There are times when the words government initiative sound like a contradiction in terms. The current administration, in particular, has been the recipient of unprecedented media flack, let alone from the opposition, and many of PC Dealer's readers believe there has been good reason for this.
But nobody is all bad, to use a well-worn cliche. Occasionally, even total incompetents get it right, and getting it right is what has happened with the Department of Trade and Industry's Information Society Initiative (ISI). Basically, it is an effort to ensure that businesspeople get the hang of IT and its uses. The fear driving the initiative is that those who are not computer literate may fall behind in their businesses and be overtaken by foreign competition with access to more technology.
For the computer trade, the scheme's biggest benefit will be that anything geared towards technological awareness should result in increased sales.
A growing market, therefore, has to be positive news to the trade. One fringe benefit is the emergence of an awareness campaign and the opportunity to take part in it by badging a scheme with the ISI logo. Details of this idea will be released during the campaign.
To start off, it would be a good idea to look at exactly what the ISI consists of. Or better still, it would be a good idea to look at why so few people appear to have even heard of it.
Granted, the headlines have been grabbed by the resurgence in terrorism in the UK, and it is only right that such an important issue should take precedence. At the time of the launch, the DTI had been more than slightly preoccupied with the Scott report and assorted demands for high-level resignations. But even so, something that is likely to have significant repercussions on the business community should be better-known by now.
Yet when PC Dealer spoke to dealers and vendors, few had heard about it, including the head of one company that had supplied some of the systems for it.
Ian Taylor, minister for science and technology, foresaw some of this apparent apathy at the launch, commenting that initiatives like this rarely set the world alight. But given that half of an earmarked u35 million over four years is to be spent on the awareness campaign, one can be forgiven for wondering where exactly the awareness has gone so far. The campaign itself will consist of roadshows, demonstrations and guidance for first-time users. There will be 50 centres set up over the four-year period, each of which aims to introduce curious business people to IT.
If a customer has heard that a database might be useful for business, but has never seen one live, then the centres may prove beneficial. They will not be directly connected to the existing Business Link network, but are likely to end up working in conjunction with it for much of the time.
The remainder of the budget will go to creating awards for technical innovation, including one for multimedia launched in February. But there will be others. Cash will be earmarked for taking technology out of the development phase and into the real world, and a final swatch of money will go on digital broadcasting and communications, including GSM. And they're doing a Web page too.
The DTI clearly believes IT will be vital in maintaining a competitive edge in the future. But as hard facts go, it begins to sound a little woolly. Apart from the 50 centres and the awards for technical innovation, there is little that is actually contained within the initiative.
The idea of a Web page is hardly revolutionary.
Ian Lang, president of the Board of Trade, did little to allay this feeling with his own spiel at the time. His worry was that businesses would fail to understand the world they were coming to occupy. 'Many companies that don't see what is happening will lose out, whether they be butchers, bakers or candlestick makers.'
The figures that underlie the belief that the UK is lagging behind are worrying. According to Lang, only nine per cent of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) use electronic mail and only a third of those use it extensively, a figure that compares with 25 per cent in the US. The figures are likely to be accurate, so it is easy to see the case for doing something.
In spite of the figures centring on email, or perhaps because of it, the DTI initiative appears to be targeted at people with far lower levels of computer literacy than this simple communications application requires, which is little enough with most of the front-ends available on the market.
It was a curious audience that sat through presentations. For example, there was a printing company that had managed to set up a process whereby it made a set of business cards for a client, getting different names and contact details on to each card by importing the data from another application. The MPs seemed awestruck by this, but dealers have already heard of the technique - it's called using a database.
Several of the applications on display were equally basic. A bakery had discovered it could get orders for its traditionally made cakes from all over the world if it set up a Web page, which is why it is called World Wide Web. And a fashion company had found that by sending its models' portfolios out on CD-Rom it could include video clips and sounds as well as hard copy - its clients liked this approach.
Much of this may sound basic to most of PC Dealer's readership. But Taylor puts it into perspective. 'Those of us who are familiar with technology must not be cynical about those who aren't,' he said. 'We've got to change the culture of the entire country.'
