Netdiver magazine

/ What's new in design
digital culture

Web stars speak

/ Interview with René Barsalo

DynEC. It was an opportunity to put his ideas in practice that led to developing an innovative software that makes complex data exchange accessible for SMEs between different distribution supply chains. The product launched is called Negotium.

Good design works. Small entrepreneurs can use e-commerce capabilities with his software. Normally, it would required hiring a certified consultant just to begin to understand the processes involved. Recent recognitions include being chosen as one of three technological innovations of the year as well as being awarded "Quebec eBusiness innovation of the year" in 2001.

He is a speaker, published author and member of several national and international associations in the Multimedia and IT sectors. He was cofounder and elected president of FIM (Forum for the Infohighway and Multimedia) a Montreal based association which was actively involved in human networking. In 1999, after merging with two other organizations, Alliance NumeriQc was born. He is now part of its Board of Directors.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

/ How were you first introduced to the internet?

In 1993 through a technology watch group that was active in Montreal. I was lucky to be there and witnessed the arrival of Mosaic and the ensuing movement.

/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?

A very big achievement. When I realized that we would all be connected in "real time", I knew that communication from now on, would never be the same. I published my first personal web site early in 1995 and within 48 hours received inquiries for interface design projects from Europe...

Direct contact with viewers made my job very different compared to what I was doing in print.

/ You are an *internet activist*, what exactly does it mean?

I am very concerned with the "centralization" issue. I feel that anyone that is neither a "nerd" nor a "big corporation" will end up being taken care of by a technology intermediary. The message sent from software and telecoms "big players" aims at trying to convince everybody that *we* can't understand a thing and should leave everything in "their" hands (and/or on their servers).

There is no need for that. We just have to see things differently. Most of today's Internet users have been active for less than 4 years. No technology as important as this, has ever matured in such a short time. Everything is on the table. We must then be "active" by questioning any access strategies to see, if it really is adding value to the users or, if it is only a way for corporations to "own" a community.

/ You are an *internet pioneer* what exactly does it mean?

I started early in the web history. Recently I stumbled across archive.org and found that a large portion of my early work actually dates back earlier than archive. When I started to shift my career towards the Net in 94, there where no official ways of doing anything. We all had to design our jobs, our teams, our objectives, on top of our immediate work. It was my second professional shift, the first, had been embarking in the desktop publishing revolution of the 80's.

At the same time, being a pioneer usually involves that you're the one with the arrows in the back. I must have had a very strong back since I got exactly where I like to be : in the front. I thrive on clearing paths, especially, when there is no set ways of doing things.

/ Looking at your track record, you have a *multiple path* career. Why?

I don't agree. I have one career and that is, as a "designer". Since I started, I witnessed the desktop publishing, the CD-Rom and the Internet revolutions. Each of these waves came with its own tools, its own working methods as well as its own set of design constraints. But in the end, I'm always designing.

A designer is more than somebody who makes things look nice. He is a thinker, an organizer, a craftsman, and most of all, an extremely curious researcher. In the end, I went from graphic, to CD-Rom interface, to Internet and finally, to software design (GUI). At DynEC, I feel this is what I do daily - I am currently involved in software and communication designs of a product.

/ What was your initial profession?

Graphic designer. I started at a time when computers were absent (1976) of our office environments. I worked with paper, scissors, glue; some trades have almost completely disappeared: typographers and color separators.

/ Describe how your love for the web started.

I'm not in love with the web, I'm in love with communication.

So I still love designing for print and I like to understand the different ways we can use the best forces of each medium. A couple of years ago, when asked if I was abandoning print design for multimedia, I answered that my real desire was to do *plurimedia* design. In my view, designing with all mediums in mind is the future of communication design.

What really blasts me about the Internet (as a whole), is that we can design and reach a large group of humans without spending a lot on infrastructure. Compared to print, which necessitates large investments in reproduction and physical distribution, Internet makes it possible for somebody, or an organization, to communicate around the world (if necessary) while putting most of the development budget in the design & content.

/ You self-describe as *hyperactive*, why?

I never stop... wanting to make things... move! We live in a very special era. Most of what we decide, will influence the speed at which the digital transition will be done, and most important, how it will be done. The *how* word drives me to shoot for more, in terms of professional involvement and achievements.

/ How did you get involved in internet related associations?

I created one! There was none that I could join at the time. First meeting, we were a group of seven; in less than a year, we were more than a 100. The year after, we where more than 300. We met regularly and our objectives of "face to face" were to connect with other processionals and learn from each other. Networking remains the number one force for individuals.

A lot of alliances were created at these meetings. Some of the important players in our budding sector met during one of these networking sessions. Since then three original associations created during that period in Montreal merged into a global alliance named Alliance NumeriQc.

/ How did you first get involved with e_business?

