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Matt Barrie predicts biggest trends in the digital revolution



15 November 2012

The Internet revolution has only just started, the speed of change is likely to intensify and it will turn every business and institution on its head, including university education.

That was the challenging landscape painted by entrepreneur and lecturer Matt Barrie, Chief Executive of Freelancer.com, in a speech to alumni on 'The Next Big Thing' at the Sydney Connections breakfast at the Ivy Room on November 8.

Barrie, who graduated with degrees in Science (1995) and Engineering (1997), is already at the wheel driving that change. He started Freelancer.com in May 2009 and less than four years later, it has become the world's largest outsourcing marketplace, with 4.3 million users in 234 countries, 200 employees and a support team in 20 different languages.

In his address to a room of alumni riveted by his portrait of the future, Barrie outlined four macro trends that help define the digital revolution: First, software is eating the world. Everything that used to be a good, a thing, is now being turned into a service via software, Barrie explained. "Google is the biggest direct marketing company in the world, music is on iTunes, friends are on Facebook, money is on Paypal, retailing is on Amazon."

Second, the other 70 percent of the world's population is about to join the Internet. The western world is largely connected but Africa, India and China are still lagging behind, although "China now has more people connecting to the Internet than the whole population of the US."

Third, distribution is becoming unprecedented, and the parabolic growth in distribution of goods and services comes from "harnessing distribution firehoses", says Barrie. Beyond obvious examples such as Facebook, he spoke aboutcrowdsourcing sites, where people can put up a request for anything from funding for a song, scientific research or writing someone else's essay, which can be sent around the world.

On an American internet news site called Reddit, students saw that a woman bus driver had not taken a holiday in 40 years. They felt sorry for her and requested donations on a site to help buy her a vacation. "They raised $700,000 in 24 hours."

Fourth, every business today is becoming an Internet business, and by implication any business that resists this trend will find it hard to compete and survive. No areas of commerce or endeavour will be immune, including universities.

"This may lead to the ruin of the current education model used by universities around the world," Barrie explained. Instead of students coming to a physical place to learn, they will be able to learn remotely and attend any institution in the world. "The future of the university course is $1 per student per class."

This astonishing prospect is not in the future but already a reality, with US academic Sebastian Thrun, a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, offering to teach a Masters degree for $100. "Why do a Masters (in Australia) for $40,000 a year?" Barrie asked rhetorically.

While the cost may sound uneconomic, it would allow the university to cherrypick the best students from around the world, and assemble the next Nobel Prize winners from Bangladesh or Africa, he explained.

Barrie's address, the final in this year's Sydney Connections Breakfast series, was indeed rich food for thought. You can watch a video of his talk here.