Sunday, September 01, 2002

Yesterday I promised some thoughts on why the next generation of technology is important for e-government. The latest figures I've seen show that some 29 million people in the UK have surfed the Internet. That's around 1/2 the population, way up on the 1/50th in 1997 (just 5 years ago!) and not that far behind the USA (which is somewhere around 60%). But growth is slowing. Digital TV is in perhaps 7 million homes, that's around 1/3 of the total homes in the country. Mobile phones are owned by as much as 80% of people in the UK. e-government will need to be delivered across all of these channels, inter-changeably, as well as via kiosks, telephone call centres and contact centres and, perhaps most importantly, intermediaries such as Citizen Advice Bureaus and so on. The key word in that preceding paragraph is interchangeably. For the next few years, no-one is going to be able to do all of their business purely via the Internet - and certainly not all of their business with government. Sure, the services will be there ... but people take time to make changes, inertia is hard to overcome and real two way contact will take longer than even some of the pessimistic forecasts think (but faster than those who say "never" of course). There is little available today that lets that true channel hopping for government take place - authentication on a PC is via UserID and password, on a telephone through a few questions, snailmail relies on a signature and so on. The authentication technology for some of these will doubtless merge - it's easy to see the banking model of random characters selected from a password being repeated over the 'phone or tapped in on either a 'phone keypad, a proper keyboard or even on a remote control for a TV. But what this tells us is that the next set of technologies and certainly the one after that will be vital in making some of this happen. What's worrying me right now is that a new technology arrives and forces us to learn a new way of interacting and, much, much worse, forces us to lose a lot of what made the last device inherently personal. So, my 6210 mobile 'phone with its one-touch dialling, list of 500 contacts, personalised ring tones and graphics, preferences etc is gone when i move to a new 'phone - in this case a 7650. Of course, the new 'phone comes with new features and things to learn too - including digital certificates, e-mail and so on. So there are two things for a user to figure out - (1) how to make the new gadget personal again and (2) how to make use of the new features and make them personal too. I'm focused on mobile 'phones now, but this could just as easily be set top boxes - right now, some of them have 28.8kb/s modems in them which is hardly enough to do online anything let alone online government; they're going to need broadband connections, full browser capability, javascript etc. They'll be a time when the set top box is personalised too - favourite channels, local hard disk content etc - and, when they're networked a copy ought to be stored elsewhere ... so that an upgrade can take place simply with preferences carried forward. In a few short months, mobile 'phones will be a part of e-government; potentially a big part. Over that same time period, many of the 80% with mobiles today will be looking to upgrade them, to new models with more features: cameras, multi-media messaging, animations and, maybe, digial certificates that support authenticated transactions with government. The transition to new models needs to be smooth and easy for the consumer ... we can't keep throwing away every previous technology we've made our own for the sake of a few new features. Microsoft learnt this ... if you have to re-install a new version of Windows from scratch every time, you wouldn't upgrade too often; but try changing laptops or desktops ... that's not a lot of fun (and it dissuades me from changing too often). We can't afford for e-government to be for techno-literate. It must be for everyone, because the ones who need it most are the ones who won't know how to twiddle bits, bytes and widgets.

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