I..T: EXPECTED TRENDS AND TECHNOLOGIES
The future heavily tied to developments and adoption of internet technology in business, education and home computing
By MONTY RODRIGUES
May 08 - 21, 2000
Following the five years or so of Y2K bug fixing, its time to gaze beyond the immediate horizon and see what's in store for us. Many companies had put a virtual freeze on IT spending, while taking time out to fix their Y2K problems. Its time now for the check books to come out again, and for executives to give serious thought on where to put their money over the next few years. Like any good investment strategy, it is always good to have certain forecasts, about the way technology is moving, before making any sizeable investments. Predicting the outlook of an industry, as fast paced and volatile as IT, is indeed extremely difficult. And gazing into the IT crystal ball, given the socioeconomic dynamics in a country like Pakistan, is all the more challenging. Here, technology does not often respond the way it is expected or predicted to, largely due to infrastructure issues and literacy levels in the country. However, even in the West, seasoned veterans of IT have often predicted what the future holds for us, only to be proven wrong, time and again. Some fifteen years back Ira Penn, the editor of a Silver Springs, Md., periodical Records Management Quarterly had this to say about the future of E Mail:
"Electronic mail isn't going anywhere... There is no substitute for a piece of paper."
The very fact that I am presently not in Pakistan, and readers are reading this article in the PAGE today, is testimony to how wrong that prediction was. Had it not been for E Mail, I would not have been able to send this article in the few hours that it took. And even faxing it across would have meant re-typing the entire text, and reformatting it once more a time consuming and often error prone practice which, thanks to email, we are able to avoid. With all fairness, Penn could not have predicted how email and electronic messaging technology would develop, with the advent of the internet. Sending and receiving messages and attachments across the globe, and receiving confirmation and replies within a matter of hours, if not less, is something that she could not have envisioned. Hence, my hesitation at hazarding a guess about what's in store for us.
I seem to recall another famous 'prediction' that went astray. This time it was made by none other than one of the founding fathers of the industry itself. One of the past Chairmen of IBM, while commenting on what he thought the future for personal computers holds for us, saw a demand for no more than four PC's, worldwide. Coming from an (inside) source, many people would definitely have placed their bets on that prediction coming true. However, we all know how the PC game is playing now. On a much lighter side, I recall a cartoon that I saw in the newspapers recently. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are working in a garage. While Gates stares out the window, in deep thought over something, Jobs admonishes him:
"For Gods sake! Stop wasting time with this windows sh** and work on something that will make us some money!"
If industry leaders like Jobs could not predict what the future holds (IF this cartoon is to be believed as remotely based on the truth), what chance do I have with the IT crystal ball.
Compared to other technologies, IT is one area where Pakistan has kept pace, comparatively speaking, with most countries in our region. As such, looking at global and regional IT trends and forecasts, it may be reasonable to assume that the IT industry in Pakistan could be expected to 'dabble in', if not wholeheartedly embrace, certain concepts and technologies. We must give due credence to the various forces that help and hinder the adoption of technology in a country like Pakistan. When making any definite predictions, allowances must be made for such influences. We must also recognise the fact that it's not just IT that makes a prediction come true. Businesses (and end users) must be willing to accept and use the subject of the prediction, in order for it to come true. Therefore, rather than make definite predictions about what may or may not happen in the future, I will restrict myself to a discussion on a few of the emerging trends and technologies that I believe could play a dominant role in the future of IT. Business leaders in Pakistan would do well to explore further resources and pools of knowledge, and learn more about these technologies. If you, as a user, are willing to explore their implementation within your organizations, the IT industry has the capability and skills to make that implementation successful.
The very foundation of future commerce and trade, in the global economy, will be Internet based. E Mail and web browsing has been active in Pakistan for many years now. Where email addresses and company URL's on the web used to be a status symbol a few years ago, these have become a necessity - as important as having an office itself if companies in Pakistan wish to do international business. Gone are the days when international customers and partners phoned or faxed you their business needs. More and more, companies will see a gradual demise of the fax and phone based business model. The web has replaced traditional channels of seeking and offering business opportunities. For Pakistan to survive in this new paradigm, and for it to get its fare share in global markets, businesses will need to become Net savvy, and fast.
