Coonan talks up Aussie software at IT congress

Despite a trade deficit in the order of $770 million, ICT minister Senator Helen Coonan did her best to trumpet Australia's software industry at the fifteenth world congress in information technology in Texas yesterday.

Coonan told the delegation Australia has developed "high-end expertise" in numerous industry sectors, particularly resources.

"Some 60 percent of the world's mining industry software comes from Australia," Coonan said. "Also, to mention a Texas example, an Australian firm, Visean, has just opened an office in Houston. Visean provides real-time data management and visualization solutions for the geoscience and engineering segment of [the] offshore oil and gas industry."

Visean counts global players like Shell, BP, Total, and BHP among its customer and is now developing a strategic partnership with Texas-based oil services company Weatherford.

Coonan also made mention of Medtamic, a provider of clinical information systems to the healthcare industry.

"[Medtamic's] systems are now installed in more than 50 sites worldwide, including North American hospitals in Stanford, Yale, and Chicago," she said, adding the company is also looking to expand into Texas.

Both Visean and Medtamic have received assistance under the Australian Government's $122 million ICT Incubators program, which Coonan administers. This provides capital, mentoring and administrative support for emerging start-ups.

Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Economic Studies (CSES) software industry report for 2004 concluded Australia's trade deficit for software products was $444 million and for royalties and fees was $325 million, making a total of $769 million.

CSES Fellow, Professor John Houghton is compiling the ACS ICT Trade Update report for 2005, but said it won't be available until mid-June.

"There are lots of caveats to keep in mind," Houghton said. "The gold master problem - where a firm imports a master and copies it here - is significant, as is software sold pre-installed on computers, and so the numbers tend to understate imports by quite a bit."

Houghton praised Coonan's efforts to raise the profile of Australian software, but believes the capabilities of local vendors is undervalued domestically. "People buy American rather than local, [so] a little bit more encouragement locally would be a big help," he said. "It's hard to go from nothing to exporting to Washington."

Coonan made specific mention of the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as a catalyst for local companies to sell into the US.

"[The FTA] has created many more opportunities in the ICT area for both countries," she said. "Two recent examples are HarvestRoad based in Perth, and Tower Software based in Canberra. HarvestRoad is an e-learning software developer that has been selected in a $40 million education purchasing tender [and] Tower software has signed an agreement for more than $45 million over five years with the US Department of Defense for its TRIM Context business information system."

Coonan did not address concerns from the open source community that the FTA may result in local software companies being subjected to draconian US intellectual property laws, but did drum up Australia's investment potential.

"There are many more Australian companies bidding for work here [in the US] and taking advantage of the recently-signed [FTA] between our two countries," she said. "Australia is a great place to invest. The Free Trade Agreement and the work the government is doing to continue building our ICT environment are only part of why Australia is a great place to invest."

Professor Houghton said the harmonizing of US and Australian intellectual property laws is the "least understood and most dangerous" aspect of the FTA, but a lot of companies are being pursued with speculative suits because their company has money.

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