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Software has been the driving force behind many social, economic, and technological movements

Software has been the driving force behind many social, economic, and technological movements–from spreadsheets and word processing that revolutionized our work, to browsers that brought the Internet to the masses, to online games that are defining how a new generation plays. Today, the power of software is extending beyond the personal and workplace spheres to empower entire industries, regions, and countries.

Forward-thinking leaders–whether in developing countries or regions of developed countries looking to recast their economies–are trying to duplicate the success of software development zones in places like India, Ireland and Russia to supply the skills and services that today’s global markets demand. These leaders know that the "digital divide," while real, has a flip side in the opportunity an increasingly "virtualized" world offers citizens–to develop skills and leapfrog to high-paying jobs, serving markets across town or across the globe.

Take Latin America, where I traveled extensively over the past four years, meeting with leaders in nine countries. Until recently, their first question might have been, "Can you build a factory in our country?" Today, to provide jobs and tax revenue they’re more likely to ask, "Can you help us train our people?" They want to supply the software development needs, staff the help desks, and provide the other back-office services companies require–all without the physical relocation and migration such jobs once required.

Governments in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, among others, are working with global multinationals to provide training in hot software skill areas like Java, Linux, middleware, and Web services. Their goal is to reduce unemployment, galvanize their economies, and transform their cities into the next Bangalore. (India’s software and services sector has generated 92,000 new jobs and reached $7.5 billion in exports last year.) Software can even magically deliver much of the needed training–on demand–in the form of modular, self-paced, cost-effective distance or e-learning. An instructor in the U.S., say, can virtually teach, coach, cajole, examine, and grade students 24 hours a day, 365 days a year–whether they are in Buenos Aires, Beijing, or anywhere else they can get online.

A few years ago, most developing areas lacked access to the Internet–but today, these regions are fertile ground for people-intensive, software-based development initiatives. In 2002, almost a third of Asians living in urban areas had access to the Net, versus more than half of the U.S. population. But Internet access as a percent of population grew more than two-and-a-half times faster in Asia and parts of Africa between 1999 and 2002 than it did in the United States. Latin America now counts more than 30 million Internet users–expected to double by 2004–one of the fastest growth rates in the world. And just about everywhere, network bandwidth is increasing and telecommunications industries are deregulating–making it ever easier for people to get on the Net.

Coming a bit late to the Internet party can even have its advantages. Many developing regions have leapfrogged over traditional wireline access to embrace wireless telecommunications. Asians and Europeans are enjoying text messaging and higher-speed cellular networks ahead of most Americans. And Mexico now sports more cell phones than telephones, with Latin America as a whole expected to cut that symbolic cord sometime in 2004.

Nor are cell phones just for talking anymore. They are rapidly becoming a primary means of accessing the Internet–especially in places where PCs remain pricey luxuries for many citizens. The percentage of Asians accessing the Web last year who used cell phones to do so was three times greater than in the United States and more than twice that for Western Europe. In Latin America, the Intermarket group predicts the number of wireless Internet users will expand more than 500-fold–from 100,000 in 2001 to 52 million by 2005. Entrepreneurs in Peru have taken an early lead in innovating wireless Internet applications–like Quimica Suiza, a leading pharmaceutical wholesaler, which is using a Java progam on a Palm Pilot to empower their sales force to view client accounts, check inventories, and place orders in real time. And with similar technology, customers of Peru’s Banco Wiese could use a cell phone or PDA to wirelessly check their balances or open a new account in Lima before that capability was available in New York or Los Angeles.

Powerful software linked to the power of the Internet has become a digital springboard–giving small companies access to global markets, individuals access to new opportunities and new careers, and entire regions the chance to leapfrog ahead to new levels of economic and social development.

Donn Atkins was IBM’s general manager for Latin America during the last four years. He currently is vice president, worldwide sales and marketing, IBM Software Group.

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