e-campus to spark business opportunties for IT companies

Michelle Hsu, The China Post

The bursting of the Internet bubble over the past few years has somewhat cooled down the frenzy to exploit business opportunities in the virtual world. However, the Internet is seeing an increasing application on campus as an essential tool for modern teaching. While aimed at providing a more efficient learning environment for students, the concept of e-campus is expected to bring about massive business opportunities for the information technology (IT) industry.

Business opportunities for digitalized infrastructure (such as networks), electronic devices and other relevant hardware and software equipment are estimated to be worth around NT$50 billion in total for the Taiwan market alone. Those in the mainland should be several times larger, worth NT$100 billion at least.

Constructing e-campuses for Taiwan schools is actually among the major projects in the 6-year plan proposed by the Cabinet to develop a digital Taiwan. The Taipei Computer Association (TCA), the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the National Council for Science (NCS) have been working together in a bid to set standardized specifications for infrastructure, operating systems and electronic readers usually known as eBooks.

An e-campus is involved with electronic readers, operating systems, contents, communications technology as well as overall infrastructure. In Taiwan, there are around 3.8 million students at around 3,600 primary, junior and senior high schools. Business opportunities for developing e-campuses for all these schools are estimated to be worth around NT$50 billion.

Professor Hsu Chien-ping at Central University defines the eBook as a handheld computer with wireless Internet access. It’s more handy and lighter than a usual notebook. The battery for an eBook usually can last for several hours. A Web pad or a Tablet PC, which has similar functions, is sometimes also claimed to be an eBook.

To deal with various specifications of eBooks launched by different companies, member companies of the TCA recently reached a consensus defining an eBook as weighing less than one kilogram and having an 8.5-inch screen.

Major concerns

While IT companies are enthusiastic about promoting the eBook on campus, several major concerns about the adverse effects of such electronic devices have been raised by parents of the students. They are generally worried that long-hours reading on the computer screen could be harmful to students’ eyes. Moreover, students may become less skilled at handwriting as they spend most of their time working with a computer. Some parents feel it improper for students, especially students at elementary schools, to carry the expensive electronic device priced between NT$10,000 and NT$20,000 to school everyday.

While IT companies are working hard to penetrate the market, they also agree that it may take time for both teachers and students to get accustomed to the new learning methods.

Microsoft Taiwan has made Hsinchuang Elementary School in Taipei county an experimental school for its digital teaching software. Students at the school each have a handy handheld PC equipped with Microsoft .Net operating system and XML Web services. With a memory capacity as large as 300 MB, the handheld PCs contain data on over 70 different kinds of plants found on the campus, including over 700 photos. For classes outside the classroom, both teachers and students will bring the handheld PC with them for handy access to relevant information.

“The handheld PC, very similar to the Tablet PC, helps create an effective, interactive teaching method to arouse the interest of students for learning,” said Microsoft Taiwan General Manager Eunice Chiu. She promised that Microsoft would continue to lend its support to digital learning programs in Taiwan.

Overseas development

The U.S. and mainland China have been making preliminary efforts to apply eBooks to the campus. The mainland, with approximately 700,000 elementary and high schools, is considered to be a market several times bigger than Taiwan. The education authority on the mainland recently proposed to bring the modern electronic devices and Internet to primary and junior high school campuses. It’s estimated that the business opportunities resulting from such projects could worth as much as 200 billion renminbi given a 1.5 billion renminbi budget for each school. These projects are aimed at providing a centralized, standardized educational system for all primary and junior high schools throughout the mainland. To help its member companies vie for e-campus business opportunities in the mainland, the TCA is now organizing a Taiwan delegation to visit the 2002 International Education Exposition Fair to be held in Beijing in late September. The delegation is composed of over 10 PC hardware and software companies.

Taiwan’s major PC companies such as Acer, MiTAC, ASUSTek, and First International Computer (FIC) all plan to enter this field by developing electronic reading devices. AUSUTek has reportedly appropriated a budget of 300 million renminbi for developing its business in this area. Initially, it’s planning to team up with a mainland-based software company to develop its eBook business. Choo Banfu, the inventor of the CangJie Method for typing Chinese characters into a computer, is also eager to promote the application of his eBooks in the mainland. During the Taipei International Computer Show (Computex Taipei) held in early June, Choo launched the latest model of his electronic book reader eBook4ALL, featuring the unique CangJie Chinese typing method. His company, Cangjie Technology Co., teamed up with several PC hardware makers in Taiwan and several publishing companies in the mainland to produce the eBook readers. His company revealed that it has received several orders for the eBook4ALL from buyers on the mainland.

(This article will also be published in the August issue of the Taiwan International Trade magazine.)