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Australia: The Networked Nation

Talk to the ACS North Queensland Chapter - AGM

by Tom Worthington, President of the Australian Computer Society

Wednesday, 7 February 1996 - Audio/visual room of the Townsville Grammar School

Draft of: 4 February 1996


Photograph of Tom Worthington by Heide 
Smith Tom Worthington, President of the Australian Computer Society provides a "future history" of information technology in Australia in the year 2005 (after warning of the limitations of such predictions): The Internet will become dominant for communications. Wireless connections will replace Pay TV cable to homes. PCs will be replaced by cheap disposable calculator like devices, downloading data and programs from the Internet. Net regulation will influence election outcomes. Big companies will be replaced by small networked businesses of teleworkers. Australia will dominate the world information economy, in partnership with Asia.


First I would like to thank the North Queensland Chapter for the opportunity to talk to you today. This is my second visit to Townsville. The first time I came in the back of a C-130 military transport and had a tour of the city in the undertakers van. This visit may be a little more conventional.

What future is possible for Australia through information technology?

Has anyone every asked you that question before? Or have you had a whole lot of people from somewhere else tell you what our future is?

There is some part of human nature which makes someone from somewhere else more of an expert than the person next door. At the Defence Department in Canberra we get a regular stream of visiting experts ready to tell us the future. Many of these people are experts, know their subject, know our abilities and know the limitations of predictions in the volatile IT business.

Other so called "experts" arrive from a world tour and present a barely credible string of hype, to what they hope is a gullible audience. One noted international figure held up a device and said this was what a home delivery fast food company in his country had developed to beat the competition. They said, if you pressed a button on the side and it ordered you fast food by wireless modem.

I was amazed that the technology had developed so far, until I noticed what they were holding up was the remote control for a slide projector. When I politely asked how a slide projector remote control ordered fast food, they explained that he had been speaking hypothetically: the products described didn't exist, but were coming "real soon now": trust me. There must be still gullible Australian senior executives pressing the buttons on their remote controls and wondering why no food has been delivered. ;-)

My message to you today is that, as members of the Australian Computer Society and IT professionals, you know as much about the future as these world experts. You can help shape that future. All it takes is a little confidence.

Given I have just told you not to believe visitors giving technological futures, let this visitor from far Canberra, give you some futures.

2005: look, no wires!

Imagine it is now the year 2005: The Australian telecommunications industry was partially deregulated in 1997 (by whichever party won the 1996 Federal election). Telstra and Optus have installed a lot of cable for Pay TV to a lot of homes in Australia. There is a healthy third party market selling add on modems to for digital two way capability to Telstra and Optus's obsolete analogue copper cable delivery system.

Medium and large business have high bandwidth digital fibre optic cabling. But only a few lucky people have fibre optic cabling at home. Despite the cargo-cult "vision" of the ALP at the 1993 federal election to provide optical fibre direct to each household, it proved uneconomic.

The deregulation of telecommunications in Australia in 1997 coincided with the availability of a bewildering assortment of alternatives to copper coaxial cable for data to the home. Telstra had some success with ADSL; adding sophisticated processing boxes to each end of old fashioned twisted pair phone cable, to provide a useable digital service.

Several new companies set up terrestrial cellular wireless services, using technology similar to that for 1996 vintage mobile phones. However today's wireless services have enough capacity to provide digital video to every home and are cheap enough to make cable non-competitive.

There were some early problems with new phone companies connecting antennas for the wireless service to any pole, tree or building in a neighbourhood. However, after the introduction of telecommunications plans by local councils in 1998, as proposed by the ACS, as long ago as 1992, an orderly arrangement was put in place.

An assortment of low, medium and high orbit satellites provide direct data connections. The satellite services are less popular in city areas, due to the higher charges and the larger antennas (bigger than a cigarette packet) needed.

1998: the year my PC broke

A few people still use personal computers, but mostly as antique furniture. With the availability of low cost networking, the need for each person to have a stand-alone computer was removed around 1998. Low cost, almost disposable terminals are in common use. These have enough processing power (equivalent to about four 1996 era Intel Pentium processors) and memory (64 megabytes) to hold the data the user needs immediately.

Long term storage of information on an unreliable, breakable, stealable desk-top or portable computer would be considered eccentric today. Data is stored safely on servers, either owned by the employee's company or a contracted service provider. Data is downloaded as required over the network.

Personal Access Display Devices (PADDs) are the 1998 equivalent of the disposable pocket calculator and the successor to the primitive Personal Digital Assistants, notebook PCs, radio pagers and mobile phones of 1996. PADDs range in size from a large brooch to an A4 clipboard. People own several units. Small PADDs, the size of pocket calculators are cheap and are really disposable. You can borrow someone else's PADD, enter your security codes and download your information from the 'net.

