TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Berners-Lee's web warning

The inventor of the World Wide Web reckons Australia's digital economy risks being left behind as the internet marches into the future.

Technology Spectator

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of what became the World Wide Web, landed on our shores recently and, amid a flurry of keynotes, the web pioneer managed to offer some food for thought on where Australia fits in the future of the internet.
In his opening talk at the launch of CSIRO’s Digital Productivity and Services flagship last week, Berners-Lee gave Australian businesses and governments a clear warning that the country risks being left behind in a changing world.

He wasn’t critical of Australia directly but made it clear that there’s plenty of room for improvement.

In fact, Berners-Lee is a big fan of the National Broadband Network."It’s a wonderful commitment having everyone connected but it’s only a foundation, the fact you have a piece of fibre optic hanging out from the wall is only a start,” he said.

"If you have a look at the web index you can see where Australia ranks, infrastructure is improving but there are many other factors there.”

The Web Index measures a country’s use of the internet and rates Australia high at number eight in the world. However, in terms of economic readiness we are rated 14th, marginally ahead of New Zealand and Japan but behind Singapore, the US and Scandinavian countries.

A 19th Century attitude to tech

Our business sector's poor preparation for the web is evident in how sectors like retail and newspapers were caught wrong-footed by trends that were clear a decade earlier. However, the malaise is a lot deeper than that.

Two years ago bureaucrats at one state government economic development agency were shocked at the responses when they asked business leaders about what they thought the effects of the NBN would be on their operations.

Australian businesses are largely unprepared for the changes of the next decade which is going to see accelerated change as the internet enters a new phase.

Berners-Lee points out the web came along 20 years after the internet was developed and the net was 25 years old when the first dot-com boom happened.

Next year, the web reaches that quarter-century mark and the new HTML 5 standard is expected to unleash a new wave of innovation as the "internet of machines”, where computers and other equipment from jet engines to fridges talk to each other, changes business as dramatically as the world wide web has.

Another key weakness in Australia’s response to the digital economy is our habit of guarding data; Berners-Lee sees this as a mistake as the network effects of sharing data make that information more valuable.

Network effects are best summarised by Bob Metcalfe, one of the inventors of the internet, who explains them in terms of fax machines – the owner of the first fax machine had a pretty impressive desk ornament. The devices only become useful as more people use them.

Overseas governments are realising the value of open data. In the United States, the Obama administration has enacted the Open Government Initiative and over the Atlantic the UK government has set up the Open Data Institute as part of their London Tech City project.

Here in Australia, the New South Wales government has announced a competition to use train tracking data for timetables. While the NSW transport minister deserves credit for making this information available, it speaks volumes that this data has been kept away from the public.

Exporting digital services

Some of Berners-Lee’s thoughts have been further elaborated by Deloitte Consulting in their Tech Trends for 2013 release with Deloitte technology partner Robert Hillard touching on the practical effects on this 19th Century attitude to data and technology.

"Our digital economy is growing,” says Hillard. "But we’ve got less and less of the value added activity.”

"We have a real threat to more and more of our economy as more of this value moves offshore.”

The stated aim of CSIRO’s Digital Productivity and Service Flagship is to help develop a local export industry of digital services. This aim goes back to the Hawke government and begs the question of what have we been doing for the last 30 years.

"It’s a fascinating time to be here, it’s a fascinating time in the world,” says Berners-Lee, and his optimism is understandable. After all Berners-Lee’s pioneering work lies at the heart of the profound transformation we are witnessing.

This transformation brings its challenges but also offers enormous opportunity, provided we are ready to make the connection. Hopefully Australian governments and businesses will take the opportunity to add value beyond raw minerals in this "fascinating time”.