ON the threshold of ubiquitous IT

The information world today tends to be characterized by placing the letter “e” in front of words for everything. But this will soon become old-fashioned with ubiquitous computing and mobile communication technologies increasingly permeating every sphere of our lives. A new¬†information society – one that starts with the new buzz letter “u” – already seems to be here, if partially.

Initially promoted by the Japanese government, the concept of a ubiquitous information society (uIS) was recently featured at the World Summit of Information Society (WSIS) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as a new paradigm of Internet development.

The word “ubiquitous” meaning existing everywhere, uIS describes a high-speed broadband-networked IT environment, linking people with people and people with goods and services via applications – from mobile phones and entertainment to car navigation systems and digital homes fitted with information and sensor appliances; and linking goods with goods, with no restrictions on time and space.

In such a system, people are connected to the network through an array of devices, including PCs and electronic tags. One day soon computers will literally disappear into the fabric of our lives and their use will become so intuitive that we’ll hardly notice them. The advance of technologies will enable people to exchange information and transact business anywhere, anytime, unhampered by power lines or devices. Businesses will change the way they distribute and sell goods just as e-commerce does now.

In the foreseeable future, a microwave oven will be able to automatically download a recipe for a particular meal when a user orders the dish. In the wired car, the embedded computer will search and play music from a home-based hard drive, or monitor traffic conditions to find an optimal route to the office. A system using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags will tabulate grocery items in a cart and send the bill to a mobile phone account.

These breakthroughs will drive the engine of societal growth and advanced economies will strive to include ubiquitous computing as a critical component of their national IT strategy. The Japanese government, for one, has invested significantly in the creation of a ubiquitous network environment for future IT development. The Korean government has launched a “u-Korea project” to promote enabling technologies and products in the next six years.

I believe that moving towards uIS is of great importance to Hong Kong. In spite of the considerable development of our IT industry, further progress will be difficult to make without rethinking the IT strategy. A new technological paradigm will foster new industries, such as uCommerce, mobile and wireless applications, digital content and other valued-added services, thereby creating jobs and raising income levels in the IT sector.

Other businesses in the private sector will benefit from the transformation and will be to add value and improve business productivity and efficiency level. They will witness new business opportunities and place Hong Kong in a better position to take advantage of the co-operation with mainland enterprises.

With uIS, eGovernment initiatives will be better deployed and there will be greater transparency to governmental processes and transactions. The quality of life of the citizen will improve.

Hong Kong already has one of the world’s most advanced IT and telecommunications infrastructure, and high penetration of mobile phones and the Internet, and these should naturally support the establishment of a uIS.

For its realization, however, the new IT paradigm requires extensive government participation and commitment to support, direct and fund the dynamics of uIS.

Policy initiatives such as the Digital 21 Strategy will not be enough. Additional financial support, particularly, to R&D in ubiquitous computing technologies and applications would be crucial. The government will also need to invest in the development and sustenance of highly-skilled people capable of making technological breakthroughs happen.

On the side of caution, it is also important to evaluate the impact on our society. Hong Kong is continually exposed to change and is vulnerable to competition. The government will therefore need to rethink strategy and pursue programs that will help us leapfrog the technology and capability levels of our competitors.