$US1 trillion in e-commerce by 2001?

Digital guru Nicholas Negroponte was the second most famous "Digital Man" staying at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here last month, but certainly the most accessible.

Unlike Microsoft chief executive officer Bill Gates, seen in public only at a tightly controlled Hong Kong Telecommunications press conference, Negroponte spoke to an Asia Society dinner crowd of more than 200 and then took questions before rushing out the door to catch his plane.

The Director of The Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Negroponte has become famous for his "atoms vs. bits" view of the changing world order, and for his keen-eyed observations of the digital world, many of which have been missed by its noses-to-the-ground creators.

Perhaps most interestingly to his Asia Society audience, Negroponte observed China "seems to have all of the wrong elements to be digital", but predicted that in spite of itself China would be one of the world's most digital societies within five years. Parents' "extraordinary commitment to education" on the mainland, Negroponte feels, will drive infrastructure development much faster than government activity will.

While saying China does not appear to have the ideal ingredients to be an Internet society, Negroponte singled out one nation - Italy - as perfect for a digital revolution, with its "respect for the small guy," vibrant "underground economy," and "healthy disrespect for authority."

On electronic commerce, Negroponte said, "Every number you have seen in the press on the growth of electronic commerce is wrong. On the low side." Negroponte coolly predicted that the value of e-commerce would pass the $US1 trillion mark by the end of 2000, most of it in business-to-business transactions.

And consumers? Negroponte said his team at MIT is working on a project that would yield the world's first sub-$US10 personal computer. "The cost to consumers of computers today is absolutely artificial," he said, attributing most of the price inflation to the inclusion by manufacturers of "gratuitous software." The cost of computing for the consumer, Negroponte predicted, will decline sharply, mainly because of the bandwidth increases that result from a global shift to packet transmission of data.

Negroponte offered a parting shot to those in both the "bits" (digital) and "atoms" (non-digital) sectors of industry. "If you're not imaginative, you're probably going to be out of business soon," he said.

(De Vido is Director of Content at Communic8, a custom publishing firm in Hong Kong.)

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