As senior vice president for Oracle's Asia Pacific region, Derek Williams keeps a keen eye on the development of electronic commerce. His message, handed down from Oracle CEO, Larry Ellison: absorb the Internet, change into an e-business - or die. He also helps steer approaches to change by participating in a number of industry and business organisations, including the recent Apec CEO Summit in Auckland. At the Summit, it was Williams who presented the Apec eCommerce Readiness Tool to the heads of participating economies - backing it up with his own, closely aligned 10 Policy Principles for governments. Russell Brown met with Williams at the inaugural Asia-Pacific conference of the Oracle Applications User Group and quizzed him further about e-business trends in both the private and public sector. I caught your panel session at the CEO Summit - would it be accurate to say you have taken on a role of evangelising e-business generally as well as on Oracle's behalf? I guess the answer to that is yes and no. Do I do it positively? Is it something I enjoy doing? Does it need to be done? Yes to all of those. There's also a responsibility on people like you in your business - we're going to be moving into this new world and I think all of us need to keep talking about. What I specifically discussed on the Apec panel was the 10 policy imperatives for governments and it's very interesting the way that's been received. For example, I'm on the board of the Prime Minister's IAP Council - the Multimedia Supercorridor - in Malaysia, where it was well received. I was impressed with the Apec eCommerce Readiness Assessment Tool, which you also presented. I thought the message on telecommunications - curb market dominance by all means necessary - was interesting. I think that gave our government a wee fright. Ha ha that was the concerted view from the CEO Summit, the 200 CEOs who attended, and it's now gone to governments for consideration. The initial response from government where there is a lot of connectivity between business and government on e-commerce - places like Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong - has come back. But in other places just nothing. We'll see. I was also impressed that that document didn't only cover business consequences but social consequences. Yes. I'm involved with a lot of groups - the US-ASEAN Business Council, PEC, and the Apec CEO Summit - and I think the CEO Summit is actually one of the best. With the people we got for that, from all over the world, we do seem to be able to get things done. The one thing I did find ironic was that I could not get anyone's presentations in electronic form. Really? That's interesting. That's the secretariat at fault there. I'll chase that up. I thought the message on telecommunications was particularly interesting in the context of Oracle's vision - where the price and performance of connectivity is one thing that could trip it all up. But if you look around the world you can see that the performance is getting faster, bandwidth is getting bigger, there are competitive elements everywhere - even in India, where we're seeing deregulation coming through. That's unlikely to trip it up in my view. I think a much bigger problem is the human capital problem. The lack of people who can contribute and understand and develop content. Content is going to be critical. So much of the content right now comes from the US. We've got to get more content from Asia-Pacific, otherwise it's going to be the haves and the have-nots all over again. All the traffic's going to be one way. And as that electronic commerce starts to build and build, where's the revenue going? It's all going to the US! It's all very well for the US to talk about having open, free boundariless borders and no taxation because they're on the good side of that equation. But if you're country in Asia, where you don't have the opportunity to get that revenue flowing back into your own country you've got a problem. It comes back to content, entrepreneurial start-up capital, the entrepreneurs themselves. I've seen a dramatic change in the last six months, both in terms of availability of start-up capital. There is more start-up capital available right now than people able to take it up, which is very interesting. Places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan - the money is there and the venture capitalists are there looking for ideas. There's just not enough going on. At the same time the number of .coms springing up in Asia is substantial. I don't know if that's happening to the same extent in New Zealand - my fear is that maybe it isn't. Certainly in Australia we're seeing. What's just starting to happen in New Zealand is the entrepreneurs moving. They're not Internet people, but they seem to be getting it. That's good. We do need to take it further. We've got the Websites - the electronic front-ends - but we need to go right through, to delivery, payment and everything else. That's going to be the next challenge. You do business with a few banks in the region. They don't exactly seem to be leading the way There's a lot happening on bill presentment. There's almost a competition between the telcos, the utilities and the banks in who's going to be able to present the bill. What they'd all like to do is present not just their own bills, but everyone else's - and then they get the 360-degree view of the customer. That's what it's all about. You want to know what the customer's spending habits are. Even in places like the Philippines there's a battle over whether it's going to be a bank that will do this or a telco or utility. And of course there's a couple of really go-ahead banks in the Philippines who are actually already presenting the water charges. That's based on our technology, which is why I know about. In China, because credit cards are not yet very prevalent, there's only half of that happening, which is the bill presentment part, and then conventional methods of payment. How would you characterise the regulatory environment in the Asia Pacific region, in terms of the move to e-commerce? Well there isn't any regulatory stuff in some places. It's down to custom and practice. There's going to have to be some