Is America ready for its first BlackBerry president?

Experts say it probably doesn't matter whether the next US president actually uses information technology

The next US president could shape cybersecurity, government research initiatives, intellectual property laws, and wired and wireless communications services in ways that affect both enterprise IT executives and average citizens. Yet some experts say he could handle all this without having Twittered, texted or even used a PC, although his familiarity with information technologies might strongly affect his policies.

Much has been made in the media of a seemingly wide gulf in tech smarts between Republican John McCain, who has described letting his wife handle his computer tasks, and Democrat Barack Obama, who has appeared on video using a BlackBerry while walking down the street.

President George W. Bush has been ridiculed for talking about rumors on "the Internets," but only one other president has even been in office in the age of the Web, laptops and ubiquitous cell phones. The expectation that a president "gets it" regarding IT is a fairly new one. Yet whatever the result of the November election, cutting-edge technology seems to be entering the realm of elected officials for good.

About half the members of the US Senate use BlackBerry devices, estimates Louis Libin, CEO of unified communications vendor PhoneFusion, who has set up the networks for the past five Democratic and Republican nominating conventions. Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and McCain rival, gave every member of his campaign team a BlackBerry and carried one himself, according to David Palmer, a senior consultant and technical architect at Molecular, a digital marketing company that handled Romney's Web site. On Monday, Obama announced via the microblogging site Twitter that he would alert his supporters via text message immediately after he chose his running mate for vice president.

Several observers in the IT industry and scholars who study the intersection of technology and policy say it will be important for future presidents to grasp IT issues.

"To the extent that we think the Internet economy ... is a major source of value-creating activity in the US economy and a major source of social experience for lots of Americans, it seems to me really critical that the president understand what that's about," said Steven Weber, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley.

Some believe IT issues are so central that they should guide the choice of a chief executive.

"The president should come from a technology background and understand technology at a high level," said Avi Silberschatz, chairman of the Computer Science Department at Yale University. "It would be good if the person at the helm of the country had an appreciation of the changes taking place as we speak." One critical issue is spending on research and development, which has fallen in the past 10 years, leaving the US trailing other countries, he said.

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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