Unfortunately, if you do a search through any of the search engines, you will not find much Pakistani content on the net. Organizations like PAGE and a few others, notably the DAWN, have pioneered net presence, but the future demands much more than displaying and providing content. To be truly successful in the future business scenario, Pakistani companies will need to make their presence felt much more aggressively on the net. Understand that, in future, distance and physical presence (or lack thereof) will not be a barrier to market penetration. The net will give you, a Textile manufacturer from Faisalabad, as good a chance to get a piece of the US textile market, as say, a company that's based in the US itself. However, merely developing a web site is not going to be a panacea for all our troubles. A number of issues need to be addressed, such a security, privacy, and a host of legal issues such as cross border commerce, for us to make a lasting impact in the e-economy.
The e-Commerce age will highlight the concept of on-line Portals. A Portal is an online presence of like minded companies or entities who have common business interests to pursue. For example, the Textile industry in Pakistan would do well to organize a textile portal, where in textile and allied industry players could 'meet' on-line and transact business. Portals seek to provide its members, and prospective suppliers and customers world over, with a single entry point to get in touch with scores of business partners who have similar business needs. As Internet use matures, more and more groups will find themselves organized in the lines of on-line portals. Much like industry federations and trade associations of the present day, these Portals will serve a much broader representation to its members. The greatest advantage of the portal will be that all members, irrespective of size or location, will have equal representation. Since a prospective buyer will have equal opportunity of evaluating the products or services of each member in the Portal, quality and performance will rule supreme.
If Pakistani companies do not strive now, to become active e-Commerce players, in a year or so they will find themselves forced to toe the line. E-Commerce will have a ripple effect on Corporate Pakistan, as more and more international companies become e-commerce compliant. The more companies connect to each other via e-commerce, the more other companies will have to connect to each other. And as global partners of Pakistani businesses apply the benefits of business-to-business e-commerce, they will expect that other companies in their supply chain do the same. Then, it won't be an option any longer, but a necessity for our companies to get connected.
A number of companies in Pakistan have significant investment in their IT systems. Executives will need to look at how they can leverage these investments while getting the best of what the e-commerce scenario has to offer. As a first step, expect to see many companies developing web front ends and user interfaces to their existing legacy systems. However, this trend will soon change as companies learn what e-commerce is really about. In the years to come, companies developing web storefronts on their existing legacy systems will find that 'window dressing' old and outdated processes only serves to advertise those dying processes something that a 'global' customer will not stand for. The new paradigm will force these companies to adopt a more integrated approach to e-Commerce. The outlook for the future is for an integration of back office and front office applications. Successful companies will be those that successfully manage the transition from a simple web storefront to a fully integrated IT environment. But first, they need to address issues such as Secure Site Transactions, Digital Signatures, Encryption, Authentication and Verification and secure payments.
A two or three hour drive from Peshawar airport to an industrial zone in Nowshera could be spent in a number of ways. If you have good company, you could spend it talking politics or discussing the latest Cricket match. If you have a luxury Pajero or Land Cruiser, you could catch up on lost sleep. On the other hand, you could be responding to mail, checking daily production reports on-line, placing or approving orders, or checking your company's inventory status before making a firm delivery commitment to a customer all on the go. Business leaders and industry gurus in Pakistan will do well to watch developments in the mobile computing arena. In a country where getting from point A to point B (say from Karachi to Hyderabad) often means that you have to be out of touch with your key business contacts for hours on end, mobile computing solutions could add several productive hours to our day. One of the fastest growing segments of the communication industry, International Data Corp. (IDC) expects that there will be a billion wireless phones by 2003. How many of these units will be in use by Pakistani business leaders is an open question.
With technologies like Lotus iNotes and Lotus MobileNotes, for example, you could capitalize on the features that messaging client software on Palm devices and Web enabled cell phones have to offer. Email, web browsing, faxing, and voice mail are all part of the mobile computing promise. For executives who spend a lot of time on the road, commuting between one factory or production facility and another, Mobile Computing holds the promise of always 'being in touch'. Granted that the ideal scenario of being 'plugged in' (where you 'wear' your computer in devices like a wrist watch or sun glasses), is something that's far from being realized in Pakistan still, even the basics such as PDA's (Personal Digital Assistants) and web-enabled cell phones will serve us well.
