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Is America Ready for Its First BlackBerry President?

The next U.S. president could shape cybersecurity, government research initiatives, intellectual property laws, and wired and wireless communications services in ways that affect both enterprise IT executives and average citizens. Yet some experts say he could handle all this without having Twittered, texted or even used a PC, although his familiarity with information technologies might strongly affect his policies.

Much has been made in the media of a seemingly wide gulf in tech smarts between Republican John McCain, who has described letting his wife handle his computer tasks, and Democrat Barack Obama, who has appeared on video using a BlackBerry while walking down the street.

President George W. Bush has been ridiculed for talking about rumors on "the Internets," but only one other president has even been in office in the age of the Web, laptops and ubiquitous cell phones. The expectation that a president "gets it" regarding IT is a fairly new one. Yet whatever the result of the November election, cutting-edge technology seems to be entering the realm of elected officials for good.

About half the members of the U.S. Senate use BlackBerry devices, estimates Louis Libin, CEO of unified communications vendor PhoneFusion, who has set up the networks for the past five Democratic and Republican nominating conventions. Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and McCain rival, gave every member of his campaign team a BlackBerry and carried one himself, according to David Palmer, a senior consultant and technical architect at Molecular, a digital marketing company that handled Romney's Web site. On Monday, Obama announced via the microblogging site Twitter that he would alert his supporters via text message immediately after he chose his running mate for vice president.

Several observers in the IT industry and scholars who study the intersection of technology and policy say it will be important for future presidents to grasp IT issues.

"To the extent that we think the Internet economy ... is a major source of value-creating activity in the U.S. economy and a major source of social experience for lots of Americans, it seems to me really critical that the president understand what that's about," said Steven Weber, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley.

Some believe IT issues are so central that they should guide the choice of a chief executive.

"The president should come from a technology background and understand technology at a high level," said Avi Silberschatz, chairman of the Computer Science Department at Yale University. "It would be good if the person at the helm of the country had an appreciation of the changes taking place as we speak." One critical issue is spending on research and development, which has fallen in the past 10 years, leaving the U.S. trailing other countries, he said.

However, others say firsthand knowledge of something like social networking isn't necessary for a president to grasp its importance. Presidents have set policies on many technologies in the past without understanding them, Berkeley's Weber said.

"Is it more complex than a nuclear power plant? Hardly," Weber said. And a president who needed a rundown on Facebook could quickly summon founder Mark Zuckerberg to the Oval Office to explain it, he said.

Intimate experience with a technology might make a candidate appear more tech-savvy and better equipped to deal with IT policy issues. But in fact, a user's knowledge is only one way of understanding a technology, said Jason Hong, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Hong believes he'll never use social networking the way today's undergraduates do, but his studies have taught him things the average user wouldn't know, he said.

It's similar to the way the U.S. trusts its presidents -- few of whom have led armies in battle -- to be commander in chief, said Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance, which lobbies for the commercial software industry.

In any case, once the president takes office, he or she lacks the time not only to learn new technologies but to use them, PhoneFusion's Libin said.

"Anything to do with technology becomes a distraction at some level," Libin said. "I don't think we're going to find him on Facebook or chatrooms."

There are also built-in constraints to a leader's use of technology, Libin said. He predicted that a BlackBerry user who was elected president might continue using the device, but not in the same way. To minimize distractions, very few people, such as the president's spouse and closest advisers, would be able to send e-mail to the device. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server that enterprises normally use in delivering e-mail to the handsets might have to be augmented with more security. Also for security reasons, the device's coverage might sometimes be cut off by Secret Service jamming, Libin added. But the president might find it useful for keeping track of a frequently changing daily schedule, he said.

However, even though the president could make technology policy without having to rely on firsthand knowledge, that kind of perspective could help to shape his or her policies, some observers said.

People who don't use technology tend to see its benefits and overlook its dangers, said Tom Kellermann, vice president of security awareness at security testing software vendor Core Security and a member of the Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th Presidency. When confronted by a technology problem, novices often see more technology as the solution.

"A mechanical problem is not always solved by a mechanical widget" is a lesson that can only be learned by using technology, Kellermann said. In reality, the country's IT and communications infrastructure has security problems that require strategic thinking and proactive policy in addition to technological fixes, he said.

"His desire to deal with the problem ... will be motivated by his experience with the box," Kellermann said.

The benefit of a truly tech-savvy president to IT managers would be a long-overdue appreciation for the critical role they can play in keeping the country running and secure, Kellermann said. "The fact that they maintain and secure the IT infrastructure ... is ten times more important than anything you do," he said, comparing the importance of the role of IT managers to most other jobs.

Over-reliance on advisers can also be dangerous, said Harry Lewis, a longtime computer science professor at Harvard who teaches a course to help nontechnical people understand the digital world. An ideal president would have at least kept up with technology trends, such as social networking, by spending time with knowledgeable people over the years, Lewis said.

"It's not so much (the) use of it, but there's a level of familiarity. There's a sense of what it means for this amount of information about people's interconnections to be out there," Lewis said.

"If the president himself is not tech-savvy, there will be someone who will be, in effect, the person calling the shots on these issues of where technology meets public policy. And that, I think, would be pretty scary," Lewis said.

In that scenario, IT leaders would best spend their time trying to influence the choice of that adviser, he said.

"That person is going to be in a position to put things over on the president, basically, and therefore to put things over on the country," Lewis said.

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