CHARLOTTE … Grid computing may soon be as common a term in your vocabulary as the Internet, voice over Internet Protocol is changing telecom, and storage needs are ballooning by 80 percent a year. So said speakers and panelists at the North Carolina Electronics and Information Technology Association’s Top Tech 2004 event Tuesday.

The conference, which focused on emerging technologies and how North Carolina can be a leader in many of them, drew 300 people.

Grid computing, voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), storage management issues, network security and management, wireless access, security and speed, and instant messaging in the Enterprise business dominated the agenda. The need for security crossed all boundaries and touched every discussion of the other technologies.

Focus on banking

Speaking in the nation’s second largest banking center, Wachovia’s Jane Fulton, senior vice president and group executive in financial center technology, stressed the changes banking consumers might expect in five years from now.

Fulton first took an ironic look at past predictions such as “the mainframe is dead,” and “we’ll live in a cashless, checkless society,” and “branch banking is dead.”

“The mainframe is still one of the best transaction processors we have,” she said. “My debit card is my most used card, but every fourth swipe involves cash. And I’m still not living in checkless society.”

Indeed, she pointed out that one hot emerging technology in the banking industry is check imaging equipment that eliminates the need to physically transport checks.

She noted that in order to play in the financial services or banking arena, IT applications must be secure, available, reliable and scalable. “On any given day, any one of those can bring us to our knees,” she said.

The need for financial transparency in banking transactions has “cascaded down from the executive suite to IT departments which are responsible for providing it.”

“Nothing is the same after 9-11,” she said. One of Fulton’s presentation slides cited the crush of legislation requiring privacy, security, and anti-terrorist measures of financial institutions and corporations, including the Gramm-Leach Bailey Act; Basel II; the USA Patriot Act & Anti-money laundering; Sarbanes-Oxley; and the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act (Check 21).

‘Flight to quality’

Fulton was the first but far from the last speaker of the day to point out that business agendas drive them toward the technology solutions they buy. In the case of banks, she said, those include customer relationship management (CRM) products that give a complete view of the customer, and co-browsing applications that allow mobile or home workers to pull up the same data on their screens.

Mark Greene, IBM’s global banking industry global manager made the same point during the “What Industry is Buying Panel,” saying, “business buyers are leading what has been called a ‘flight to quality.’ They’re trying to do more business with fewer suppliers.”

Fulton said that, looking forward, she sees security remaining as a critical focus and that stronger identity management, such as via biometrics, is a certainty. Resilient, multi-channel architecture using a middleware approach will prevail over massive system replacements, she said. Voice, data and video convergence will significantly enhance the infrastructure.

She believes wireless will see increased use on next generation PCs and PDAs and text-to-speech, speech-to-text will see broader experimentation and use.

Emerging trends

Panels covered a range of topics from what industry and the government are buying now to homeland security, nanotechnology and innovative learning applications.

In a panel on emerging technologies and trends, Mirsad Hadzikadic, Ph.D, dean of UNC-Charlotte’s college of information technology, offered a longer term perspective than business panelists focused on the near term.

Hadzikadic, who has an international reputation and is helping UNC-Charlotte gain increasing recognition as a tech-savvy research institution, said that “It’s impossible to continue building software packages with billions of lines of code and expect anyone to manage it.”

Hadzikadic said in the future, self-healing systems will adapt to the user and the environment “Some form of self-replication will let a system build another better than it.”

Completely different forms of computing…molecular, quantum, and DNA-based…are “around the corner,” he added. “We will change the way we build computers and the applications that run on them.”

Selling the Charlotte region

Michael Almond, president and chief executive officer of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, which covers a 16 county area that includes 12 in NC and four in SC, opened with some surprising statistics regarding the region.

Almond noted that while three-quarters of the Charlotte region’s 2.1 million people live outside the cities. Almond said two-thirds of the region’s land is in family farms, and that for every person who goes to work in a bank, four go to work in a factory.

“The product we sell in this global economy,” Almond said, “is not the city but the Charlotte region. The 16 counties working together accomplish things greater than they could working alone. It’s nothing more than the idea that a fist is more powerful than a handful of fingers.”

Together, he said the 16-county, two-state region would be the 16th largest economy in the world, comprised of 12.5 million people with a $400 billion annual gross product, greater than that of many nations.

Almond noted that economists say regions can adapt more quickly to the changing political and economic circumstances. Technology, he added, has played a major role in helping the Charlotte Regional Partnership get its message across.

“We’ve invested millions in our five year Web site enhancement project,” he said, “we’ve had 42,000 visitors to since January and visits tripled since 2002.”