I designed my first transactional web site in December 1994 in partnership with the EDI World Institute. There was no EDI (Electronic Document Interchange) used in the site, just a simple credit card interface. But it was the first transaction web site in Quebec at the time. While working in the web design field, I met my future partner, Benoit Lamoureux, who presented me his idea of a simple EDI software for SME's. What really impressed me in Benoit's idea, was the idea of addressing an information issue.

We joined together and designed a simple interface that everybody can understand. We came up with a plug and play solution for a problem, that since the dawn of EDI in the 70's, involved costly consultants who often did not understand a thing about what they where doing.

/ With the implosion of dotcoms ventures were there any impact on your company?

Yes, rough at first, but in the end, it is all for the best. Clients are listening again. They now consider us as being *serious* since we are still around. Since they lost a lot of money due to "analysts" trends and reports, they rely more on their gut feelings and their business knowledge, to make a decision. When companies start thinking by themselves, they are more open to new ideas that can help them with their daily activities.

/ Explain what is the *15 min innovation* concept and how you came about it?

If you try to explain to somebody what you have discovered by explaining only the results and not the processes that brought you there, you are asking that person to do a leap of faith. He or she won't listen to you. They will protect instinctively what they believed before... even when presented another way of seeing things.

Recently, I came across an article in Business 2.0 that showed another angle to this situation. It presented the fact that, if your product is too far away from the actual business practices of your potential users, they may view you as an innovator, but they will buy the product that is closer to meeting their daily needs.

The article explained, that while it is excellent to design your product with a view of the future, you should present it by chunks of "15 min innovations" to constantly keep your users interested and confident that you are close to their own preoccupations.

/ Explain what this innovative software is about?

While 100% of the enterprises with more than 5000 employees are already exchanging business transactions electronically with EDI, their suppliers, mostly medium and small enterprises do not have access to a software adapted to their reality.

We also found that 99% of the registered companies in the industrialized world have less than 100 employees; more than 85% of them having less than 20 employees! It is evident that these companies don't have the resources to manage the same type of systems that their large clients use daily.

We spent more than two years with a team of 20+ programmers, business analysts and usability specialists, designing an application that ordinary people, with no special expertise, could install and use by themselves to instantly connect with their large clients.

When we first presented the results to the software community in 2000, we were chosen as one of the three technological innovation of the year in Quebec. A year later, with several hundred SME connected with their large clients, we won the eBusiness innovation award.

Negotium is a personal eBusiness data warehouse and communication bridge for enterprises with which they can exchange EDI or XML transactions through the Internet. We've tweaked the code until the solution was 100% working. It is a solid and robust product because we've systematically removed any parts that increased the risk (failure, crash) to our clients. Unlike webforms or traditional EDI, it enables every organizations, medium or small, to have total control on data exchanges with their large clients.

Unlike other alternatives, it does not rely on a web server since it is a client-side application, that uses SMTP (EDIINT AS1) as a communication platform. It is low in bandwidth consumption each transaction amounting to about 1kb versus an average of 40kb. In the end, the user is the only one, with its clients, to know the content of the transactions. There is no intermediary in the middle, as opposed to the web marketplace model. Implementation rate stands as our proof of concept.

/ Why are you targeting SMEs (small, medium enterprises)?

It is the most critical point of the supply chain and represents usually around 70 to 80% of the suppliers in most industries. If these companies cannot connect to the networked economy with tools that they can control, then they are condemned to be "owned" by third parties who will control their data for them. Now, with Negotium, there is no need for them to put their future business data in the hands of others.

Having completed this first stage, we are now applying what we have learned to develop solutions for larger enterprises as well. Large enterprises don't feel comfortable with the web marketplace model either. The main question is the ownership of data. We have developed a Personal Exchange Gateway (PEG) that enables larger organizations to instantly convert their legacy EDI systems to take advantage of the Internet. We also offer supplier enabling programs to help large organizations connect their suppliers to their electronic supply chain initiatives; it is a model where everybody is in direct contact with each other.

/ If you were to evaluate the developmental stage of the internet, what would it be?

I remember the first time I saw a pocket calculator in class in the late 60's. It felt so powerful in contrast to the calculating rules we were using at the time. Thirty years later, a family that wants to buy a computer will be offered at least a 1.4 Megahertz machine without a blink. What we see today on the Internet, is only a glimpse of the future. We are still in the tool building stage.

The next step is to help users forget about the tools, so that they only see an extension of their overall communication options. Success will depend and be mostly attributed to good and intuitive interface design.

/ In your view, are there pressing matters that need to be addressed?

Open standards. Making sure that no single software company will indirectly be forcing users into a closed environment. If everybody is capable of exchanging information based on open standards, then users will choose the best software to do the job based on the added value it brings to them, not because its the only choice available.

/ Give us your take on what companies need to do in a networked world.

