Prominent CEO panel gives glimpse at the future

A collection of nine technology chief executive officers, including Microsoft Corp.'s Steve Ballmer, offered a cautiously upbeat outlook for the future of the IT industry during a panel discussion at the Business Software Alliance (BSA)'s Global Tech Summit here Wednesday.

The same group on Tuesday met with Cabinet members of President George W. Bush's administration -- including Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, and Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge -- to discuss issues related to information security and the government's outdated technology systems.

The chief executive officers (CEOs) stressed to Cabinet members the importance of the U.S. government acting as a model technology user to other governments, said Bruce Chizen, president and CEO of Adobe Systems Inc. He characterized the government's interdepartmental communication systems as antiquated, noting that many agencies still use microfiche to store archives. "It's time for the government to begin to adopt technologies that businesses (employ) already," Chizen said.

One result of the Tuesday meeting was Commerce Secretary Evans' approval of the Advanced Encryption Standard, an algorithm that the federal government will use to secure digital information, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce press release.

At Wednesday's panel, moderated by television host Charlie Rose, the CEOs agreed that the economic climate has been difficult to navigate, but they have learned to cope with the current conditions.

"There's a consensus that we're bumping along the bottom (of the economy) and it will get better next year," said Carol Bartz, chairman, CEO and president of Autodesk Inc. "I'd like to think that, but it's very fragile. At Autodesk, we're making our own way."

"It's tough, but we've learned to cope by now," echoed Gregory Bentley, CEO of Bentley Systems Inc. Adobe's Chizen said his company is planning for an economy without growth in 2002, "and if it gets better, great."

Microsoft's Ballmer stressed that the IT industry should take a long-term view. "In 10 years we all agree that the industry will be a lot larger than today ... we're here to change the world," he said.

However, Ballmer warned, to continue meeting customers' demands, the software industry can't focus too much on security -- a somewhat unpopular view considering the emphasis placed on protecting digital information following the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. While security is important, software developers must continue to answer customers' needs for better tools and processes, he said.

When asked what impact they thought broadband connections will have on the future of the industry, most panelists offered examples of benefits a high-capacity network can offer, such as improved digital imaging and video transmission. But one CEO argued that the uses for broadband are here today, it's the pricing and availability of the technology that's hampering adoption.

"We're just waiting for bigger pipes, (users of Autodesk's engineering and design software) could take those pipes right now and fill them," Bartz said. "Is the cost right, and can we get (broadband connections) to the house? I'm not worried about a killer app."

The panelists vehemently agreed that software piracy -- which the BSA was formed to help prevent -- continues to be a problem, both overseas and here in the U.S. Bartz lamented the attitude among businesses who "don't feel bad using my product (without paying for it) to make their own profits." Microsoft's Ballmer said that the level of negative reaction the company has received from the registration process required in Windows XP, designed to help prevent piracy, "surprised the heck out of me."

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