Digital media sector still eludes definition

5 Feb 2004

The organisers of last week’s O2 Digital Media Awards might have wished this high-octane event to be a statement about one of Ireland’s cutting-edge industries but shoehorning 600 people into the ballroom of the creaking Burlington Hotel said more about Ireland’s lack of a 21st century conference facility. The poor ventilation and tightly packed tables tested the stamina of guests when their attention should have been focused on the real business of the evening.

Minister of Communications Dermot Ahern TD kicked off the event with a short address in which he reiterated his support for an industry for which he admitted to being a leading advocate. “ICT companies represented the first wave of successful Irish tech firms followed by pharmaceutical businesses. Digital media firms will form the third wave of Irish businesses competing on the world stage,” he predicted, adding that the government had shown its commitment to the sector by investing €130m of public money into the Digital Hub.

The minister recalled how a recent trip to Japan and Korea had helped foster his belief that digital communications was the future and that Ireland needed to position itself accordingly. “We can’t compete against the Americas or Koreans in terms of scale. Where we can compete with them is in terms of research and innovation,” he remarked, echoing the Government’s current mantra about the need to cultivate a whole new generation of Irish firms providing high-skill and high-value jobs to the economy.

It was more than a little ironic then that the overall winner of the digital awards was not a mercurial Irish software house but a project initiated by the Irish arm of the global semiconductor giant, Intel. The Intel IT Innovation Centre, the group behind the education website, took four awards including the main award – the O2 Grand Prix – and the Digital Media Person of the Year award (presented jointly to Peter Hamilton, head of educational development, and Joe Hegarty, director of business operations).

It was true, however, that the other gongs – and there were many of them – were scattered among mainly home-grown talent.

EirplayGames won the Digital Games Developer award for its Java Mobile Games 2003 range. Also in the wireless category, online betting site took the award for Best New Wireless Application, while Zamano was voted Best Wireless Content developer for its text messaging applications.

In the educational categories, the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology picked up the Higher-Level Education Award and St Mary’s College Dundalk won the Schools award for its healthy lifestyles website.

A partnership between Media Lab Europe and Trinity College Dublin won the Digital Media Innovation Business-to-Consumer award for Personal Investigator, a therapeutic 3D game for adolescents suffering from mental health problems.

McCann Erickson Ireland took the Digital Post Production award for the digital effects that created the unforgettable ‘tide of trash’ on its recent Race Against Waste campaign.

More curiously, given that it has been around for a couple of years now, the Revenue Commissioners’ Revenue On-line Service (ROS) website won the Digital Media Innovation Business-to-Business award.

What all 21 categories of awards showed is that there is a wealth of organisations and individuals out there working with digital technology for all manner of end applications. What was less clear is whether these firms had anything in common other than the fact they used digital technology in their core businesses.

Whereas all software firms, say, can be said to share a set of processes that involves writing, testing and finally selling software products, it is questionable whether a computer games developer has much, if anything, in common with an online content provider, an e-learning firm or a higher-education institute than simply the use of digital technology. The fact that the Olympics Games brings together a lot of different sportspeople every four years might be desirable and good for sport overall but it doesn’t mean that the shot putter is going to have anything in common with the swimmer he or she meets at the opening ceremony. Is it any different for firms within the digital media sector?

This diversity of its membership has been at the root of the credibility issue that has dogged the digital media sector since its emergence. There would surely be less criticism of the Government’s decision to pump €130m of public money into the Digital Hub project if it were abundantly clear what the money was for.

The awards organisers argue that by showcasing the efforts of Irish digital media firms they can raise the profile of a sector that holds much promise. Said Damian Ryan, managing director of Digital Media Intelligence: “The entries to this year’s awards demonstrated that Irish digital media companies are focused on global markets, underlining the potential here for the Irish economy both in terms of job creation and the sector as a whole.”

The cynics would argue, however, that the awards are little more than window dressing for an eclectic mix of technology firms and multimedia agencies that have been conveniently assembled under the banner of digital media for the sake of those running the awards and for a Government looking to justify a huge investment of public money in a troubled project.

By Brian Skelly

Pictured receiving their prize are Jim Kelly, strategic programme manager; Joe Hegarty, director of business operations, and Peter Hamilton, head of educational development at the Intel IT Innovation Centre