Different companies have different needs. The big manufacturing ones have to do things that are completely different from a dentist office or a design studio. Each of them as to identify what are their information and communication needs and see how the Internet can help them lower their costs, increase their visibility and better manage their daily operations.

/ Describe the ideal scenario for a company to be successful online.

Develop only what is needed and/or what can be managed. Evaluate the results, only then, go to next steps of development. Unlike print or TV which are predictable media and per se delivered projects are finite as soon as they leave the print shop or the studio. Interactive communications are "aLIVE". These require constant polishing and retouching. It's an evolutionary media... which makes it so interesting.

/ What do you look for when hiring?

Passion for making things better.

/ What makes for a good web site?

That it is designed for results. It could be an impressive interface for a design studio, a simple agenda and calendar for a dentist or a full collaborative environment for a manufacturer. The bottom line is that it gets the job done.

/ What makes a good team?

Respecting and recognizing the forces of each individuals in the group.

/ You are a man of vision. Describe this and how it affects your day-to-day activities?

I am actively involved in several organizations. I meet through theses groups a lot of very active persons. I love to challenge existing processes to see if they are still usable in this changing world. It is the result off all these intellectual confrontations that generates what others call *vision*.

I find that most people today would rather adopt a vision produced by others than try to define their own. Maybe it's the impact of the press, individualism, I don't know. But in the end, we all lose if individuals don't feel that they can participate in the development of our society.

/ Describe what is *inspiration*.

A moment of total openness during which you visualize solutions.

/ Describe what is a top-notch client?

Someone you work with instead of work for.

/ How do you educate your clients?

It's an ongoing process. I give lectures and conferences in their business sector and also send them special clips of business related information. I try to help them understand the information related issues in their own business.

/ Have you been invited to web related events. Can you tell us why?

I have been invited to several. Mostly I think it's because I have a macro vision of the situation and I am a good "vulgarisateur". I love exchanging ideas and direct contact with people who are in a rethinking period which is often the case in these events.

Everybody comes to learn and challenge... I try to help them establish a clear view of where they are standing.

/ Is branding an important issue online?

If you define branding has leaving a clear impression of your product or company, it is. If it's design for design sakes, no.

/ What was the catalytic thought that gave birth to DynEC?

Helping entrepreneurs of all size and industries to concentrate on what they do best and forget about the technology behind eBusiness.

/ Describe what the internet means to you.

An extremely efficient and low cost way of connecting everybody so that they can share information, opinions, content, etc. Its a communication tool first. The results, I hope, is that by connecting individuals, they will realize that they are all aiming for the same objective, that they and their family live a comfortable and happy life. Communication is extremely powerful to change attitudes. Going from corporate owned press to community driven information is the real challenge.

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed online.

Truth: Nobody can fool everybody all the time.

Added value: You have to convince me that I am not losing my time.

Branding: You have to stand out from the pack.

/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.

All of this is to young to be taken for granted, you can make it better - one project at a time.

/ What is the single achievement that makes you most proud?

I never thought about it... it's usually the latest project since I try to implement in it the sum of experience acquired in all the others before it. I'm also very proud of my family. My two kids and my wife are the most important thing in my life.

/ If there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you launch?

Develop a worldwide initiative to help children share their vision of a peaceful world. If they can connect to each other, and exchange ideas and projects, then it will be harder for the adults in their environment to make them think that the rest of the world is in conflict with their culture.

/ What is your opinion of the present situation in the dotcom industry?

The good ideas are surfacing. People who believe in this are there for the long run. Ask other sectors what they felt when they were not recognized as being sexy investments and you'll see that its not hard only for the tech sector. Having a good business strategy is once again the main factor of being successful. The party's over, the real work begins.

/ In your view, explain what is convergence?

The ability to create once and distribute to many different platforms and in different forms. But its happening only because of the possibility of exchanging digital content.

/ Is the www an international network?

It is becoming one everyday. While most of the traffic was in the US, the rest of the world is coming online. Now, to be an active part of it instead of a vast market for the US, we need to participate, publish and be active.

This is not TV...

/ Tell us what the future (net) looks like.

First, the ecology of users will change. We are seeing all types of people coming on board, and machines too. IP cards exists today that can make a piece of machinery communicate with another, in the same plant or around the world. The beauty about the net is that it is infinite. Forget about the commercialization of the net. If we need more space, we can just add more servers, more processing power and bandwidth. While this seems evident, just talk to the radio or TV people about their cost of buying access to finite frequency. Everybody (and everything) can coexist without reducing the privileges of the others.

Then, I hope that we forget about the technology side of it very soon. At last, in the next ten years, most of the new users in the industrialized world will have grown up with it. If we can extend that to the other parts of this planet, within 20 to 30 years, it will become a powerful network connecting users with their business partners, with their machines, but most important, with each other.