TECH TALK: The New Internet: The New Internet : C3 + E3 = D2

The two defining themes of the New Internet will be Pervasive Connectedness and Real-Time Infrastructure. The Internet will be like an envelope around us, creating an always-on, always-connected world. It will also provide us – at home, at work, and everywhere else – with information and services on demand and in real-time. In doing so, the Internet becomes invisible and yet provides visibility across the value chain.

Pervasive Connectedness: Broadband IP-based networks built using a mix of optics for the backbone and wireless for the last mile will ensure that there is ubiquitous connectivity. Today’s cellular networks ensure reach through in most parts of the world. Tomorrow, a combination of the high-speed cellular networks like 2.5G and 3G, and community networks using technologies like 802.11b (Wi-Fi, which uses the free 2.4 Ghz spectrum) will provide high-speed connectivity everywhere.

Real-Time Infrastructure: When software and data moves into the network “cloud”, it becomes possible to deliver just the information one needs – based on location, time and context. Sensors embedded in places and machines originate information which gets carried over wireless networks into the network for distribution to users based on interests and preferences. As information increases, there will be a need for automation through agents (or “knowledge bots”) which can not just filter, but also process the information in real-time.

There are two outcomes: the Connected, Communicative, Consumer (C3) and the Electronic, Extended Enterprise (E3). The successful integration of the two results in the Digital Dividend (D2) – sustainable competitive advantage and superior profits.

For Consumers, the New Internet means universal connectivity to information, application and services via personal, wireless devices. Instead of just pulling up and reading information, the experience now becomes interactive through streaming video. We are already seeing this today as people in countries like India use the Instant Messaging platform combined with multimedia computers have “phone” conversations with family and friends elsewhere in the world – all for the cost of a local call.

For Enterprises, the New Internet extends the enterprise value chain to include its suppliers, partners and customers. Self-service forms, integrated databases in which data is entered only once, event-driven notifications, corporate portals ensure visibility of information across the value chain. An immediate by-product of this will be in the reduction of inventory. The Internet ensures cheaper communications and the reduction in transactions costs by streamlining business processes. Outsourcing will increase as companies think hard about which of their processes add value and which do not.

Among all this change, there are some constants: the need for Vision, Strategy, Capital and Innovation to build the successful businesses of tomorrow.

TECH TALK: The New Internet: Three views of the New Internet

Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler and Ora Lassila, writing in Scientific American (May 2001, http://www.sciam.com):

    The essential property of the World Wide Web is its universality. The power of a hypertext link is that “anything can link to anything.” Web technology, therefore, must not discriminate between the scribbled draft and the polished performance, between commercial and academic information, or among cultures, languages, media and so on. Information varies along many axes. One of these is the difference between information produced primarily for human consumption and that produced mainly for machines. At one end of the scale we have everything from the five-second TV commercial to poetry. At the other end we have databases, programs and sensor output. To date, the Web has developed most rapidly as a medium of documents for people rather than for data and information that can be processed automatically. The Semantic Web aims to make up for this.

    The Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation. The first steps in weaving the Semantic Web into the structure of the existing Web are already under way. In the near future, these developments will usher in significant new functionality as machines become much better able to process and “understand” the data that they merely display at present.

A view from Forrester (http://www.forrester.com):

    Web browsers have brought Internet services to millions of people. As a result, Internet usage has boomed. However, the Web’s days are numbered as the Internet moves to a second round of expansion beyond the browser. Two new waves of innovation will eclipse the Web: an executable Net that greatly improves the online experience, and an extended Net that connects the real world.

    The first stage in the X Internet is an executable Net. Users will get real-time, interactive experiences over the Net through disposable code — programs you use once and throw away — downloaded to their PCs and handheld devices. These quick downloads will allow users to carry on extended conversations with Net services.

    An extended Internet is also emerging through Internet devices and applications that sense, analyze, and control the real world. With cheap chips and a worldwide Internet backbone, nearly every device that runs on electricity will have an Internet connection, through both wired and wireless networks. The result? The number of Internet devices will boom from today’s 100 million to more than 14 billion in 2010.