more work done on the use of data and data privacy. Because someone like that bank in the Philippines now has that 360-degree view of each customer - not just what they do with the bank but what they do with their utility charges and their telephone charges and everything else. That's challenging in places. But in general I don't think regulation is going to cause much trouble. How useful is the proactive approach of the Singaporean government? In basically saying, 'this is how e-commerce will happen'? I've lived in Singapore for 15 years, so I'm relatively familiar with the system. The government doesn't actually say 'this is how you will do it'. They will say 'we'll put in a framework, an infrastructure for you to work within, and if you work within the policies and standards and processes, it's just easier'. They make it easy for you if you do that. If you want to go outside that, it's not easy. But they don't actually force people to do as much as people outside the country might perceive. I've had my divisional headquarters in Singapore since 1991, and as far as somewhere to base a regional headquarters, it would be hard to find anywhere better. You've got a government that wants to work with business and tries to make it easy for business. You've got communications as competitive as anywhere in the world, and set to get more competitive as the market deregulates faster. And the third thing is transportation. As a hub, Singapore clearly world-class. Every day you can get everywhere. The main issue - again - is the availability of highly skilled people. They've got a reasonably skilled IT community but it's pretty small. So right now we're finding salaries are rising pretty fast - much faster than Australia or New Zealand. How important do you think is it for governments themselves to be model users of Internet and e-commerce technologies? If you remember what I said at the CEO Summit, it was that you've got to have a catalyst. Now what better catalyst than government? I think it's very, very important. If we're talking about Internet procurement then what could be better than the government itself doing it? Hong Kong, for example, is doing Internet procurement for everything the government buys in Hong Kong. And I think that's just a great catalyst. That's clearly very different to the way New Zealand operates, where that probably won't happen because the New Zealand government tends to keep more of a distance. Given that we're talking about a culturally and politically heterogeneous region, Oracle's emphasis on prompt, comprehensive localisation, and the ability to use Unicode to deliver in a range of languages from a single installation must be a boon to you. Yes. I'm the primary benefactor! Did you have much input into that direction? Yes - so did Europe as well. Obviously they're a big benefactor too. It's been an issue over the years for any software company that you get the US versions first. That's the biggest market, that's where the stuff is developed. The time lag between that and localised versions in more acute in the Internet world where there isn't room for a time lag any more. Everything is happening at the same time and therefore we can't have products available in the US but not for another 12 months in Korea or China. What Unicode will do is not perhaps give us the opportunity to deliver at absolutely the same time, but maybe within a month or so. I presume it's also going to help businesses in Australia or New Zealand looking up into Asia - and vice versa. Of course. Because anybody who is selling software into Asia out of Australia or New Zealand, you've got to be selling locally-translated products. The benefit that we have as a company of having this locallisation and translation stuff embedded in our products is also passed on to our partners. Your current pitch seems to be very much towards existing Oracle customers who want to, as Oracle puts it, "transform into e-businesses". It is at this particular conference. It's the Oracle Applications User Group and it's run by a separate, independent organisation. So we're as much a guest and a delegate here as anyone of our customers. So we're obviously encouraging existing users to take up more products and get into new areas. How big do you anticipate will be the business going the other way - demand from companies that already get the Internet and want enterprise-style robustness? Our appeal I think to start-ups is that we can give them a fairly good stack of technology, which gets them up fast and running. They don't have to worry about the infrastructure, just about running their business. We can get them up and running very fast - which is very important in the Internet world. The vast majority of the substantial players, business-to-business or business-to-consumer, use either the Oracle engine for the database platform or they're using our development tools. We're quite well placed - but of course we bet the farm. Four years ago when Larry [Ellison] came up with this, we all thought he was pretty mad. Client-server was the name of the game and lots of people were still even in character mode. He originally articulated with the concept of the network computer - which was basically a browser front end to a network and a server. Okay, what's happened is that PC prices have tumbled to such an extent that the new network computer is the PC. So from a hardware perspective, the network computer never really took off. But the concept is exactly the same. So since that time, all our new software development has been 100% That was a big call. Because if this wave had not happened, we'd probably be gone. We'd have all the wrong stuff. And frankly, the other software companies could now be just as disenfranchised in the Internet style of computing as the Dunn and Bradstreet mainframe guys were when it went to client-server. All very successful mainframe applications companies who looked at client-server and decided it was Mickey Mouse stuff that was never going to take off. Unless PeopleSoft and SAP and some of the others totally re-engineer their products, they could be in similar trouble. And you can't do it just like that.
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