If Microsoft's billionaire founder Bill Gates has his way, we'll soon all be glued to our computer screens conducting business on the Information Superhighway. Gates was in London recently extolling the wonders of the highway, on which he is spending more than $100 million a year. Citing applications such as electronic mail and video conferencing (he's an intensive user of e-mail himself), Gates insists that the miracle technology is about to catch on among business users. 'Video-conferencing will become very commonplace during the next two or three years,' he predicts, 'just as fax took off.' UK companies are not so sure. At a seminar on multimedia, Peter Russell, human resources director of Computervision, argued that 'People don't just want eyeball contact, which a video-conferencing system can give them. Their identity and self-esteem is based on where they work.' Organisations haven't begun to wrestle with the social and psychological challenges of linking remote workers in a virtual electronic world, Russell reckons. 'We don't really know how to operate in the extended enterprise - we haven't worked out a mechanism to keep people together.' Even electronic mail can be more a hindrance than a help, according to Dan Bernard, systems and logistics director at Woolworths, who told the seminar that 'a paperless office is about as useless as a paperless bathroom'. It's easy to get enthusiastic about what the technology can do in theory, Bernard argues. Actual usage will depend on what is economically possible, and on where the technology naturally fits.
Gates's strategy is based on his confidence in a massive consumer market. 'Microsoft's investment only makes sense if the information highway is rolled out not only for business but for homes,' he says. But UK consumers look like being every bit as resistant as business users. Take the pilot on-line electronic ordering system for music tapes and CDs at Woolworths. Customers in 20 selected stores can use terminals to dial up a catalogue of 140,000 titles, browse, listen to recordings, and make their choice at the press of a button. Once orders are placed, the disks or tapes are posted to the customer's home within a few days. However, Woolworths also has a simple telephone ordering facility and a third option allows them to use a conventional catalogue and fill in a form. The telephone ordering facility is far the most popular, reports Bernard.
Of course not all customers are technophobes - the on-line system goes down better with teenagers than with their elders. But Bernard reckons there is still a long way to go in developing user-friendly software: 'We've got a lot to learn in terms of making systems intuitive, so that people can find out what they really want to know.' Most UK companies believe the Gates vision will eventually come to pass, however. The big question is When? Those taking part in the multimedia seminar thought that half the homes in Britain might have direct access to the highway by 2007. 'But it is never likely to get beyond 65%,' in the opinion of Rob Norman, managing director of CIA Medianetwork. Meanwhile, trail blazers are hard to spot. Potential players appear more keen to avoid wasting millions developing the wrong kind of electronic vehicle than to make a fortune by being first on the information highway.