Novell exec draws IT lessons from auto industry

TORONTO – Consumers don’t need to know how their technology devices work, just so long as they do, according to Novell Inc.’s chief technology officer.

In his keynote address at Comdex Canada 2001 on Friday, Carl Ledbetter, of the Orem, Utah-based company, used the rise of automobile as an example of where the Internet and technology are today and where they could go.

To prove his point he recounted the story of asking a team of Novell engineers what technological advancement was the most important in the history of the automobile industry. Being engineers, he said, they answered struts and limited slip differential and fuel injection.

All wrong, according to Ledbetter.

“The most important innovations in the history of the automobile industry were the electric starter, the closed cab, power steering,” he said.

“The answer is not about technology; it’s about sociology. The automobile is successful because it’s no longer something which is used by hobbyists, it’s something that’s used by all of us.”

And that’s the problem plaguing technology and the Internet. To further highlight his point, Ledbetter asked the audience who makes the automatic transmissions for cars and how they work. So why then, he asked, do we need to know things like what the name of the POP3 server is?

“That’s the problem. The real impediment to the usefulness of the Internet, the real barrier that prevents us from having uniform, ubiquitous access to all these technologies is really not how much it costs. We have enough money to do what we need to do,” said Ledbetter.

“You should not have be a mechanic to drive a car anymore more than you should have be a Java programmer to gain access to the Net.”

But just making things simpler won’t be enough. The industry also needs to capture the public’s trust. Ledbetter said laws – and enforceable ones – are needed to keep companies from surreptitiously gathering and using information about people.

“Right now all we have is the assurances of companies who just spied on you for two years saying, ‘Cross my heart, I won’t do it again.’ We have to have something more than that,” he said.

But don’t expect results any time soon and consumers must demand it.

“This is not going to be an easy process. I’m not suggesting that we can do it a by week from Tuesday or that we can legislate it all at once. It will be a series of back and forth steps as we converge on an acceptable set of standards and provisions,” Ledbetter said.

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