John Doerr from Kleiner Perkins (http://www.kpcb.com), quoted in International Business Week:

    The Net [in the future] will be very, very different than the Net we know today. It will be what I like to call an Evernet. It’ll be always on, it’ll be on all kinds of devices, not just on PCs. It’ll be on set-top computers, and it’ll be on tables in kitchens, and God hope, in all the classrooms. And it’ll be wireless everywhere. Lots and lots of Net everywhere, pervasive Net, Evernet, always on. And it will be a very high-bandwidth Net. It won’t be static little pictures and text. Or if it is a picture when you click on it, you’ll get a movie behind it. It’ll be highly personal also. It will know that you are there in the room, and it will know a lot by virtue of your portal or your provider. It’ll present the stuff you’re interested in. It won’t show you ads you’re not interested in.

Forrester calls it the “X Internet”. Tim Berners-Lee calls it the “Semantic Web”. John Doerr calls it the “Evernet”. Everyone’s in search for it, and yet no one can lay claim to it. This is the Internet that is emerging – an Internet which will go beyond the Web of hyperlinks and documents that we know today, an Internet which will be more than just a way of allowing people to access information put up on computers through browsers.

This is the New Internet and it being built around two themes: Pervasive Connectedness and Real-time Infrastructure.

TECH TALK: The New Internet: Building Blocks of the New Internet

The Internet of tomorrow will be powered by changes taking place today in computing, communications and software.

Computing: The first trend is Moore’s law, which continues to power the rapid progress in semiconductor development. Each new chip doubles in power every 18 months. This has led to an exponential increase in processing power (coupled with falling costs) in the past three decades and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The second trend is the increasing proliferation of non-PC devices. Cellphones and PDAs are at the forefront of the race to create smaller but powerful devices which are truly “personal”. The third trend is that of embedded computing. An embedded processor does one task with a larger machine. From cars to elevators, embedded computers are today everywhere. Over 1.6 billion embedded microprocessors are reported to have been shipped.

Communications: The first trend is Gilder’s Law which holds that bandwidth increases exponentially – doubling every 6-9 months. This is being largely driven by fibre optics. Undersea cables with huge capacities now circle the globe. Adding new bandwidth means lighting up more fibre. The second trend is Wireless. GSM and CDMA networks connect a billion cellphones into the telecom network.

Broadband wireless is also becoming a reality to bridge the “last mile”. To bring the connection to the “last few feet” are emerging protocols like Bluetooth, and 802.11b (Wi-Fi) and 802.11a. The third trend is the building of the farms of the technology age – Data Centres. These data farms make technology a utility – offering computing and applications on demand.

Software: The first trend is that of Web Services – software becoming a service. Instead of paying large upfront licencing costs, software will increasingly become available as a utility service in the network “cloud”. Components from different vendors can be assembled on the fly from across the network through standards such as XML, SOAP, WSDL and UDDI. XML allows data to be exchanged, SOAP provides the wrapper for exchanging data, WSDL is the language to describe web services while UDDI provides the directory to locate web services on the Internet. The second trend is open-source, where developers work worldwide on projects which are in the public domain, and can be extended by anyone. Linux and the Apache web server are two examples of open-source software. The third trend is the creation of zero-defect software. Software is at the heart of real-time applications and mission-critical. At the same time, it has become increasingly complex. Yet, it simply cannot fail.

These are the trends which serve as the foundation for the creation of the Internet of tomorrow.

TECH TALK: The New Internet: The Internet Story So Far

What began as a mechanism to allow researchers to communicate with each other over 30 years ago has become the foundation for the biggest revolution in modern-day business. The Internet, piggybacking on the rise of the computer, has connected people, computers and businesses worldwide, and spurred innovation on an unprecedented scale. Today, nearly 100 million computers and 500 million people are connected by the Internet worldwide.

The defining moments for the dramatic increase in the Internet penetration and usage worldwide were the creation of the Web, hyperlinking and HTML by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (in Europe), followed by the development of Mosaic by Marc Andressen and his team at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign (in the US). HTML and its simplicity allowed the publishing of documents by anyone, and enabled documents to be linked to each other, creating what became the “World Wide Web”. Mosaic (and then Netscape) gave the Web a graphical interface and made accessing these documents as easy as just clicking on blue-coloured underlined words.

