President-elect Barack Obama already is beginning to lay the groundwork for changes in the landscape for technology in this country. Obama's agenda was spelled out in his technology platform during the presidential campaign. From the creation of a chief technology officer to an ambitious electronic medical records plan, he is seeking to renew Washington's focus on technology. There is plenty of speculation over who will become the country's first chief technology officer. The cabinet-level position will help federal agencies implement the latest technology tools and practices and will serve as a link between government IT and the wider tech sector. Media reports suggest Google ( GOOG) CEO (and vocal Obama supporter) Eric Schmidt, Internet guru Vint Cerf, and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt as possible candidates. Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, recently threw his weight behind Obama because of the president-elect's commitment to net neutrality, while Hundt served as a proxy for Obama in a key debate on technology issues during the campaign. Other potential candidates identified by the media include Amazon ( AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos, Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten, and even Microsoft ( MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer. A Washington insider such as Hundt would bring a high level of regulatory and political expertise to the CTO's role, while Schmidt and Bezos could use their experience with cutting edge technologies to bring information technology in the federal government into the 21st century. Whoever becomes chief technology officer, Silicon Valley is expected to have the ear of the president during the coming years. Employees at Microsoft and Google were amongst Obama's top campaign contributors, according to research from the Center For Responsive Politics.
With donations of $714,108, Microsoft's staff and their families were ranked fourth amongst Obama's top contributors, closely followed by Google. IBM ( IBM) was ranked 14th with contributions totaling $415,196. One part of Obama's campaign that could have massive implications for tech is his plan for electronic health information systems. Obama is seeking to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system by allocating $10 billion a year over five years to build an electronic medical record system. That's a significant sum, particularly at a time when firms are slowing their IT spending. Specialist healthcare IT companies like Athena Health ( ATHN) and Allscripts ( MDRX), as well as services giants such as EDS ( EDS), now part of Hewlett Packard ( HPQ), could all benefit from this strategy. Deploying electronic medical records is easier said than done. The United Kingdom's National Health Service has struggled with delays, rising costs, and contract disputes in its $20 billion attempt to implement an electronic medical records system. The U.K.'s problems would pale in comparision with the ambitious, complex effort that would be needed under the Obama administration to implement an electronic medical record system in the U.S., with its myriad private healthcare companies. Other planks of Obama's technology strategy include making government data easily accessible online, making the research and development tax credit permanent, and extending broadband access to all Americans. While these moves could all potentially benefit tech companies, there are still some question marks over Obama's broadband strategy. The president-elect's Web site says, somewhat vaguely, that this will be supported through reforms of the Universal Service Fund and new tax and loan incentives, presumably for firms building broadband links.
The Universal Service Fund aims to ensure that consumers across the country have the same access to telecommunication services and pay similar rates. Obama's tech plan says the fund will include "affordable broadband" and "previously un-served communities" will become top priority. The senator has not set a timetable for when this change will be made. In a video released in the last days of his campaign, Obama promised to enforce tough antitrust laws "to keep the door open for the next-generation of startups." While this will undoubtedly play well with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it will be interesting to see what impact the strategy will have on technology giants Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! ( YHOO) who are hardly strangers to antitrust battles. Obama did not mention technology during his acceptance speech late Tuesday, making only fleeting reference to America's scientific achievements. There is little doubt, though, that the new president's time in the White House will offer significant opportunities and challenges for the tech sector.