One of the drawbacks that Mobile Computing may have in Pakistan is the speed at which wireless data could be transmitted. Currently, one may expect a 14.4 Kbps throughput. Most wired modems will probably give 56 Kbps four times that of their mobile counterparts. This rate (14.4 Kbps) would normally be unacceptable on notebooks. However, for mobile devices such as PDA's and web enabled cell phones, it is adequate. Such restrictions should be short lived, however, as the next generation (3G, or short for 3rd Generation) of wireless technology evolves. The use of wireless Pagers to send and receive email messages, compose fax messages on the fly, and build text to voice messages is also on the horizon. If given half a chance to take root, these are the types of technologies that could become as common as the cell phones in the near future.
Mobile technology is on the move. Corporate use of infrared communication to scan and store information from courier parcels and labels is common. In Pakistan, we have seen their use when the TCS man comes and uses his 'gadget' to quickly record details of a package that he delivers. Brand name electronic digital diaries that are readily available in Pakistan, already use similar technology. Developments of standards such as Bluetooth (which is a short range radio communication technology) will make it even more easier to connect notebooks with other mobile devices such as Pagers and Cell phones. Ericsson, for example, unveiled a Bluetooth Headset device, which is considered to be the world's first hands-free accessory to use this technology. The device is something that users wear, like a conventional headset, but can be plugged into an Ericsson mobile phone featuring, among other things, voice recognition technology to make outgoing calls and micro browser technology to surf the interned and all this in a package that's 170-grams in weight, five inches by two inches in dimension.
For such technology to really take off in Pakistan however, a lot of groundwork may still be needed. Telephone carriers and ISP's will need to make appropriate investment in infrastructure. And, at least initially, only selected web pages (with little or not much graphic component) can be viewed on web-enabled cell phones. However, this is yet another glimpse of what the future holds. We need to do whatever is needed if we want to catch this wave.
Working from home
Although not a very new concept in the west, Telecommuting must be evaluated as an alternate way for our work force to 'attend the office'. In cities like Karachi and Lahore, where employees travel in over crowded buses for 3 or more hours just to get in at 9.00 am, and then spend another hour 'recovering' from the affects of their ordeal, Telecommuting could be something to be looked at for the future. This work model is especially viable in industries such as IT and Journalism, where the product is intellectual in nature. As we enter into the new millennium, the productivity of our work force will count a great deal in deciding whether we succeed as global players. The business and industry leaders must consider making the work force work smarter, not harder. An employee who is able to work from home, could easily give 3 or more hours of additional productive output, which would otherwise be spent commuting.
Technologies such as Microsoft's Netmeeting, Excite's Chat and other such mediums are already in use within corporate Pakistan. I have participated in endless group discussions with my colleagues in Pakistan, USA and other parts of the world, using similar technology, to great advantage. Formalizing and standardizing the use of these technologies within a company, and across organizations, can greatly change the way we work. Most Pakistani school and college students in big cities at least, are familiar with the use of the Internet and e-mail. As our youth become more computer literate, corporate Pakistan will find it easier to implement such a model, since the next generation work force will already come equipped with the knowledge of the tools to be used.
As an extension to the use of the Internet for work group activities, the concept of 'Webcasting' will also make significant gains in the coming years. Webcasting, which is a technology that lets firms broadcast meetings, group discussions and other such events over the internet, allows remote users to participate online. It is predicted that significant cost savings can accrue to companies that making judicious use of this technology. Air ticket savings, conference room booking costs, catering fees and other logistics charges makes this technology well worth evaluating.
Obviously the 'work from home' model will not suit all industries and professions. And, in selected areas where such a model could be used, a lot of work discipline needs to be enforced. Target based work assignments, very much like journalists in Pakistan have, strict deadlines, and tighter accountability in the work scene will need to be introduced. Nonetheless, like many countries in the western world, Pakistan too will need to make use of technology to boost the productivity of its work force, if we are to compete in the Internet age. As we enter into this new millennium, expect to see real changes in the way we work, with greater and more innovative use of technology in the work place.