The IPO of Netscape followed by the subsequent IPOs of Yahoo, Excite, Lycos, Amazon and eBay and their monumental valuations fired the imagine of entrepreneurs worldwide and unleashed perhaps the greatest modern day “gold rush”. The race for eyeballs was on. As money flowed first from venture capitalists and then from the public markets, companies raced to build websites for every conceivable offering for consumers and for businesses.

A new industry was being created. Old business models meant little as companies were valued based on multiples of their traffic. The New Economy was here. Speed and time-to-market mattered. Profits didn’t. Youth was in, Experience out. When AOL bought Time Warner and PCCW took over Hong Kong Telecom, the “revolution” was complete.

In many ways, this “irrational exuberance” perhaps shortened the adoption period and acceptance of the Internet, the Web and eCommerce dramatically. As “Old Economy” companies faced competition from upstarts, there was a frenzy to adopt the Internet in many aspects of business. But the Internet by itself was not a disruptive technology. Consumers and business processes change slower than technology. Relationships and practices built over years do not simply go away just because of the Internet.

The last fifteen months have seen a dramatic, almost unbelievable, change in the world of technology and in people’s attitudes towards technology and new-generation entrepreneurship. As the stock markets collapsed taking with it many listed and private companies, it seemed like the end. But it was only the end of the beginning. The change being brought about by technology and the Internet is for real. As we shall see in the next few columns, a new Internet is being built – an Internet that is helping glue together great progress in computing, communications and software. Only, this time around, profits do matter.

TECH TALK: News Refinery: News Refining Process

News Pages are the Ore. We are then setting up a complete refining process to remove the junk from these pages so we can get to the “metal”. The components of the Refinery are:

  • PageBot: URLs are fed into a bot: . Output of the Bot is an HTML page, which contains the headlines. Need to also check if page has changed. Alert if page cannot be botted for 3 successive time periods. Queue pages for processing. The bots keep running constantly.
  • PageQueue: This queues the pages, and sends them to the HeadlinesExtractor. Needs to prioritise pages based on their importance if queue gets big. May also do checks like if page has not changed.
  • HeadlinesExtractor: Gets the headlines from the HTML page. A mix of auto-manual techniques. Output is a collection of headlines: . The description comes if it is available on the page with the headlines. NumberOnPage indicates the importance of the headline (the no. in the sequence). Also needs to compare if headline/URL already exists and then overwrite if necessary.
  • StoryBot: Takes the URL of the story and gets the full-text page. In case of there being multiple pages for the story, one should get the “printer-friendly” page – most sites offer such a page.
  • StoryExtractor: Takes the story page and then extracts the actual story from it, stripping away the unnecessary stuff. Also tries to extract the author of the story, and the summary (first 20-odd words).

Thus, at this time, we have 3 databases: the URL database for botting, Headlines, Stories.

Then, we come to the Analytics.

  • Classifier: Classifies the headline/story by topic/concept and puts it in a hierarchy.
  • Analyser: can do more detailed analysis, based on aggregated browsing histories.
  • Miner: look for other types of trends in what people are reading and doing.

Business Model

I have not thought of how one makes money from this. But the most likely thing is to make into a subscription service (a News Portal) for use of the advanced features. It’s a service which will grow on people. Like Google. No one likes to miss out on a story. People also like to share stories and be the first to share them. We all email interesting stories to friends. After email and instant messaging (both falling in the communications category), news and information is what we access most often on the Web. There is so much of it out there, but so little structure to it all.

TECH TALK: News Refinery: News Refinery Features

Here then is a features summary of the News Refinery:

