Businesses still playing catch-up with Internet infrastructure

TORONTO — The next generation of the Internet is coming, just ask your kids.

Children are the best barometer of change since they’re typically light years ahead of adults when it comes to using the Internet, said John Patrick, vice-president of Internet technology for IBM Corp.

Patrick, also known as IBM’s “chief dreamer,” was in Toronto Thursday for the company’s e-business Breakaway Event. An IBMer since 1967, he helped start leasing business IBM Credit Corp., he was one of the marketing minds behind the Thinkpad brand and now spearheads a taskforce dedicated to the development of the next generation of the Internet.

According to Patrick, e-mail, chat sessions and instant messaging are now more important than the telephone to children. When kids get home from school “they want to get a chat session going with the kids they just got off the bus with.” He reported that 88 per cent of children use e-mail as their primary form of communication.

Advanced online applications are coming and bandwidth is making many of them possible, said Patrick. Increased competition between telcos and ISPs is driving down the cost of broadband access and driving more high-speed Internet into homes.

But Web access is just one application and not the entirety of the Internet, said Patrick. Consider the rise of wireless applications like location-based services built on GPS technology, he argued. Wireless Internet may also be used for applications like airline flight updates, opening or closing your garage door with a cell phone, or even a bluetooth-enabled pacemaker which could deliver valuable information about a heart patient’s condition.

If kids’ habits of today are a window into the future, then many online outfits need to clean up their acts, said Patrick. “There’s a gap forming between what we expect and what we get,” he said, alluding to poor customer service supplied by some online retailers and services. Many companies still operate their sites as if they were brick and mortar, nine-to-five stores and the majority of customer e-mails sent to sites go unanswered, he said.

The majority of businesses are still on the cusp of implementing an e-business infrastructure, said IBM Canada Ltd. president Ed Kilroy, who also spoke at Breakaway. According to Kilroy, 85 per cent of the companies IBM surveyed globally are still in the first stage of deploying their Web-enabled infrastructure.

The fundamentals of business practice haven’t changed in 20 years or more, said Kilroy, but there is need to keep up with technology in the business. “Customer service is still the rallying cry of our organizations. What has changed is infrastructure underneath customer care and daily business operations,” he said referencing developments such as e-procurement, supply chain integration and wireless infrastructure.

Kilroy said Canadian business is lagging behind its American counterparts by not adopting e-integration quickly enough. “We can only blame the weaker dollar for so long.

“I would suggest, to be competitive, at a minimum you have to have access to customers, suppliers, employees via the Web,” he added Kilroy. “If you’re not there . . . you’re not competitive with the vast majority of people in the market.”

It doesn’t make sense to throw out then replace every scrap of existing infrastructure, though. IBM couldn’t afford to replace of its legacy systems, said Kilroy. The company has invested $1 billion in middleware — software that allows disparate platforms to talk to one another.

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