It seems so obvious: the Internet is the most important development of
recent times and we need to adopt it. As Jairam Ramesh kept reminding
us during a recent TV discussion on the Net, it holds the key to
“India’s economic and technological future”. Why then do individuals,
companies, and governments move so slowly to make in the cornerstone
of business strategy? Why is something which seems so obvious to some
of us not so evident to others?
Firstly, the Internet in India is not visible. Newspaper, magazines,
television — they can be seen anywhere. It does not require much
effort to “browse” these media. The Internet hurdle is very
significant. A computer, modem, phone-line, VSNL account are still not
good enough. You need to have a browser, the dialler properly
configured and a bit of patience to actually connect to the Net. And
then, wait 20-30 seconds for each page to materialise on the
screen. It is too elaborate and costly a procedure, like the procedure
to follow for a dip in the Ganga. Most human beings have too much else
to do than worry about setting aside an hour for the Browsing
Process. Result: Internet accounts, even after two years of
availability, number just about 50,000.
Secondly, the benefits of Internet access are not clearly evident. So,
yes, you can browse upto 150 million pages, communicate with 60
million other people, search for anything on the Net and locate tens
of thousands of pages. Who cares? There is too much unorganised
information to be useful. The more the sites, the fewer people will
actually visit. Channel surfing with a remote is easy, Web-surfing
over a 28.8 Kbps modem is still too slow. Sending email…how many
email addresses can you remember (or locate in your Rolodex)? Are the
ones whom you want to communicate with the kind who check their email
box regularly? In India, the answers are not the ones we want to hear.
Thirdly, the business potential of the Net has not been proven. The
occasional inquiry does not a business make. Since there aren’t enough
Indians on the web, one has to target sites at companies/individuals
abroad. Its also harder selling to people half way across the
world. We need the domestic numbers, no two ways about it. Whether it
is for an Intranet, a website or an Extranet, businesses need hard
numbers, and these are not available in the Indian context.
Fourthly, there are no great Indian success stories. An industry needs
role models. Netscape, Yahoo, Amazon make for great inspirations. They
are part of Net folklore. In India, there really aren’t any such great
successes yet. In addition, the venture capital, which makes
risk-taking easier for entrepreneurs, is missing from India. We need nine
companies to fail so that one can succeed spectacularly and inspire
others. Somewhat like the film industry. In the Net business, there is
hope and optimism, and only that.
Finally, the people who can make decisions are too far removed from
the Internet. They read about it, but the whole process of connecting
to it once is enough to convince them that the average person is not
going to get onto it in a hurry. In government, there are too many
lobbies clouding the real issues. The people can who make a difference
have no voice. Many of the journalists who write about it have limited
access and experience on the Net.
India needs change on the Internet. Desperately. The pace of decision
making about the Internet is too slow for the rate of change and
innovation on the Net. It becomes a race one has lost even before it
has begun. One can read about developments abroad and dream. Of a
world that could have been. For individuals, companies and yes, the
government. Leave it alone unfettered and watch a thousand flowers
bloom. Try and control it, and you will be writing an epitaph.