Change the culture of a country in which the fastest-growing sector of the PC market is the domestic, retail-based sale with a CD-Rom attached?
Given the market statistics, it begins to appear that the Government may be a little off-base, or that the market is guilty of hyping its own growth to the detriment of honest reportage. Or maybe both.
When asked about his party's response to the initiative, Labour MP Geoffrey Hoons, said he welcomed it, but that it was, 'as always, too little'.
A Labour government would make IT a priority. He visited a school recently and saw its Web page. One could almost get the impression that whenever politicians think of IT, they think of Web pages, and that's it.
The trade has started warming to the idea of an initiative from HMG to promote its wares, however indirectly. Alexander Skeaping, marketing director of dealer Microrent, says anything that aims to increase awareness of IT must be applauded. He points out that the u35 million to be spent over a period of four years only amounts to u9 million a year, which given a national campaign is not a great deal. 'I'm sure it's due or overdue, and depending on how focused it is I'll support it.' He believes the focus needs to be on the older generation of business person, 'old fogies like me', he comments, since children master their computers almost before they master the video.
The need for focus is naturally key to any initiative on this scale, and judging from the initial presentations, that is what it is going to lack.
Rob Wirszycz, director general of the Computing Services and Software Association, has been involved in the planning and believes the focus will be there once the scheme gets going. 'The reason it looks as it does is that it is trying to do an awful lot. The launch itself may have looked misleading because it was the start of something rather than the end of something - it has really focused on small to medium-sized enterprises.'
The difficulty here, as acknowledged by Wirszycz, is that the banner umbrella 'small to medium-sized enterprises' can mean anyone doing anything as long as there aren't many of them. For that reason the initiative is not dedicated to getting people on line, it isn't aimed at promoting EDI, it is about technology in general.
One of the presentations at the launch was about a company using satellite technology for more efficient muck spreading. When compared with the presentation by Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman Animations, you start to appreciate the difficulty of launching an initiative that appeals to everyone.
Another problem highlighted by Wirszycz is that a lot of non-trade and industry matters have been lumped into the DTI over the past few years.
For this reason, there is an element of training budget built into the initiative, which would once have been the province of the Department of Employment, and the R&D component also sits less easily within an awareness campaign than might have been hoped.
There is a nagging feeling that even though the move is well-intentioned and almost certainly needs doing, when asked for specifics on what is actually happening outside a few drop-in centres, the answers are not yet forthcoming. When asked by email whether the 'badge your own initiative with the ISI logo' scheme would carry with it any funding for participants, and if not, how it would avoid looking like the Government simply taking credit for other people's ideas, the DTI's response was along the lines of 'we're working on it, finalising details. We'll let you know.' The impression of the initiative being left in a fog, even six months after its launch, is strong.
But for all its shortcomings it has to be welcomed. The bottom line is that there is a problem with the profile IT has in the UK. Not enough people know about what can be done and how much it costs, and although members of the electorate may regard the Government as semi-trustworthy at best - and this will persist in the event of a change in Government - it's not a party political point. Many will at least accept that any initiative launched from Whitehall is going to be reasonably vendor-independent.
Private initiatives for raising the profile of IT, however well-intentioned, tend to end up with a sales pitch of some sort and this one should not.
The scheme, then, is worthy of support from two angles. From the reseller's point of view, it can only help generate interest in IT, or as the initiative calls it, Information and Communications Technology.
Interestingly, the Government believes the two areas are converging to an extent that there is no longer a need to distinguish between them, and that will eventually translate into more sales. Second, the more altruistic angle, businesses need to compete effectively, often on an international footing, and to do so they need to have access to the same tools as the opposition. If this means investing in more IT, so be it, and if the competition is American they will almost certainly have all the IT installation they want.
It remains to be seen whether u9 million a year is enough, and if an awareness that has failed to generate much awareness after a full six months can really be called a success. Another potential pitfall is the broad-brush approach simply ending up looking too broad for the task at hand, trying to appeal to a satellite-based muck spreader at the same time as a corporate printing service.
But for all that, it is the initiative the industry has been presented with and there are no immediate signs of a substitute emerging. This is the initiative we have, for better or worse, and it's the first general IT initiative of its kind in the 90s. It has to be worth a go.
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