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Thu 11 Jan 2007 10:15 AM

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A man for all time zones

Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel, is a prolific traveller as he seeks to spread the word about the benefits of digital technology. We caught up with him as he touches down in the Middle East.

Craig Barrett, one of the most famous names in the IT industry, is not a man to be surprised easily. However, during our interview, even he admits to being taken aback at quite how much Dubai’s landscape has changed since his last visit. Gazing out the window of a hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, he observes casually that it is “like seeing the growth of Singapore, just in a fraction of the time”.

Praise from Barrett is high praise indeed; his role as chairman of Intel sees him do more globetrotting than a basketball team from Harlem. Since relinquishing his duties as Intel’s CEO and taking on the role of its chairman — “being kicked upstairs” as he terms it — Barrett has become the champion of not just the firm’s World Ahead programme but also chairman of a UN committee for global ICT development. Countries visited in the past few months include Brazil, China and India, with his Middle East and Africa tour including on its itinerary as South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.

While readily admitting to being impressed with Dubai’s skyline, Barrett could be said to have his sights set even higher. A key part of his work now is promoting the growth of what he terms the “next one billion” internet users; helping those people in emerging nations who do not currently have online access to get connected and so help development in such areas as education, healthcare, economic development and electronic governance.

Those next one billion are unlikely to be found in skyscrapers, Barrett acknowledges. “It is pretty clear that those next one billion users will not be city dwellers, they will be people in the countryside and people in relatively underdeveloped parts of the world,” he says. “Later this week I’ll be at a small village in Egypt along the Nile, where we’ll be doing precisely the same thing, bringing connectivity, computers, showing how the internet can be useful to people in agrarian environments, people out of the city.”

The “small village” in question later turns out to be the city of Oseem, which has a population of 200,000; however it lacks many of the technology facilities that city-dwellers elsewhere take for granted, with many of its inhabitants remote from medical services and doctors. Intel has been working to build a “digital community” in Oseem, providing a WiMax infrastructure for the city, and has also set up network connections for local schools and provided support for a mobile health centre.

Such development is encouraging, but Barrett wants to see more done here in the Middle East.

While the region has made strong progress in some areas of technology adoption, Barrett argues it is still lagging behind the “developed” world – and needs to close the gap. “There has been some progress made but there is still a long way to go,” he says. “The IT penetration, number of internet subscribers and [numbers for] broadband connectivity are all still relatively low by world standards.”

However, Barrett sees some more encouraging signs of technology adoption. “There has been a lot of progress made in the education sectors, we’re starting to see WiMax rolled out in trials, we’re seeing an increase in computer usage and sales,” he says.

Especially encouraging, Barrett believes, is the increasing amount of content being made available in Arabic “which is clearly of value to this part of the world”. “So there is progress being made but there is a long way to go yet,” he states.

Countries in the region that have done well on their technology adoption include the more advanced economies of the UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia. In the latter, the oil and gas industry is a strong technology adopter, Barrett points out.

One — perhaps surprising — area where Barrett sees encouraging adoption of technology is Iraq. “Surprisingly, with all the problems that Iraq has, probably the one thing that you see in Iraq that is probably a vast improvement on what they had before is wireless technology,” he says.

Intel had acted in “a consultative standpoint” for a large number of the 200-plus WiMax trials that have taken place in Iraq and has also acted as technical advisor for 40 or 50 commercial implementations that have been rolled out in the country.

Barrett is also keen to see another warn-torn country deploy technology more effectively: Lebanon. Along with other senior industry figures – Cisco CEO John Chambers, Ghafari chairman Yousif Ghafari, and Occidental Petroleum president and CEO Ray Irani – he has set up a fund to promote development in Lebanon and help the country recover from last year’s hostilities.

Intel has put its own chips on the table, with an investment of up to US$15million, but the aim of the scheme goes beyond just funnelling in cash. “What we’re trying to do is a variety of things, raise some money to put into Lebanon; but perhaps more important than raising money is we’re trying to impact the educational environment, the connectivity environment, the environment to create jobs for Lebanese graduates,” Barrett says. “We’re trying to promote entrepreneurship, venture capital investments, opportunities for Lebanon’s citizens to stay in the country and to rebuild Lebanon from the bottom up.”

While Barrett’s work on behalf of Lebanon is laudable, of course his — and Intel’s — interest in helping to develop emerging markets is not entirely altruistic. Barrett acknowledges that fact quite frankly: “I think most people project the majority of growth in our industry is going to be in these emerging markets going forward,” he states. “The excitement about that is that it does make the world a much bigger place to visit because you don’t just go to London and Tokyo, but you go to the bigger Chinese cities and then the smaller cities as well, and similarly in India and the rest of South East Asia, and Africa, so a lot more places to visit and drop by.”

It is not just the chance to rack up a few more air miles that is keeping Barrett enthused, he talks excitedly about the potential that broadband wireless technology can bring. “That will probably bring some degree of different form factors for small devices, where you’re talking about what I would call mobile PCs, not laptops but smaller screen handheld devices that have full internet PC feature capability,” he says.

Another area that Barrett claims to be very excited about is the digital home; “not just using computer capability for personal productivity but putting it into the entertainment space” he says, a business that he describes as “incredibly exciting”.

However, the market reaction to Intel’s much-hyped Viiv platform initiative could be described as luke-warm at best; while the Centrino platform launch was seen as a great success, consumers seem less keen on buying into Viiv. Does he not worry that others do not seem to share his excitement?

“Well, Viiv is very early on in its lifecycle at this stage,” Barrett answers. “Six months after we introduced Centrino and went around the world and asked people what is Centrino, I can tell you exactly what the answer was because we did that and nobody had a clue; unless you happened to be at the launch or bought one. So it takes a while to establish these brands and to get the user capability out.

“But the same brand promise that went with Centrino, which was ‘you buy this laptop and its more or less guaranteed by Intel’ we’re making the same sort of brand promise with Viiv: ‘put this in your living room and here is the content which we have arranged to be targeted towards it, put your own personal content on it and it should play without any problems’. And that I think is what the consumer is really interested in,” he claims.

Another area where Barrett believes Intel can make great progress is the healthcare sector – a business that is “hugely underdeveloped” he argues.

So going forward, Barrett has great optimism for the future, but he does admit to some regrets in his time.

“The traumatic event that happened while I was CEO was clearly the dot.com bubble [burst] that happened back in the year 2000 timeframe,” he says. “So if you had the opportunity to work on hindsight you would have anticipated that and done something about it then. None of us did and our part of the industry went into a reasonably deep recession associated with that.”

“I certainly wouldn’t have changed the investment pattern that we made after the dot.com implosion where we continued to invest in R&D and manufacturing, and took the attitude that you couldn’t save your way out of a recession, you had to invest your way out. I still think that was the right thing to do, but if I had been given the ability to read the future prior to that dot.com collapse there is a lot of things that we would probably have done a bit differently,” he acknowledges.

With that, our interview is up; Barrett has more meetings to attend, more countries to visit, more opportunities to explore. A man for all time zones indeed.

“We’re trying to promote entrepreneurship, venture capital investments, opportunities for Lebanon’s citizens to stay in the country and to rebuild Lebanon from the bottom up.”
“If I had been given the ability to read the future prior to that dot.com collapse there are a lot of things that we would probably have done a bit differently.”

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