Aggregation Collection of all the headlines from multiple sources
Customisation Creating my newspaper, with multiple pages
Database / Filing Classifying and filing (archiving) headlines and stories in folders
Search By date, source, author, content (keywords), concept
Alerts Notifications on keywords, breaking stories; multiple device support
Summaries Quick, brief story summaries, especially if headline is short or cryptic
Daily Email Just in case there is no web access; also
email of marked articles
Similar Stories Stories like the one I am reading
Classification Directory of Headlines for navigation by category
Recommendations Based on what other people are reading and overlapping interests
Offline Access Sync stories with my computer (store locally) so I can read them offline
Sharing Putting stories in common folders to allow others to access them
Email / Forward To friends; also keep track of what I am
forwarding to whom
Discuss / Weblog Comments on stories; Use to create user-generated content and communities
Table of Contents Single Page ToCs for magazines so I can see all stories on 1 page
Translation For reading stories in other languages
Filters Remove duplicates (e.g., same story from wire service)
My Addition Allow for addition of new source by giving URL
In-Context Place the event / story in context, provide perspective, chronological events (timeline), related stories from other sources
Favourites What others are reading and where, like Amazon’s Circles
Learning See what I am doing and learn, become smarter, monitor interests
Repeat Search Search for certain keywords at specific frequencies of time; email results
News Browser Custom front-end to better navigate news; add filters to narrow
News Plus Like VCR+, link online-offline; easier access to stories in print
Extensions To Discussion Forums, Press Releases, etc.
Visual Appeal Create a 2D/3D Map of stories; use colour to depict age of
stories
NewsBar Like the Google Toolbar which sits on the desktop for alerts, quick links
Search Others A single window search on various news sites; email results from all

TECH TALK: News Refinery: News Refinery Characteristics (contd)

  1. It should also learn my interests by seeing what stories I click on. By comparing my interests with others, it can (a) refer me to other people like me and their comments, and (b) point out stories which I may otherwise have missed.
  2. It should be able to make summaries of stories automatically so as to save me time.
  3. It should be able to compare stories so as not to give me multiple copies (eg. a story from a news wire like Reuters may actually show up in multiple sites).
  4. Headlines should also be pre-classified into a directory, allowing me to navigate by topic.
  5. I should be able to add a new news source easily – just by giving a URL.
  6. The software and intelligence in the system should adapt to my interests and learn from the collective. It should evolve.
  7. I should be able to place the story in “context” with other such developments.
  8. I want to get a sense of favourites – what are people reading in different parts of the world (like Amazon’s Circles).
  9. I want to be able to chronologically follow certain stories / topics, or even writings by an author.
  10. A “Similar Stories” Search: show me other stories like this.
  11. Repeat specific “Searches” once a week and send me all new stories.
  12. I can pick up articles I want to read, and these can either show up on a single page, or can be emailed to me. On a slow link as I have, it takes 30-45 seconds per link I click on. (My solution to this has been to turn images off for browsing and open articles in multiple windows using the right mouse button.)
  13. A useful service: email me a specific news site page at a fixed time daily. Like I want the Red Herring top page, WSJ Tech news page, News.com top page daily since its hard for me to search for stories on that page once they get “overwritten”.
  14. We also need to think of how this can be extended to multimedia news (images, audio, video) – these types are increasing.
  15. Imagine if every news story published had a unique identifier, like a book’s ISBN number. This would allow one to reference it easily forever. In some ways the URL is this code number. This code could also show up in the print edition at the end of an article, allowing easy access on the web in case I wanted to email it or download it for my future reference (like the physical acts of cutting and filing). This allows for closer linkages between offline and online.

TECH TALK: News Refinery: News Refinery Characteristics

What does the News Refinery do?

  1. It collects all the headlines and perhaps brief summaries from all news sites globally on a continuous basis.
  2. It allows me to set up preferences so that I can make my own daily newspaper by putting together these headlines – it may have multiple pages which reflect my different interests.
  3. I can reference these pages or the headlines for a site by date: which means there is a closure of an edition that happens from one day to next. This ensures that if I am on vacation and cannot access the web, I can always go back and look at the headlines of that day. (This also requires an archival facility for the headlines.)
  4. I can create my own “taxonomy” to classify stories into folders. Ideally, I would want to extend an existing taxonomy, which means stories may need to be pre-classified.
  5. I want the stories downloaded on to my computer so I have access to them offline also.
  6. I should be able to search stories: not just the headlines but also the full-text of the stories. This means that the headlines will need to botted and get the full-text also. It also means a sophisticated search engine. [A bot is an automated program which fetches a page, given a URL]
  7. I want to get alerts based on certain keywords. Alerts should be deliverable on multiple devices.
  8. I want to access stories by: source (publication), date, author and keywords/people in the content of the story.
  9. I should be able to set up on-line folders for stories so classified so that I can share these with others. The current alternative is to email stories to friends and colleagues. In fact, by monitoring my activities, it should be able to recommend which story goes to whom. It should also keep track of which stories I have forwarded to whom.
  10. I should be able to comment on the stories (like a Post-It). This can make for a discussion thread, or allow me to maintain a Weblog. This can also serve as the basis of creating communities.
  11. For magazines, I should be able to create a Table of Contents (ToC) for all the articles in that issue. Have multiple ToCs on one page to allow me to easily scan a new interesting source that I may have discovered.
  12. In many cases, an article not linked from one of the top pages of a site is lost forever (unless discovered by Search). So, a listing of all recent stories (say of the past week, and on a single page) would be very useful.
  13. I want my personal newspaper emailed to me daily.
  14. It should work in English and other languages. For other languages, it should be able to do translations.
  15. It should strip out the news from the story the unnecessary “clutter” (ads, unnecessary images) and focus only on the content of the story, thus reducing the size of the page.

