CHICAGO (04/24/2000) - Last year, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates delivered the keynote address at Comdex/Spring to a standing-room-only audience. Last week, President Clinton took the podium at the trade show here and spoke to a less-than-capacity crowd.
Clinton made Comdex/ Spring 2000 the final stop on his Digital Divide New Markets tour, urging high-tech companies to help bridge the gap between affluent communities with access to computers and the Internet and those without such access.
"I came here today to ask you to set another trend - to devote more time and technology, more ideas and energy, to closing the digital divide," Clinton said. He said that more than 400 organizations had signed up to participate in the initiative. But among show attendees, his call to action received mixed reviews.
"I don't think the government has any business in this," said Randy Gibson, a systems administration supervisor at software maker Basis International Ltd. in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"The government does not need to step in and provide free Internet connection to everybody when you can pretty much get it for free if you know what you are doing," Gibson said. "The problem is not the rich keeping technology away from the poor, and the government should not come in and tax people for a program that probably won't help anyone anyway."
"There are some challenges ahead, but [Clinton] has clearly defined an agenda, and it will be up to us to execute it," countered Keith Hartley, director of marketing at SteelEye Technology Inc. in Mountain View, California. "The private sector does owe back to the economy and the government to help the government spur new markets. It's not enough to capitalize on the existing markets as the economy changes. We need to work with the public sector."
The president asked information technology companies and professionals to help put computers and Web access into schools, expand internships and deepen talent pools to include more ethnic and gender diversity.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 30% of white Americans and 36% of Asian Americans have Internet access at home, while only 11% of African Americans and 13% of Hispanic Americans have that access.
Clinton couched his pitch in economic terms, arguing that closing the gap would create new businesses and new sources of employees and customers.
But "people vote with their attendance," said analyst Phil Russom at Hurwitz Group Inc. in Framingham, Massachusetts. "The [relative] lack of people there shows a lack of interest. High-tech firms are run by quick, relatively young people. Historically, concern for philanthropy comes at later stages in people's lives."