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New center puts state on the interactive map NITC celebrates grand opening


ROCKVILLE -- All you had to do was touch Gov. Willia Donald Schaefer's nose and the computer program sprang to life.

On the screen came a map of Maryland. Michael Walter touched the Baltimore area and up on the screen came a menu of information categories, including restaurants. A few more touches and up came a photograph of people scarfing down crabs at Obrycki's.

The "toy" Mr. Walter was showing off yesterday was one of the first tangible rewards of a $5 million investment by the state of Maryland in an innovative "matchmaking" service designed to bring users and providers of advanced information technologies together.

The National Information Technology Center (NITC), which held its grand opening yesterday after a year of low-key operations, helped create the electronic "Destination Maryland" program.

Mr. Walter said the program was developed after NITC recognized how a real estate sales program developed by AT&T; Network Systems could be adapted to create an interactive, continuously updated "digital tourism" kiosk for the Maryland Division of Tourism and Promotion.

When it is fully developed, the computer program will let subscribers update information about themselves virtually instantly. A hotel, for instance, could post lower room rates if it found itself with too many unoccupied rooms on a given weekend.

Eventually, the program could be made available on home or office computers, Mr. Walter said.

The development process for the prototype information kiosk, which could reach the rollout stage by late summer, is an illustration of NITC's unusual approach to technology, said Mr. Walter, president of the center, a quasi-public consortium of government agencies, universities, trade associations and private businesses.

"We find a need first and the technology second," he said. "Others start with the technology and then go to find the need."

NITC kicked off its day of seminars and celebration yesterday with a dramatic demonstration of the power of state-of-the-art information technology.

NITC's chairman, Ivor Knight, held a face-to-face meeting with reporters, telling them the center showed that Maryland was in the forefront in recognizing the importance of information technologies to a state's commerce.

What was unusual about Mr. Knight's remarks was that the COMSAT World Systems vice president delivered them in Singapore last night while his listeners were watching him from NITC's new headquarters in Rockville yesterday morning. Through a video-conference arranged by COMSAT and AT&T; Network Systems, his comments were bounced off two satellites and a relay station in England.

Clarksburg-based COMSAT is one of about 40 members NITC has signed up since it began operations in March 1992.

First proposed by the Montgomery County High Technology Council, the nonprofit consortium started operations with a $1 million grant from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development and a state commitment of $1 million for each of the next few years. Mr. Walter said the center hopes to eventually become self-sufficient.

Originally called the Maryland Information Technology Center, it changed its name to "National" last year to reflect its audacious goals.

Mr. Walter described NITC's mission in pithy terms. "We want to help our members avoid becoming road kill on the information highway," he said.

NITC's approach, Mr. Walter said, is to foster "virtual integration" as opposed to vertical integration -- by bringing small and large companies together in a neutral venue where they can build strategic partnerships.

The center will also offer members the use of laboratories for product development and demonstrations.

One of the most unusual facilities is what NITC calls its "usability lab," where manufacturers or potential users of new technologies can conduct scientific tests of the user-friendliness of a software program or piece of hardware.

One aim of the center, Mr. Walter said, is to make Maryland the place where new information technologies show up first. "Our approach is to help Maryland become the 'demo state,' " he said.

John James, a marketing strategist with XSoft in Palo Alto, Calif., said NITC's nonprofit status was essential because it assures companies that "there's no vested interest here."

Mr. James said XSoft, the software development arm of Xerox Corp., has already been "richly rewarded" by its membership in NITC. Through the center, he said, his company been matched with several potential customers.

"We're not married, but we're clearly dating," he said.

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