TECH TALK: News Refinery: A World of News

We spend a lot of our time reading everyday – newspapers, magazines, websites. We are in search of news and information. This “information absorption” activity is perhaps the largest consumer of our time after email. The Web allows us to increase manifold the sources of news and information that we can now tap. These sources are not only updating us with what is happening in the world in specific areas, but are also serving as the source of new ideas. It is therefore important to be able to get the news and information without missing anything and from all over, and perhaps faster. Being able to see a lot of sources together can also help us identify trends which we may otherwise have missed. Also, as business becomes more global, it is not enough to just read the local or national newspapers.

We all have our own ways of keeping up-to-date with what is happening. Here is my way of scanning news and managing articles of interest. I just have to read everything possible (written in English) and like to, at least, have a general sense of knowledge of what is happening in most areas. Look at the way I do things. I go to various websites daily (about 6-7), scan the headlines, click on some stories, and if they are of interest, I either read them and/or email the story to myself for later reading and filing. Then, once every few days, I sit for a stretch, read the stories in detail, and make notes which allow me to think and reflect, and then file the electronic stories in appropriate folders (in Outlook Express). This also means I am limited to Outlook Express’ search techniques to search the stories later.

This process helps me cull out new ideas, and perhaps apply what has worked for someone else to my business. It’s a process which is also painstaking. It takes time – going to all these sites and hunting out what I want. Also, if I miss a day, then it is very difficult to get the stories of that day from the Web because the website is a continuum – there is no concept of an edition for a specific day. This means that unless I actually subscribe to the print edition, it is possible to miss out on stories. The print editions have little or no linkage to the website – one cannot, for example, easily look up a story one has just read I the print edition on the web for filing or forwarding.

All in all, even though news is critical for our lives and drives a lot of decisions we make, the way we process news leaves a lot to be desired. One can of course pay for certain services which can allow search but considering that most sites put up their regular editions on the web for free, it should be possible to create a site/service which leverages this to help us derive greater value for news.

Sites like Lexis-Nexis and Factiva provide access to stories, but they all cost a lot of money. Considering that news sites publish freely, it doesn’t make sense to pay for their archives – they actually charge me for the past, which seems kind of counter-intuitive! This forces me to maintain my own filing system. Moreover.com collects headlines from 1700 sources, but is a very primitive form of what we would like. They have done a good job on the “grabbing” and classification. But one needs to go way beyond that. PurpleYogi too has an interesting tool but the free, consumer version is too rigid and limited.

What is needed is a News Refinery – to create a better system to navigate, search and derive value from news.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Rays of Hope (Part 2)

Continuing the Rays of Hope in today’s India:

  1. An increasing number of Indians are returning back from abroad. While some are being forced to do so (due to the slowdown in the USA), there are many others who are doing so out of choice. Even among NRIs, the frequency of visits to India is on the increase. This is a good starting point for building a local base in technology and other areas.
  2. Availability of Venture Capital funding has never been better for
    entrepreneurs. Success stories of IP-driven companies like Switch-On
    Networks and Sasken offer a positive outlook for the future. A recent
    issue of Business Today (http://www.business-today.com) has a cover
    story on India’s next big opportunity: BioInformatics.

