IBM sees China as quickly catching up with the West in its readiness to use the Internet for electronic commerce and general business activities. In spite of limits on its telecommunications resources and the government's efforts to restrict access to politically charged Web sites, China is on the cusp of full participation in the Internet revolution, according to Donald Haile, general manager for technical strategy in IBM's software group.
"There's a lot of competence here that will get China equal to the rest of the world very quickly," Haile says.
Electronic commerce will come into its own on the Internet in the next six to 12 months in more developed areas, and China will be ready for those sorts of transactions by the end of that period, Haile says. "In China, the network revolution is progressing at a dramatic pace," he says. "New nodes are popping up like wildflowers."
China had nearly 1 million registered Internet users last year, and perhaps 100 times that many actual users, he says. "By 2000 it is estimated that 60% of cities and counties will be served by digital networks," Haile says.
Shanghai is one of the cities taking the lead in China's entry into the era of distributed networked computing, he says. Long noted as a shipping port, Shanghai is building a network with an ATM backbone for multimedia services that will turn it into an "information port".
The Ministry of Railways, meanwhile, has a large and successful data network, handling electronic waybills and accurate monitoring of arrivals and contents of 500,000 freight wagons and 30,000 locations, he says. And IBM has a project with Xinhua University to develop object-oriented component software for distribution over the Internet.
Haile says that China is fortunate to be turning to widespread computerisation in a time of open standards such as Java, TCP/IP and HTML. "Your timing is lucky. Few enterprises in China are saddled with incompatible systems." But the country's success with the Internet will depend on its success at connecting a large number of people over large backbone networks, and part of that equation is the price of PCs. "The cost for a person to own a personal computer is still high," he says.
Even with limitations of a developing infrastructure, China won't lack for resources. "There's still a huge amount of information available," Haile says.