Network: He's an evangelist, his mission is the Net. 70 million have joined but he wants more

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Despite the millions who use it every day, the Internet is still poorly organised. This must change, says Joseph De Feo. Ian Grayson talks to the man who demands that the `anarchic mess' be cleared up to release its true potential.

It has more than 70 million users already, and continues to grow. It allows virtually instant communication around the globe and access to vast information reserves. The Internet is one of the most astounding developments of the modern world.

But Joseph De Feo sees things differently. To him, the Internet is an unmanaged, anarchic mess - a mishmash of systems strung together by a network that is unreliable, uncontrollable and insecure. He wants to change it. "The potential of the Internet is huge," he said. "But right now it needs to change fundamentally before that potential can be realised."

De Feo is not your average Internet user. Something of an information technology industry guru, the former head of IT for Barclays Group has gained a reputation for thinking big. During his time at Barclays he was responsible for implementing computer technology that kept the bank at the forefront of its sector and modernised its methods of providing customer service.

Now he has set his sights even higher - on changing the Internet and enabling it to become the global business tool he believes it can become.

Early this year, De Feo took the reins of the Open Group, an international consortium of IT vendors and purchasers pushing for global standards for the Internet. In his new role, he is focused on "realising the potential" of what he sees as one of the most important business resources of the future.

"When I was first approached about the Open Group job, I thought they were crazy," said De Feo. "I wondered why they thought I would give up a good position [at Barclays] to join their organisation." But he didn't take a lot of convincing. De Feo was quick to recognise the role the Open Group wanted to play within the industry, and he wanted to be a part of it.

"What they were trying to achieve was to redirect their whole thrust away from a traditional focus on Unix computer systems and towards a more network-centric model," he said.

"The group's mission is now to assist in the creation of a ubiquitous infrastructure, and a common understanding of how to use it." In short, the primary reason for the Open Group's existence is to encourage the development of the Internet from its current unmanaged, chaotic state into a structured, managed and robust international business resource. "I like to use the dial tone analogy," said De Feo. "People know, when they pick up a telephone and get a dial tone what they can do and how to do it. It is reliable, and there when you need it. We need to get to this point with the Internet. It has to be as easy to use and as dependable as the telephone system is today."

The concept of an Internet dial tone is enticing. Easy access to information and communication regardless of location or access device is the nirvana of all users. De Feo predicts that such a concept will exist within three to five years, but key areas need to be sorted out first. "The two biggest things holding back development of an Internet `dial tone' are a lack of knowledge within the business community and competing corporate interests amongst IT vendors," he said.

According to De Feo, despite intense media coverage and significant investments by many companies, there are still a great many business people who do not fully understand the Internet's potential. "The business community is `underknowledged' when it comes to IT. People just don't really understand the capacity for technology to alter the way their business operates.

"If you were a company CEO hiring someone to run a division and they admitted to having no knowledge of accountancy, you would baulk. But many people happily admit to having no knowledge of IT. This has to change - quickly." De Feo sees education and awareness as the keys here. People don't have to become instant IT experts or learn the intricacies of computer programming, but they have to be more aware of how to use technology in their daily work.

The second inhibitor, competing corporate interests, is a somewhat tougher nut to crack. "There is a real tension that exists between [IT equipment] suppliers because they are all trying to get a short-term competitive advantage," said De Feo. "Each of them is trying to differentiate itself, based on some technical capability that they perceive buyers want. They find it difficult to see the value of having consistency in standards. We try to find a way of describing the economic value of standards. We say that there is a point where having differentiation is not worth the problems that it creates.

"It has to be remembered that market forces did not create the Internet in the first place - and they're not going to help it develop." De Feo believes that for the Internet to reach its full potential, such rivalry will have to be put aside for the common good - an attitude that does not come easily in a fiercely commercial world.

But rather than focus on the factors holding development back, De Feo expresses optimism that his vision for the Internet can be achieved. He says most of the building-blocks have already been created.

"If you had a warehouse with shelves for each of the major technologies, nearly everything you could want to build systems and infrastructure would be there," he said. "It's not a lack of technology that is holding things back. The trouble is that we can't get agreement on the standards we need to achieve the end results."

It is true that the Internet exists in its current form because of agreed standards. This enables, for example, e-mail to be sent and received around the world, and users to access information regardless of the type of computer they are using.

However, for the Internet to evolve into the form envisaged by De Feo, further work is required. International agreement has to be reached on elements such as security and reliability, to make the global network robust enough to become a true tool for business. A growth area such as electronic commerce is a classic example. While there are now a number of products on the market that can enable secure transactions over the Internet, none has been universally adopted.

This is the role that De Feo sees for the Open Group. "Right now the marketplace is not driving the Internet in a way that is going to resolve some of the areas that need improving," he said. "This is our challenge."

De Feo likens the Internet of today to the early railroad systems built in many countries. Tracks were laid, but they were of different gauges and so could not interconnect. Even when this problem was overcome, issues such as differing platform heights and signalling systems had to be resolved before it became really useful to commercial traffic.

In the same way, the Internet was not designed from the outset for public access as it lacks security, and is often unreliable and complicated to use. The introduction of agreed standards is the only way this can be overcome. De Feo uses his high profile within the business community to evangelise about the impact that a more organised, reliable Internet could have on global commerce. But the task is challenging. He likens it to the tough sales job that was required when telephones were first invented.

"When the telephone came in, companies would say: `We don't need that sort of thing because we have lots of messenger boys.' It took a long time before people understood the difference it would make. The Internet will have a much greater impact than the telephone, but in a far shorter time." According to De Feo, once the task of agreeing standards for the Internet is complete, the result will be a network with capabilities far greater than that which exists today. "Once you have reliability and security built in, the Internet can be used for so many more things," he said. Envisaged uses include widespread electronic commerce, online educational facilities and as an aid to government service provision.

"If the United States could shave 20 per cent off the cost of healthcare delivery, it would more than solve the budget deficit. Such savings are possible through the use of communications tools such as the Internet to improve efficiency.

"I am confident that we will get there if an organisation such as ours can maintain the interaction between users and suppliers, and obtain agreement on standards and the rational implementation of those standards." Such a role would have to be handled by a vendor-neutral, international organisation such as the Open Group, he says, rather than by national entities that seemed more adept at slowing progress than at speeding it up.

If his envisioned new, improved Internet emerges, Joseph De Feo will feel a sense of achievement. His unshakeable belief in the power of common standards will have been proved correct.