Playing Catch-Up in A High-Tech World

SIM'ON GARC'IA'S computer store sits along a busy boulevard in M'erida, Venezuela, hard by the Andes Mountains. Sim'on is a large, young man who sells computers, writes programs, and shoulders a portion of his nation's future.

To catch up with the West, Venezuela and the rest of the world's developing nations will have to make large strides in technology. Sim'on and computers are part of the answer.

The computer gap looms. According to estimates by Dataquest Inc., the United States last year had one personal computer for every five people. Canada had one PC for every six people; Western Europe, one for every eight; Japan, one for every 14.

The rest of the globe - 86 percent of the world's population - averaged just one PC per 300 people.

Telecommunications is another challenge. Futurist Alvin Toffler notes that just nine countries have 450 million of the world's 600 million telephones.

``The lopsided distribution of computers, databases, technical publications, research expenditures, tells us more about the future potential of nations than all the gross national product figures ground out by economists,'' he wrote in a recent issue of World Monitor magazine.

So how is Venezuela doing in the technology race?

Pretty well, by third-world and Latin American standards; not so well by US standards. M'erida tells the story.

Sim'on's computer store sells clones of IBM's first- and second-generation PCs (the XT and AT). Sim'on himself uses a third-generation PC, based on the 80386 chip, and an advanced software program called Windows 3.0.

At the nearby University of the Andes, the computer science department has installed an advanced network of seven SPARC workstations by Sun Microsystems. It plans to hook its network to other computer networks in the university.

The question for Venezuela, however, is whether it's moving fast enough to keep up with the West.

Sim'on sells a basic XT clone for $500 - roughly the same price as in the US. The trouble is that $500 represents five months of pay for a Venezuelan earning minimum wage.

Software is a bigger problem. Venezuela has too few personal computer users for foreign software companies to make a major sales effort here. Software piracy is rampant. The Windows 3.0 program, which might sell here for $200 legally, goes for $10 from software pirates who make illegal copies, Sim'on says.

This illegal industry helps Venezuelans get their hands on new programs, but it also hurts the country's own fledgling software industry. Sim'on uses elaborate security measures to keep customers from illegally copying and reselling the software he develops.

The other obstacle, and perhaps the biggest, is the country's phone system. It is in such bad shape that Wladimir Rodriguez, who heads the university's computer department here, doesn't have a modem for his home computer. Modems allow computers to communicate over telephone lines. A computer without a modem is a little like an RV without an engine. Most Venezuelan computer users don't have a modem.

Professor Rodriguez expects the situation to improve as the country moves to privatize its telephone company. He is cautiously optimistic that Venezuela can close the technology gap if its economy stays on track. It won't build computers as Brazil does, but it could develop a Spanish-language software industry.

Others are not so sanguine.

Leopoldo Lopez, president of the government's higher-education Ayacucho Foundation, worries about Venezuela's knowledge base. Today, two out of five workers have five years or less of education. The next generation isn't doing much better. Two of every five students have dropped out by the ninth grade. European and other firms lure abroad a small but important group of skilled Venezuelans by offering hard-to-refuse pay and benefits.

One bright sign is Sim'on Garc'ia himself. In three or four years, he expects to assemble a team of programmers to develop new software. No, they won't come from the university. The university-trained programmers waste too much time analyzing the problem, he says. The best programmers, often self-taught, just do the work.

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