  3. India’s democracy remains its greatest strength, its politicians perhaps its biggest weakness. But there is a new generation of younger leaders coming up who offer hope of doing things differently (and are very media-savvy). The Indian Express talked about some of them in a recent article. Examples: Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Pramod Mahajan (BJP); Jairam Ramesh, Madhavrao Scindia, Jaipal Reddy (Congress); Sitaram Yechury (Left Front).
  4. India’s free press is a great asset, and along with India’s democracy something Indians can be proud of.
  5. There is an increasing recognition of the threat from China among Indian industry. This in itself is a good sign. Businesspeople are realizing that the result of doing nothing will be death. Their answer is not just running to the government asking for greater protection, but looking for partnerships, joint ventures, and even acquisitions.
  6. Recognition among India’s foreign policy mavens that a strong relationship with the US is critical to India’s future is an important change. The US has also been quick to reciprocate. During his recent US visit, Jaswant Singh had an unscheduled meeting with the US President George W. Bush, something unthinkable a few years ago.
  7. The success of Indians abroad and their desire to contribute back to India is a strong positive going ahead. What India needs is not just their money, but also their contributions in setting up companies locally which can help foster a culture of entrepreneurship.
  8. There has been an increase in the number of Indians traveling abroad. As they do so and see the good things abroad, their desire to have the same things in India (the tangibles and intangibles) will make a difference.
  9. India’s recent tragedies (the Gujarat earthquake, the Orissa cyclone) drew a huge response in terms of contributions from the international community. This concern and sympathy is a sign of India’s improved standing. Even the domestic and NRI contributions in the wake of the Kargil aftermath were unprecedented.
  10. India is now 4th world wide in terms of Purchasing Power Parity, after USA, Japan and China.
  11. The media and entertainment industry in India has been growing well. India already makes the largest number of films in the world. What is needed now is for Indian film-makers to create products which can do well internationally – this potential has not yet been tapped. An example is the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” which grossed over USD 100 million worldwide.

These are but a few Rays of Hope. To build the new India will require a lot more than this – an efforts and sacrifices from every Indian – in India and outside. Change is not going to happen overnight, but over a generation. We owe it to our children to give them an India which is smarter, richer, and more competitive – an India which is a leader in the world.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Rays of Hope (Part 1)

The past few columns have looked at what India needs to do in various areas (Infrastructure, Economy, IT and the Internet, Education, Mindset, Leadership) to make the 21st century as India’s century. There are good things happening around us which one can often miss. These may be small, isolated instances but they offer hope for the future. One of the key attributes of entrepreneurs and for leading change is optimism. That is what is on offer here – 21 rays of hope for the 21st century India.

  1. The use of electronic voting machines in the recently concluded Assembly elections ensured that leads and results started flowing in very quickly. By late afternoon, almost all the results were in. A great example of technology actually making a difference in one of the most critical processes in a democracy.
  2. Last week, the government opened up additional areas for private and Foreign Direct Investment. A step in the right direction. Also last week, in a world where telecom companies are increasingly under pressure, it was good to see an Indian telecom company (Bharti) get USD 450 million in FDI from the likes of Singapore Telecom and Warburg Pincus.
  3. Customs and Immigration at Mumbai airport has improved dramatically. Now, there is a single, Disneyland-style queue, the officers are cheerful and fast in doing their checks, baggage seems to appear faster, and the green channel actually works well for honest people!
  4. The Union Budget presented by Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha in late February was one of the most progressive and pro-economy. The stock market scam which broke after that is now forcing measures to clean up the exchanges and strong (though delayed) action by the market regulator, Sebi. The result is likely to be more teeth for Sebi (the courts have already refused to intervene) and the corporatisation of the stock exchanges.
  5. India’s software industry and engineers have earned the respect of the world. The success of companies like Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Satyam and others have created hope for the future.
  6. The GSM cellphone networks work very well across the country. Cellphones are now available across many parts of India, coverage is excellent, and competition is ensuring a reduction in rates. One can actually drive across a city and talk uninterrupted on the cellphone.
  7. Indian companies continue to list on international stock exchanges. At a time when the Nasdaq was at its recent lows, Dr. Reddy’s Lab listed itself in the US. Satyam Computers has also bee listed on the New York Stock Exchange. A strong vote of confidence for not just the two companies, but also the two sectors that offer great hope for the future – pharma and software.
  8. India’s five-star hotels are as state-of-the-art as you get anywhere in the world. In Mumbai, two recent openings include Le Meridien and ITC Grand Maratha Sheraton, both very close to the city’s international airport. Jet Airways offers as good a flying experience as any other top airline in the world. If only our ground transportation could be better, tourism could do very well in India.
  9. The IITs and IIMs have earned very high marks for their educational experience. These ten-odd institutes are India’s pride. India’s strength in mathematics and sciences augurs well for the knowledge economy.
  10. Cybercafes (Internet browsing centres) are sprouting up everywhere. At prices ranging from Rs 30-60 per hour, they offer Internet access across India for the PC-deprived. Just as the Public Call Offices (PCOs) helped in offer telecom access to the masses, these Internet community centres can be the starting point for building the affordable, mass-market Internet.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Leadership and Vision

