Advances in Chinese speech-recognition technology would bring major changes to the global computer industry, an IBM official says. 'The major inhibitor is the keyboard,' George Wang, director of IBM's China research laboratory, said. The solution lies in the creation of a 'keyboardless' computer, due to the Chinese language's 5,000 characters. The technology could then be applied to develop a range of keyboardless computers that would be adopted and marketed around the world. The solution, which would create an easier and more natural method of inputting data, was being pursued by the major computer companies, Mr Wang said. 'It's very competition intensive. Because of the advent of computer technology, it's only now that we can look at the commercial sector of speech-recognition technology.' IBM's latest Chinese speech dictation unit, which has been demonstrated in Hong Kong and Beijing, is an algorithm-based system with a 30,000-word vocabulary. It enables dictation in continuous speech and recognises Mandarin variations such as Shanghainese. In addition to speech recognition, the IBM China lab is also developing Chinese-language Internet products. A program that translates English-language Web pages into Japanese is being adapted for the Chinese market. Mr Wang said the Net was rapidly gaining popularity in China, despite the limitations of the country's telecommunications infrastructure. There are an estimated 70,000 mainland Internet users, a number expected to grow to a quarter of a million by the end of the year. Mr Wang said it was not premature to begin developing Web-based products for the China market because the infrastructure was improving rapidly. He pointed to the challenges faced by the IBM lab when it was set up in Beijing 19 months ago. Situated in an isolated northern region, the lab did not have a leased line and relied on a wireless modem. Telephone lines have since been installed in the area and the lab is now able to run a 108 kilobits-per-second modem. 'Technology in China is very much an emerging market,' Mr Wang said. The mainland lab served as a bridge between IBM's worldwide laboratories and China. 'We're taking leading-edge technology from around the world . . . and enhancing it so it can be applied to the China marketplace.'