The global personal service market, according to a British report, is expected to grow to US $26 billion by 2005. In Pakistan, the use of PDA technology is hereto more of a fad, rather than a serious technological breakthrough. However, the proliferation of devices that support Palm OS and WinCE will see the use of this technology becoming more popular in the next few years. Big players in the enterprise database arena already see this coming. Database vendors like Sybase and Oracle have already announced or released Palm or WinCE versions of their databases. Big players like Peoplesoft and SAP are also on the bandwagon. PDA versions of popular ERP solutions will push the use of these devices into the forefront. PDA's will soon be used, not so much as a device to store names and addresses, to do lists or appointment dates, but as a means to communicate with corporate systems and with the outside world.
Rapid progress in telephone interfaces, advances in speech recognition and the firm entrenchment of browsers in personal devices, and advances in standards supporting Wireless Application protocol (WAP) such as Extensible Markup Language (XML) will fuel the development and use of PDA technology. When such technology matures, you will see users managing their voice mail, emails and faxes all through a single PDA device. Since the purpose is to make 'personal' communication as simple and seamless as possible, PDA technology will allow you to access your email either from your land line or a mobile phone. Current versions of this technology allow you to do media conversions on the fly voice to text and vice versa. Email a friend from your GSM phone, and attach a WAV format voice mail to it.
Business executives who have travelled the world and seen PDA technology in use will do well to encourage the local software industry to develop PDA interfaces to their enterprise systems. As our economy opens up to the outside world, courtesy the internet and e-commerce, we should expect to see more serious use of PDA technology. We can expect to see significant developments in bandwidth technology in the coming years. Unified Messaging (UM) will see the convergence of Email, Voice Mail, Fax and Video in to a single device.
On Line / Net Learning
Many Pakistanis who have been in the West for any duration time, have probably experienced some form of web based training, or at least heard or read about it. Distance learning, using web technology is the wave of the future, as far as education is concerned. The Allama Iqbal Open University is a success story for us Pakistanis, as far as distance learning is concerned. Using easily understood course material, facilitated TV broadcasts and a network of campuses, AIOU has managed to deliver good quality, affordable education across the country. With the advancement in web based multi media applications, expect more use of this technology to be focused in the delivery of mass education to remote areas. Using technology, such as facilitated Chat rooms, subject specific Bulletin Boards and E-mail lists, education will be delivered cheaply and efficiently.
Using net technology to facilitate education has a number of advantages, especially for in-service professionals. The concept of 'learn at your own time', and learning through discussions and participation in on-line group sessions, is key to this whole idea of distance learning. In Pakistan, we already have world class certifications conducted on-line, via the web. Most institutions offering MCSE type certification, are mandated to have the final examination conducted via the web, online and in real-time. As this technology becomes more familiar, and as barriers are overcome, we will see more disciplines (not just IT) turning to web based technologies, as a medium of imparting quality education.
In order to put this technology to best use, at least two pre-requisites must be met: Cheap connectivity to the Internet, and affordable and quality content. Fortunately, both can be provided without much of a problem. For students, cheap and reliable Internet connections must be made available. The Government had previously done away with the concept of multi-metering on Internet calls. Perhaps private sector ISP's and centers of excellence such as AIOU, SZABIST and other such institutions of national repute could cooperate together to use the net as a truly effective medium for imparting distance education. Another pre-requisite is the availability of local resources to produce truly web quality student material. Pakistan has the skills and technology to produce excellent multi-media and interactive content. We can expect these talents to be put to use in the education sector in the coming years.
More and more companies in the West are looking at outsourcing their major IT functions to specialist third parties. By doing so, large corporations are able to maintain clear focus on their core business, without getting involved in the organization of large in-house IT departments. General Electric Corporation, for example has out-sourced a major portion of its Accounts Payable function to third world countries, where it is cheaper to do data entry and monitor and track various events within the AP cycle. The company has maintained skeleton staff at the contractors location, mainly for quality assurance and trouble shooting. However, once this model takes off, and runs successfully for some time, even those resources will not be required.