Larger PADDs are about the size of 1996's sub-notebook computers (the dimensions of a B5 sheet of paper, by 1 cm thick). PADDs usually have a touch sensitive screen covering the whole upper surface, which is also a high resolution (2000 x 2000 pixel by 16 million colour) screen. All PADDs have video and audio built in and can operate as what a 1996 person would know as a mobile phone, radio, TV and video cam-corder. Smaller PADDs are used as digital keys and TV remote controls, as well as mobile phones. PADDs aren't likely to get smaller, as they would be too difficult see and to operate.

Extensive research was carried out on the appropriate size for computers in the late 1990s. It was found that the best sizes matched remarkably the size of: a match book, match box, cigarette packet, A5 note book and A4 clipboard. This was based on analysis of human eye acuity and hand geometry.

Variations on pen based writing and voice input were tried for PADDs, but it was found that just a finger pressing buttons displayed on a touch sensitive screen were enough. Most people's writing wasn't good enough for pen input (and they usually just need to select from a few menu options anyway). Voice input works well, but was disruptive in a group and people were too self conscious to talk to a lump of plastic on their own. The QWERTY keyboard, in its virtual form is still in use for data entry.

The name PADD comes from the devices envisioned in the 1990's Star Trek Next Generation TV series. While there are a lot of computers built into home and office equipment, the PADD is about the only visible sign of this. People found they really didn't want talking toasters with complicated control panels.

For intensive work many people use virtual reality, with a headset and data gloves. These work on the same principle as those in 1990s video games. The headsets are now small enough to be built unobtrusively into a set of sunglasses. The data gloves are now a remote sensing panel placed near the operators hands. However it is considered bad manners to wear your headset and gloves in a social setting (much like mobile phone etiquette of the 1990s).

The most popular interface for PADDs is Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) version 23. VRML provides a 3D visual representation of data and controls.

Windows'2005 a System Oddity

Like the Cold War of the 1960s, the PC operating systems wars of the 1990s seem a quaint oddity in 2005. No one really cares too much if their PADD runs Microsoft's new Windows'2005 operating system or IBM's OS/2005. Many people prefer the free Linux/2005 (which won its inventor the Nobel prize in 1999).

PADDs contain only a minimal operating system in their permanent memory. Programs, as well as data, are downloaded from the network as required. Programs use the "Boiling Lava" programming language (also known as Java Version 16), which started the trend to processor independent, down-loadable applications programs in 1996.

The 'net: chaos as usual

The PADDs are connected by wireless link to the 'net. The 'net of 2005 is much like the Internet of 1996, just bigger. Predictions of its demise or replacement by a more coherent network were wrong. The Internet expanded, with various transmission technologies and protocols added.

Regulations exist for controlling what is transmitted, but are only enforceable for serious crimes. Net citizens don't like the potential power the government would have it could achieve real regulation. Citizens guard their right to privacy. In practice this is achieved by the always improving data encryption algorithms developed by the non-profit Zimmermann privacy foundation.

Politicians have learnt to be careful about heavy handed attempts at net regulation. Several lost their seats in the 1996 federal election after running a 'computer porn' scare campaign. The "Internet Party", which started out as a joke at a pub in 1996, became a real political force and held the balance of power in the Senate from 1996 to 1999.

When telecommunications was deregulated in 1997 the "telephone" business evaporated. As anyone could start a telecommunications company and no one could enforce different tariffs for voice and non-voice data, the only product became "data". Competition from Internet voice applications destroyed the long distance monopoly the telcos had enjoyed.

Job, which job?

While big office building still exist (its expensive to knock them down), there are few big companies in them. With cheap communications there are few reasons to go to a big building a long way away to talk to someone.

Most office work is now done at local CyberCafes. Some of these still serve coffee (which is where the name comes from), but most just continue to provide the most advanced communications technology (outside a research lab) in a comfortable environment, which made them so popular in 1997.

Most people look a bit confused if you ask them which company they work for. People work in small (usually 6 person) groups, on units of work from other groups. While not yet banned, organisations of more than thirty people are not common, as they provide no efficiency benefits and less job satisfaction.

Liveable cities and countryside

Australian cities look much the same as they did in 1996. Governments stopped building new city freeways and airports in 1998, as there was less need for travel to work and less justification for the environmental problems caused. People walk or bicycle to their local neighbourhood cybercafe.

There has been some move back to the country. The routine invoices and paperwork which made up most paper mail in 1996, were mostly e-mail by 1998. It is feasible for "information workers", who are now the major part of the economy, to tele-commute from small towns. However country people still complain telecommunications costs are higher than in the city.