To build the India 2.0, what India needs are strong and determined visionaries as leaders who can make the future happen at every level – in politics, science, government and industry. Indians need to envision how the New India can be – and then build it. There needs to be shared goal, a common vision. Admittedly, it is hard to do it with a billion people. The last time this was done was when India fought for Independence!

It is easy to lay the blame with the government for many of India’s ills. But leaders like Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh have in their own ways shown what is possible. No surprise then that in a country where the feeling of anti-incumbency runs high at election times, both were re-elected. Government can be an enabler (or a disabler), but genuine change requires a change within each individual.

For too long, we have accepted mediocrity as “best-of-class”. Attitudes in India need to change, wherein anything sub-standard will be rejected. The “chalta hai” (will do) attitude has to be eliminated. India needs to ask for more – from its government, its leaders and its companies. Education will help, but an attitude change has to come from within. The feeling should not be “It is okay. After all we are a poor country” but “We want to be the best. We deserve better”. In a single word, the demand should be for More.

Change has to be begin at the top. Leaders in India – in government, companies, and institutions – need to set an example. It is a world where the battleground is not the floor of Parliament or the border with Pakistan, but in the economic markets. There, India struggles at get a tenth of the Foreign Direct Investment that a China gets. The world of today is one wherein the fast eat the slow. India needs to show Speed in order to get attention, mindshare and walletshare.

In the past 20 years, since China opened up to the world, its per capita income went up by a factor of 7. In India, during the same period, it has probably doubled. Imagine what wealth, prosperity and growth can be created if in the next 20 years India’s per capita income can go up by 7. Now, let us work backwards to make that happen!

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Global and Entrepreneurial Mindset

In every country, Entrepreneurs are the engines of growth. They create not just innovation but also new jobs. What India needs are entrepreneurs who are willing to think globally. Competition now is no longer limited be geographical boundaries. India needs entrepreneurs who are willing to take calculated risks to target niches in world markets.

One of the key requirements for small businesses is funding. In India, over the past year, a large amount of venture capital has been raised (in excess of USD 1 billion). A lot of this money is sitting idle waiting for interesting ideas and experienced management. The challenge is for this to be used to create a spiral of innovation and “hot” start-ups, whose successes can create a positive feedback loop for other would-be entrepreneurs sitting on the fence.

An interesting grassroots initiative would be to look at providing “micro-credit” to entrepreneurs, in the way Grameen Bank of Bangladesh has done. Most entrepreneurs find it very hard to get loans from banks. A collective, community-based system like what Grameen Bank has done can be just the spur for innovation, especially in providing solutions to problems in rural India.

India has many problems – these can be viewed as opportunities.

What is needed is the ability to craft solutions to these local problems and then target the 4 billion people in the world who are just like us.
Alternately, entrepreneurs can build companies jointly in the US and India, in the event that the primary markets are countries like US, Western Europe and Japan. The key imperative in both cases is to think of the world as a marketplace.

In the coming years as various Indian market segments are opened up, many companies in India are going to face challenges from companies outside India for the first time, and especially from China. One option for companies is to become traders – buy the goods from these other countries and sell them in India. They will do well to remember that middlemen do not last for long. The harder option is to fight back – by becoming more efficient, by building scale through creation of new markets, by using technology to make a difference. That is the spirit which India needs.