The internet has created this new model as a way for large companies to off load non-value adding services to locations where they are cheaper to perform. In the coming years, more companies will adopt such models. Countries like India and Pakistan are ideally suited to capitalize on these opportunities. We have a large work force, who are relatively cheap to hire. Our average worker can read and write English, and many are computer literate. If given the right encouragement and government patronage, Outsourcing services could become another source of foreign exchange for Pakistani IT companies.
Application service providers
The Internet era will also have a significant impact on the way software and applications are sold and serviced. In the conventional scenario, a software vendor licensed his application to a client. The licensing model would either be a fixed fee, user based or platform based one, depending on the type of operating system, the hardware and the number of applications used. While this conventional model will still be around for some time to come, there is a new model emerging on the horizon. It's called the Application Service Provider, or ASP. Analysts already predict exponential growth in this segment of technology, from a mere US$150 million in 1999 to a staggering US$2 billion by the year 2003. Like all budding technologies that need big names behind them to become a success, the ASP model is backed by industry giants like Sun, HP and Microsoft.
An ASP, very much like an Internet Service Provider or ISP, will provide services to a client wishing to use an application or an Internet based service. Just as the ISP makes available the appropriate hardware and software resource to a user who wishes to connect to the internet the ASP will make available the appropriate environment for a company to connect to and use an application, over the internet. A prime example could be a Payroll system. A company would engage the services of an ASP, who hosts a Payroll system using his own Servers. The user would connect, using a secure internet connection, log into the ASP's Server, and start entering, viewing and printing relevant Payroll data. What's in this for the end user? Well, for one thing, he is saved the huge financial cost of licensing the software and instead pays a small monthly fee for its use. Additionally, the costs and management hassles of setting up and supporting hardware and operating environments, to run the application, are done away with. All this is taken care of by the ASP.
Big players like Oracle and SAP are already offering such services to their clients in the US. As this technology ripens, we can expect smaller software houses to follow suit. Big software houses in Pakistan will also start offering these services to their users. Small to medium companies, who wish to avoid the headaches associated with organizing and maintaining specialized environments to run their applications, will find the ASP model very attractive. Just as companies are shielded from the impacts of upgrades and enhancements that ISP's are constantly making to support them, the ASP will make application system related upgrades and housekeeping transparent to the user.
While the ASP model is an evolving one even in the West, for successful implementation in the Pakistani environment, a lot of infrastructure issues will need to be addressed. The primary concern for companies will be the security aspect. How secure is the data that they transmit between their company and the ASP's server. Industry standard security protocols must be enforced in order to make the ASP model a success. The aspect of physical security of data,, which will now be residing on an 'outsiders' machine, also needs to be considered.
So, what do I see for the future? The future of computing will no doubt be heavily tied to developments in, and adoption of Internet technology in business, government, education and home computing. Web-enabled handheld devices, smart phones, game consoles and set top boxes will define the future of computing. As technology evolves, so will the delivery mechanisms that are used to make them available to the end users. New business models will evolve which will change the face of how business is done today. Business transactions will follow more of a direct route, with many middlemen and intermediaries either being eliminated, or redefining their roles. Businesses will be competing for global markets, while at the same time face global competition. It is predicted that companies that aim for that ideal marketing concept of a 'market of one' will be the ultimate winners. To this end, expect to see more Customer Relationship Management (CRM) type solutions in use by companies, in an effort to better understand a customers requirements, and respond in a unique fashion to those needs.
The delivery of technology services will also evolve, over the next few years. 'Subscription computing' will become more common, as organizations seek to outsource key technology areas. It will make good business sense for small companies to use a 'bureau' for its core technology needs, rather than engage in a constant battle with ever changing technology. Open source strategies, such as the Linux approach, will force big players in the software industry, including the Microsoft's of the world, to respond with innovative strategies of their own. Recent alliances between heavy weights Microsoft and Cisco, have given a boost to the ASP model of 'rent-an-app' type service. Such alliances will ultimately give small to medium-sized companies the ability to use big applications they would not normally afford to buy.
These technologies and trends are either firmly entrenched in the West, or are well on their way to becoming de facto standards. Will they succeed in Pakistan? Will business and IT leaders in our country be able to successfully adopt and adapt them to our requirements? Do they hold the same promise and potentials for us, that the West sees in them? The answer to all these questions of course will depend on how determined our country is to embrace them and use them.