Most business is done on the net and so can be done wherever you are. The use of Web based transactions saw a move a way from the use of banks for "banking" in 1997 and the creation of thousands of new financial institutions. The Federal Government's 1996 proposal to use one single supplier for Government electronic commerce was quietly abandoned within months, as hundreds of companies opened business on-line using Web standard transactions. Farmers were early enthusiastic adopters of electronic commerce, selling their produce on-line and keeping a close eye on world markets. Even the smallest one and two person farms and businesses were able to participate by forming co-operatives to undertake electronic commerce.

Australia: Networked Nation

Some time in 1998 Australia started to pull away from the other developed nations in economic output (as well as environmental and quality of life indicators). In conjunction with emerging nations of the Asian region, Australia came to dominate the post-industrial world.

Of the many theories advanced for this, the most popular is the "cafe lead recovery": because the advent of networking and cheap computing required a looser management style, this suited the Australian lifestyle. Also it is thought that Australia's sudden love affair with the cafe (many of which then became cyber-cafes), helped.

Australia's highly educated multi-cultural work-force was able to form trading partnerships with the emerging economies of Asia. Australia's IT professionals, under the leadership of the Australian Computer Society, was able to work with their Asian counterparts better than those of the declining economies of USA and Europe.

Australia was one of the first nations to implement a multi-language policy for its Government on-line services. The Web made the provision of all Government information in multiple languages simple. Businesses quickly adopted this practice. As a result many citizens of other nations were able to get more and better information from Australian on-line services, than those of their traditional trading partners, resulting in new sources of business for Australia. Europe created several huge government funded projects in a desperate attempt to advance its InfoBahn industries. However these projects produced mountains of reports about the "information society" and little of value. The USA completely deregulated all R&D, destroying the institutions which had produced the Internet.

In contrast Australia continued its policy of mixed Government and private funding for research. This was more through a lack of anyone in Government with a plan, than foresight. In any case it produced a wealth of new ideas, which could be quickly turned into products.

Many of Asia's IT professionals were trained in Australian universities (real and virtual). They used ACS certification and training material. ACS conferences, starting with the 14th World Computer Congress in Canberra, September 1996 and followed up with the South East Asia Regional Computer Confederation conference in Darwin 1998, provided an informal environment for new international IT business people to meet.

The Australian component of the Internet was expanded northward, forming a high quality network for the region. This was done despite the protests of regional and Australian telecommunications companies, with grudging support by Government and using a loose consortium of Universities, much like the original AARnet.

How much is real?

Okay that was a slightly tongue-in-cheek fictional future. But how much is real?

The current government is planning to deregulate the Australian telecommunications industry in 1997. However it is not clear exactly what form this will take or if the needed technology to overcome "natural monopolies", such as limited space to run cables, can be overcome.

PADDs are just about technically possible now. I use a notebook PC which is about B5 size (but 2cm thick). I carry with me a pocket modem and transfer data to and from remote systems. The wireless modem in an affordable, practical size and speed is perhaps a year or so away.

Most of my work for the ACS is organised via the Internet.

Cafes currently have more expresso machines than computers, but that is changing. I do a lot of work in cafes (including preparing this). While in Sydney a few days ago I dropped my notebook PC. While repairs were underway I went to Well Connected, the nearest cybercafe and used their Internet connection to prepare some urgent work.

An increasing part of my full time job at the Defence Department is now done on-line. In January Defence announced that it was providing an information service for industry via the Internet. Other Government agencies have similar initiatives and our private enterprise colleagues are following close behind.

There are proposals for net regulation and some bar talk of Internet political parties. However the only Internet literate candidate I am aware of for the federal election is Kate Lundy, an ALP Senate candidate. I interviewed Kate last year about her work on community Internet use in Canberra.

There has been a project announced by the Federal Government to encourage rural use of the Internet. However the proposal is to use the US based Microsoft Network, rather than Australian based Internet service providers. This is something the Federal Government may change before it loses them some votes.

There is a very real potential for Australia to do well economically in the post-industrial world, in conjunction with the countries of our region. Our current Prime Minister is particularly keen on this, as indicated by his Singapore speech on 17 January.

We really are hosting SEARCC'98 in Darwin in 1998. Details will be available via the Internet and paper publications, in the coming months.

In September 1996 we really are hosting the 14th World Computer Congress in Canberra. It's just down the road from my office at the Department of Defence. Please join in. If you can't come to Canberra, you can join me in the on-line activities.

Tom Worthington MACS

G.P.O. Box 446, Canberra A.C.T. 2601, Australia
Telephone: (06) 247 4830, Fax: (06) 249 6419, E-mail:


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About the ACS

The Australian Computer Society is the professional association in Australia for those in the computing and information technology fields. It was established in 1966. The Society has over 15,000 members and on a per capita basis is one of the largest computer societies in the world.

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