It is not often that Parliament looks ahead and gives us a vision that we should take seriously, learn from, chew over and not forget in a hurry. Last week's debate in the House of Commons on the implications for the UK of the internet is a welcome serious first step for the honourable gentlemen and ladies. The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) lobbed into the debate some interesting statistics and even more interesting predictions based upon them. There will be, by the year 2000, 4.2 million people in the UK with internet access and 4.7 million with access at home.
Resellers should note these figures carefully.
The one comment that Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and the initiator of the debate, made - which I think is essential to take seriously - is worth quoting in full. It may have been said by others in our industry, but coming from a politician it has a different impact. 'The internet's ubiquity continues at a pace that has never been experienced by any industry.
If we fail to understand that and fail to educate and enable our citizens equally, we shall concede economic, social and political advantage to other countries - particularly America, forever.'
Ignoring the small inaccuracy in his statement would be to miss an unfortunate irony which still, in my opinion, puts us light years behind the US in civil rights - the fact that the UK hoi polloi are still subjects of the Crown, it is comforting to know that some in government realise how far behind the US we are.
The UK started the services revolution in the late 1970s. One of Thatcher's abiding beliefs was that the UK could dump its manufacturing and research roles and become an off-shore services arm of the US industry living by the bread of services alone. It proved to be an expensive chimera then but the Compaq/Digital merger shows the enormous importance the corporate world sets by the need to get into IT services.
And the internet is key to the services revolution. The volume of information and potential for purchasing those 4.2 million home users alone could fuel its own services revolution. Wyatt is correct and the Banquo's ghost at this debate was Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Web TV.
Whether creating a new government department called the Ministry of Communications to carry out Wyatt's tasks is revisiting the world of the quango, only time will tell. And introducing six new internet tsars seems a bit like copycat government.
But learning from the US is something we should do more of. For years, us Brits have sneered at America. Now it's time to smell the coffee and do what the Japanese made an art form out of - stealing ideas and the bits of US culture that could make a difference across the water.
One of the secrets the US hides is the historical reason for US dominance in the IT field. In the early days, it was almost entirely state funded. The internet grew out of the state and the Department of Defence funded almost every innovation that didn't come out of the space race. So it's good to see someone in our government looking at Uncle Sam and learning. But if government has a role to play in the development of our IT infrastructure, which I think it does, there is one more lesson to learn. The US government pumped money into research while the market did the regulation. In the US, the government knows when to let go - as in 1990 when it opened up the internet, arguably one of the most momentous decisions in the history of IT.
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