New California dreaming

Those people who can still afford to travel overseas on our insipid Aussie dollar soon discover that our cultural icons - meat pies, Coke and The Footy Show - aren't necessarily shared by other countries. Yes, Virginia, there are still cultural differences in this small, wired world. While we wait for the rest of the world to hurry up and learn English, here is a potted summary of the different approaches and successes that a few countries have taken to computerise their futures.

SCANDINAVIA Pony trekking, camping, watching TV - Scandinavia has it all. Plus, an addiction to the Net: Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Denmark have four of the top five spots for per capita Internet usage in the world, according to the Computer Industry Almanac. The frozen north is also embracing high-tech business at speed, and has even been labelled "the new California" (surely one of them is enough).

IRELAND When I was in the Emerald Isle, a local described his fellow country-folk as akin to the Mexicans. He was saying that the Irish are not as driven as other cultures to pile up the dollars: they value family and friends and just sitting around, waiting for another day of the same. But this image was blown apart by the Celtic Tiger economy of the 1990s. Fuelled by investment from Intel and other name IT players attracted by low corporate tax rates, and encouraged by European Union funds, Ireland became second only to the US in software exports and is on track to becoming the European Union's wealthiest member. The Wealth Report 2000 commissioned by Bank of Ireland Private Banking claims that within a decade, the Irish GDP will surpass all EU states and the US.

USA Faced with the post-WWII manufacturing miracle of Japan, the Americans have met the challenge to become the undisputed technology leaders of the world. If they didn't invent the Web, then they certainly got to work milking it. They have the highest online population, and IDC (International Data Corporation) predicts they will lead the rest of the world in e-commerce turnover for years to come. But the Yanks won't always be leaders - the largest online population title is likely to fall to Asia Pacific (that includes us) by 2003, according to the Computer Industry Almanac, and Asia Pacific and Europe will continue to lead the US in wireless Net usage.

CANADA The Canucks have a reputation as being risk-averse, which might be traced back to a massive Scottish immigration, but now they are charging into the new economy. The Canadians are the highest per capita users of the Internet in the world, and IDC predicts that Canadian e-business will grow 75 per cent by 2004, higher than the 68 per cent growth predicted for the Yanks. Furthermore, Revolution magazine reports the Canadian Government has decided to pay $593 per household toward the cost of a new PC and Net access.

UK Maybe it's symptomatic of the age-old animosity with Europe, but the United Kingdom has been very slow to embrace the Net and its wares. Lumbered with timed local call costs, the Brits understandably avoided the Net. Now, plans are in place to make the UK the new Scandinavia .

Jupiter MMX research says there has been phenomenal growth in home Net usage, a rise from 1 million to 13.5 million in only six months. The UK Government wants universal access to the Internet by 2005, with schemes that include computers for low-income families at low rent; wiring up schools and public libraries; and IT "taster" courses for the unemployed. And British Telecom is aiming to be the first telco in the world to have a 3G mobile phone network running this year, and half of its wired network has been converted to DSL.

OSTRAYA I've lost track of the number of times some suited product manager at a PC/notebook/printer/toaster launch has jumped up and referred to Australians as technology "early adopters", as though this somehow assured that the product would sell bucket-loads and, ipso facto, a smart economy for all was assured.

The OECD's Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2000 report reveals that - surprise, surprise - the US spent $US250 billion on R&D in 1999, 25 per cent of OECD expenditure in this area. The same report ranks Australia at the bottom of 18 Western nations in the size of its IT and comms sector. We're not techno-morons, but neither should we perpetuate the digital equivalent of riding on the sheep's back. If we want a technology-enabled economy - and our trading partners certainly want one - we'll need to make the necessary infrastructure decisions.

On the bright side, one of this country's greatest assets in a world of global communications is our multicultural society. You could drop an IT support centre into Sydney and have no trouble filling it with workers who speak two or three languages. Not everyone in the world speaks American.

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