Cantillon: What next for the World Wide Web?

Twenty-five years ago this month Tim Berners-Lee wrote the proposal for what would become the web

Tim Berners-Lee: The World Wide Web Foundation says on its website, most of the history of the web is ahead of us. Photograph: Reuters

Tim Berners-Lee: The World Wide Web Foundation says on its website, most of the history of the web is ahead of us. Photograph: Reuters

 

What happened in 1989? Well the Wall came down, the Cold War ended and in technological terms, it was the year that sparked a revolution. The first of 24 satellites of the Global Positioning System was placed into orbit, Microsoft Word was released, the first unofficial text message was sent, Nintendo debuted the Game Boy and Sky TV was launched. Oh, and the World Wide Web was invented.

The milestone of the web – not to be confused with the internet which is the massive chain of networks it uses – will be marked this Wednesday. It was 25 years ago this month, that British computer scientist and former Cern employee Tim Berners-Lee wrote the proposal for what would eventually become the World Wide Web.

Whatever about its timeline there is no questioning its consequences for every corner of society. The web gave local businesses the ability to tap into global markets, allowing the public to shop without ever leaving their homes. Vital information can be accessed in a few clicks, rather than hours spent perusing library books and periodicals.

The web reduced the time it took for people to pay bills, contributed to a more informed public in terms of health and medicine and given rise to distance learning.

However, as much as the web has had many positive effects on society it also reaped negative consequences, especially in terms of fraud and privacy. It has wreaked havoc on the music, media and publishing industries and led to cyber insurgencies like Anonymous.

It would be bold in the extreme to try to predict its future, but in many ways the principles themselves were bold.

The World Wide Web Foundation says on its website, most of the history of the web is ahead of us. It will be all about mobile surfing, the NSA and the internet of things. Your fridge will reorder groceries when they run low, a parking meter will alert you that your time is nearly up and you can control your home thermostat from your iPad at work.

Where next? Answer or influence that and you, dear reader, may well be part of the next generation that maps out our future.

Chiquita-Fyffes union creates top banana

David McCann and his team are unlikely to be too downbeat following news yesterday of the proposed merger with the larger US-focused Chiquita brand. The allocation of roles within the merged ChiquitaFyffes – where Chiquita gets the chairman’s post but Fyffes bagged the key executive roles of chief executive, finance director and chief operating officer – as well as its 49.3 per cent share of the combined entity, would indicate that the Irish company was more the victor than the put upon in the $526 million all-share deal, despite being considerably the smaller player.

And, as the share price rocketed 46 per cent on the news, Fyffes to the end reflect the business environment of its time more closely in many ways than many larger entities.

The company, whose Irish roots date back to a Dundalk grocer, epitomised the plucky Irish family business, retaining its connections with the McCann family over more than 100 years. But its ambitions were big and it was an early mover into the online market in 1999. At a time when Telecom Éireann was struggling for traction as a listed company, Fyffes became the poster boy of the dotcom boom, building an internet portal for fruit businesses. As with many of the brasher businesses, the bursting of that dotcom bubble put paid to Fyffes’ hopes for online domination. The fallout from that episode saw the company take centre stage in Ireland’s highest profile insider dealing cases.

Now, as 2014 kicks off with a blizzard of activity on the M&A front worldwide for the first time since the financial crisis – not least among companies looking to access Ireland’s favourable corporation tax regime – Fyffes again finds itself reflective of its times. When the dust settles, Dublin will be the corporate home for the new largest player in the banana business.

In a neat piece of symmetry, its brings Fyffes full circle again. Having been acquired by and then spun out of United Brands, the company that became Chiquita, it now merges once again with its former owner in a marriage of equals.

Mainstay Medical eyes back pain market

It has taken three years to get a product to trials: Mainstay Medical hopes that within another two, it will have a device on the market in Europe to address the perennial problem of chronic lower back pain.

Mainstay moved to Swords in Dublin as part of a $20 million fundraising 18 months ago led by Ireland’s Fountain Healthcare Partners. It’s working on the basis that a significant portion of the 7.5 million patients in the US alone suffering from chronic back pain can trace that problem to a lack of stability in the area of an old injury.

Its answer, an implanted device that sends electrical impulses to nerves that instruct deactivated muscles in the area to contract, strengthening them and improving stability.

Feasibility test results unveiled last summer suggest Mainstay is on the right road and it has now completed development of its device. Trials are starting initially in Australia as the regulatory path there was considered quicker to negotiate, according to the company’s Australian chief executive, Peter Crosby. However, Europe and the US remain the key initial target markets for the device, and European trials will be enrolling in coming months.

Mainstay is also building itself up in other areas. It recently boosted its board with the appointment of chairman Oern Stuge, formerly in charge of Medtronic’s neurological and spinal division in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and non-executive David Brabazon, an experienced executive in the Irish life sciences sector who has worked in Elan and was a founder of Azur Pharma (now Jazz Pharmaceuticals) and, subsequently, specialty pharma group Adapt Pharma.

The scale of the opportunity? Assuming the trials confirm the feasibility results – which, among other things, had 45 per cent of people off work on disability when they started the therapy returning to the jobs by its conclusion – Crosby said he’s not worried about running out of a potential market.

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