Yes, Minister

David Cunliffe makes some good points, although IT is no iPod, says Stephen Bell

The New Zealand ICT industry is to some extent still struggling back out of the doldrums to a decent profit. Is it fair, in this fragile condition, to be asked to turn around an entire country; to interest the whole population in technology-mediated efficiency gain for the sake of the national good?

This is what IT Minister David Cunliffe effectively asked the industry to do earlier this month. Local ICT companies, he suggests, look to short-term financial advantage in reselling “packaged applications” from overseas. We assault New Zealand’s businesses with “geek-speak”, he says, and fail to talk the language of local business.

He accuses some of us of pitching facile sales messages, not delivering, and thus spoiling the opportunity for those who follow.

We should be producing technology with local relevance, technology that interests Pacific Islanders, and other minorities, he says. And it should all work with the push of a button like the iPod does; the poor businessperson and IT consumer should not have to learn too much to be able to use our product.

There was even an impression of being asked to do some of the Government’s work for it. “What are you prepared to do to make the aspirational vision of the [Government's digital] strategy — that is ‘for New Zealand to be a world leader in using information technology to realise the economic, social, environmental and cultural goals of all its people’ — a reality?” Cunliffe asked.

Granted, we all have a responsibility to ensure this nation runs smoothly, and I’m convinced that an e-democracy infrastructure can do it a lot of good. But will having the facility to type a Parliamentary submission or tax return into our home PC bring greater participation? Is it only the difficulty of obtaining or using a PC that prevents this from happening, or do we need a shift in attitude?

It’s surely not that hard to work email or a basic word processor, as email's popularity proves. Encouraging input from Maori or Niueans is surely a challenge for government. Polynesian instruction manuals for computers are only a small part of the battle.

We must take the challenge on board, though; it is to our own long-term benefit to maximise our customer and partner base.

Cunliffe also challenged ICT on its interface with business. The gulf here perhaps starts with the distinction between the puzzle and the game. ICT sees its challenges as puzzles; exercises in figuring out an “answer” to a problem on a relatively stable base. Business is a game of responding to ever-changing circumstances and the strategies of constantly shifting opponents.

Hope for a more game-like view of ICT could lie in the “agile” style of development; but paradoxically that’s considered out on the wild edge and even more difficult for businesspeople to understand.

IT is no iPod. The needs of the music consumer are simple and standard; the needs of business are not.

Paradoxically, alongside asking us to make ICT systems plug-and-play, Cunliffe asks for them to have locally relevant tweaks. Plug-and-play environments were reached with a great deal of work (and geek-speak) on an international scale. “Best practice” has been evolved in that environment. As consultant Ian Mitchell warns, by diverging from that “best” we risk producing no more than a “wart” — a very visible difference with no practical utility. The iPod and the like succeed by persuading the local market to bend to a uniform international style, not by being locally relevant.

The battle of international standards versus “national identity” takes us into much larger social and political questions, where we had better not go. The Minister has some good points (even if he had to drag out the tired old phrase “the knowledge wave”). Let’s take them on board — with an appropriate degree of moderation and realism.

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