceptical about basing a launch around specific video services.

“Exclusive deals won’t last forever,” she said about Hutchison’s sole rights to mobile content featuring Premiership goals. “Eventually it [the Premiership] will want to win as many customers as possible.”

The Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) chairperson Etain Doyle was also speaking at the conference, though she neglected to mention the Vodafone launch of 3G, possibly out of deference to the sponsors. She left the event to attend a photo shoot with Vodafone CEO Paul Donovan and ComReg subsequently issued a statement where she expressed her delight at the arrival of 3G in Ireland.

The wisdom of having O2 as a main sponsor has always been a dubious decision of the organiser, because it excludes the participation of Vodafone, arguably one of the global leaders when it comes to digital media. That said, an ongoing problem has been coming up with a concise explanation of what exactly digital media does encompass.

Entertainment, marketing and publishing ventures fuelled by converging technologies is probably accurate but it’s also very broad. It could cover both a film production company and a firm that specialises in text messaging platforms. Beyond the banner of digital media it is difficult to think of anything else that these types of business will have in common.

The confusion was compounded as some speakers chose to speak around the subject rather than deal with it directly. First up was Minister for Communications Dermot Ahern TD who talked about how digital media will play a part in “steering our way to the knowledge economy”. He made the point that companies involved in digital media need a good broadband infrastructure, giving him the opportunity to run through a progress report on the 19-town fibre rings initiative and the rollout of asymmetric digital subscriber line. Next up, Doyle adopted much the same approach. She did, however, offer a curious aside. She pointed out that per capita penetration of digital TV in Ireland was the second highest in Europe after the UK. That this was entirely down to BSkyB, the one broadcaster that the regulator does not yet regulate, was an irony that didn’t go unnoticed.

The best comments about broadcasting came from the floor when one delegate accused Forfas CEO Martin Cronin of neglecting the television industry. Forfas produced a strategy document highlighting the significance of digital media in the Government’s plans to move Ireland up the value chain. Was there such a document for television production?, asked the delegate not unreasonably. No there wasn’t, replied Cronin.

“We haven’t a high export business in television output,” he reasoned, “whereas we have good relative strengths in technology-enabled areas.”

Judging by the turnout for the conference there is a lot of work to be done if those ‘relative strengths’ have the makings of a new and significant Irish business sector.

By Ian Campbell

Danuta Gray, CEO of O2, said her company was is in no way disadvantaged by the launch of Vodafone’s 3G network