Information Please

February 25, 1991|By Timothy J. Mullaney

Walt Plosila likes to talk about the future. But, really, the car accident of the future?

Yes, really, says Mr. Plosila, president of the Montgomery County High Technology Council in Rockville. Picture this, he says: A car flips, and the driver has spinal injuries. Paramedics arrive with equipment unlike anything available today. Their machines not only take a high-resolution image of the driver's spine -- while he's still inside the car -- but also beam it to the hospital.

To Walter H. Plosila, that story carries both hope and warning. In the 21st century, communications webs will tie the world together -- even more tightly than today. Accident victims will benefit -- as will business people who can communicate faster, cheaper and more comprehensively.

And those communications webs should offer a nice little present to Maryland's information technology industry, tied just as tightly in a nice little bow.

After all, the businesses created through such innovation could be endless, and there's every reason those spinoffs should happen here. Maryland has an established telecommunications industry and university base, it is slowly getting better at transferring research from lab discovery to marketable product and its region has the highest concentration of federal research in the country.

But then again, Mr. Plosila points out, the imaging equipment that saves the car accident victim could be made in any state. Maryland's employment in some segments of the information technology business has been shrinking since 1986, despite industry growth, and the in-state industry's base of defense work and other government contracting has seen better days. The opportunity of the next decade is huge, he says, but eminently blowable.

"We have a good base here," Mr. Plosila says. "But we're not taking advantage of it, and it's not going in the right direction."

That's what Mr. Plosila and others are trying to reverse. Along with much of the electronics industry and university sector, the High Tech Council is pushing a proposal to build a Maryland Information Technology Center. Plans call for the center -- which could open within a year -- to be a high-tech networking center.

The focus won't be on basic research -- the center will do little, if any, of that. Instead, the focus will be turning Maryland's research base into products and jobs.

The stakes are high. The information technology industry employs an estimated 125,000 to 150,000 people in Maryland, at an average wage 70 percent higher than other jobs in the state. "If we can just hold our market share, we'll do well," Mr. Plosila said. "But it's not clear that we're going to maintain our share."

In theory, universities, companies small and large, and government researchers can work together at the center to develop new applications of emerging communications technology and to tailor the innovations to their needs.

Companies could catch up on the latest marketing developments, courtesy of the center's staff. Equipment makers could train workers and equipment users, or could test new products on an elaborate communications network that Bell Atlantic Corp. has agreed to make available in Silver Spring. Software makers could spend time with hardware makers to learn more about the next generation of products.

At bottom, the idea of the MITC is that all this networking will help Maryland high-tech firms (as well as the service companies who will use this technology) compete globally in a time when it will simultaneously become harder and more important to do so. Maryland communications companies need to loosen their grip on corporate individualism and competition to keep up with foreign competitors, who are ahead on the most important research and who have a better record in commercializing technology.

"We win our Nobel Prizes for research, but we don't win awards for product development," Mr. Plosila says. "We need somewhere to pull our capabilities together. . . . The Japanese don't shy away from competing once they get to the marketplace, but they don't shy away from collaborating before they get to the marketplace."

The center, an implicit challenge to laissez-faire ways of doing business, straddles a delicate line. American business always has bristled at strong oversight from government or outside agencies, so the center's backers painstakingly deny that they're trying to guide high-tech development with Japanese-style industrial policy.

They are careful to say that the Maryland MITC won't be like the powerful Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI. They know business won't accept the center if it's an instrument of state control.

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