Mon, 03 Jan 2000

World IT scene full of action in 1999

By Zatni Arbi

JAKARTA (JP): Just like the Intel Pentium III processor, which Intel introduced early last year, developments in information technology (IT) never seemed to let up in 1999. It increasingly felt as if it was a full-time occupation keeping stock of the new things that appeared in the industry every day.

One of the biggest splashes last year was the inroads made by the Linux operating system (some people pronounce it "line-uks", others "lin-uks"). Started in 1991 as a noncommercial effort by a Finnish computer scientist by the name of Linus Torvalds, the UNIX-based operating system for the Intel, PowerPC and Alpha platforms suddenly gained momentum and posed a growing threat to Microsoft's Windows. Today, the Open Source movement is gaining a foothold all over the world, including here in Indonesia. The greatest attraction is the free access to the software -- you can download it from the Internet for free.

In the area of Internet connections, Digital Subscriber Line, particularly the Asynchronous flavor spearheaded by Alcatel, also gained momentum in the United States and other advanced countries.

Close to home, Singapore launched large-scale ADSL through SingTel's Magix. With an ADSL connection, Magix subscribers can access the Internet at 512 Kbps, or almost 10 times the speed of the 56Kbps modem. What's more, the enviable Singaporeans can surf the Net while talking on the phone or sending or receiving faxes without a second phone line. The cost is S$60 per month, including 30 hours of online time, and there's no phone charge. That invites a sad comparison with Indonesia, where we have to pay for the online time and the phone pulses for a paltry 28.8 Kbps connection -- if we're lucky enough to get that speed.

And while our own PT Telkom is still struggling with the basic infrastructure, a.k.a. the fixed wireline phone services, the world has been moving full-steam ahead to "Internet anytime, anywhere". Its foundation is the Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP, which allows us to use handheld devices, such as our cellphones and PDAs, to access E-mail and browse a text-based Web page. WAP is a standard that has been worked out by the three major cellular phone makers: Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia, so you'll know how it turns out.

The trend toward Internet services for people who are always on the move was accompanied with the growing popularity of Personal Digital Assistants, or PDAs, after a couple of years of lackluster success. Palm, which is owned by 3Com, introduced Palm III, V and VII (just like the BMWs) during 1999. Compaq also entered the handheld PC segment with its Aero. A newcomer by the name Handspring launched its Visor, which immediately became very popular and even threatened the dominance of the Palm PDAs. And don't leave out Casiopeia from Casio, which is now available in Indonesia as well.

All the tremendous fuss about the Internet and e-commerce also led a couple of brave entrepreneurs in the U.S. to believe that they could become rich by giving away PCs. So the free PC trend took off last year in an effort to lure a lot of people to the Internet. Those who believed that there was such a thing as a free PC would get a decent machine as long they agreed to let themselves be bombarded by advertisements and signed a long-term contract with a particular ISP.

Webpreneurs also had another idea for selling their banner ad space: they offered free Internet access. And, just as the year came to its final days, one of them, FreeNet, came to Kuala Lumpur and promised to offer free Internet access to subscribers in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia. Now it will be interesting to see how our government will respond to this.

The design of the PC itself underwent a radical change last year, thanks to the overwhelming success of the sexy iMac from Apple. Actually, a couple of years ago Compaq offered an all-in- one PC -- a complete PC with an LCD monitor, but the time was evidently not right for that idea. Today, however, we see so many cute PC models attached to the back of the LCD panel from leading PC vendors such as Acer, Fujitsu, Mitac and NEC.

Other strong trends were the increasing capabilities and decreasing prices of digital cameras and photo printers, the growing acceptance of home networking, the runaway popularity of MP3 and the sealed-box business PCs.

On the other hand, among the ideas that did not show much progress last year were speech recognition technology, smart cards, virtual reality, confederation computing such as Jini and, of course, the fight against software piracy.

Unfortunately, amid all the excitement resulting from rapid advancements of information technology, we also saw what observers called "The Great Digital Divide". Simply put, it refers to the rapidly expanding gap between those who have instant access to information through their computers and the Internet and those who have no such access.

The digital divide occurred not only between developed and developing nations, but also within the developed nations themselves. Even in the U.S., where the Internet was born, some places and segments in society have ready access to the Internet while others do not. It is also occurring here in Indonesia, where only a small fraction of our population has access to a personal computer and the Web.

The digital divide is a really frightening phenomenon because it will only bring unequal distribution of wealth and prosperity to an even higher level. Just take a look at how wealthy the digital entrepreneurs have become. Even in the U.S., according to a Harris Poll published in the Dec. 27 issue of Business Week, the majority of people did not believe that the wealthy businesses resulting from the Internet Age had improved their own lives in any significant way. Clearly, the digital divide is something our current policymakers should not only be fully aware of, but something they should do something about. Happy New Year!