Indians need to dream and dream big. Of a tomorrow that is different and can be created by them. In doing so, there will be plenty of nay-sayers and failures, and a lot of pain. But out of these companies and teams will be built the new India – one which can stretch imaginations, one which can envision and create the future.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Education

A recent Economist article, talking of the opportunity to outsource business-support services, labelled India as “back office to the world.” If India can deploy 50 million people in services at USD 10 per hour (USD 20,000 per annum), then Indian has an opportunity to earn USD 1 trillion in revenues, so goes the reasoning. Compare the potential with India’s exports in the last 12 months which stood at USD 50 billion. Whatever the numbers are, what is clear is that for the first time there is an opportunity to leverage India’s people.

For any dream to be realized, the starting point has to be Education. One can think of education of three types: K-12 (upto the twelfth standard), technical education (engineering, medicine, arts, commerce specialization after K-12), and adult education (training the existing workforce).

The first aim must be to ensure that K-12 education is made mandatory for all. This is the cornerstone for building the workforce of tomorrow. English must be one of the primary languages taught, along with computer and software skills. Even today, literacy rates in many parts of India are less than 50%. This needs to be change with help from the government, private enterprises and non-government organizations. K-12 education for all is the pillar for tomorrow’s India.

The next step is to ensure that based on people’s interests and skills, they are trained further in specialized areas. It is not enough for to look only at the arts, commerce and science streams. There are many more vocational courses which could be made available to people – for example, secretarial services, carpentry, manufacturing.

Each discipline needs training, and that is what must be imparted to students. In some ways, it is like what used to happen centuries earlier when specialized crafts were handed down from one generation to the next. In this case, specialists in all areas need to impart skills to the newer generation.

In the sciences, there must be a focus on research and development. India needs to be graduate more Ph.Ds and offer exciting and rewarding opportunities for them. If Indian industry is to look at inventing rather than copying and adapting, it needs to make investments in core technology development. Closer ties are needed between educational institutions, Indian enterprises and Indians abroad to enable this. India needs to create world-class “Centres of Excellence” in areas like life sciences, information sciences and molecular biology. This will also ensure that Indian teachers and graduates, many of whom are being tempted with offers from abroad, stay at home.

The third sphere of education is on ongoing adult education. The pace of change in the world is increasing. What one has learnt can become obsolete fast. If the person is not to become redundant, then it is imperative that there be a process of continuous education. This is where the Internet (and the Internet community centres) can play a role in India. They can become hubs to ensure that adults can retrain themselves with new skillsets.

Among all the building blocks, Education is the one which can make-or-break the India of tomorrow. It can ensure that either India stays as an “emerging market” or create a new “Field of Dreams”.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Technology and the Internet

Information Technology and the Internet can be the change agents in the creation of India 2.0. Businesses and the government need to think of how what they do can be re-architected to leverage IT and the Net. Because of the low installed base of telecom, computing and software infrastructure, there is an excellent opportunity to build out using tomorrow’s technologies, the use of which can turn Indian from a laggard into a leader.

The combination of wireless, broadband, devices and real-time computing can be the anchors of the new India. Telecom can be driven by developments in wireless and fibre optics to provide unimaginable, ubiquitous bandwidth, and therefore drive the creation of content and new applications. Voice-over-IP can help bring down the cost of telephony. Low-cost “mass market” Internet access devices and Internet community centres can make the Internet a utility in people’s lives. By using eBusiness software, companies and government can create, in the words of the Gartner Group, “Net-liberated” organizations, for whom eBusiness becomes part of the DNA.

Technology and the Internet need to become all-pervasive: in the lives of consumers, enterprises and government. There needs to be value to human time. There needs to be a focus on efficiencies. The focus should be on removing pain from the lives of citizens and employees. By making a decision to leverage new technology, India can become a testbed – and showcase – for the world. Look at
China: with a base of 100 million cellphones (compared to India’s 3 million), it has become the largest and most attractive wireless market in the world. That in itself feeds the investment frenzy.

A starting point could be the creation by the government of a Universal Citizen Database. Much of this information exists on paper or in electronic silos. It needs to be integrated and made available in real-time to decision-makers. One useful application of this will be to catch tax evaders – the revenues thus garnered would more then fund this project! An interesting variation of this is in Thailand where GIS maps are being used to identify tax payment patterns in specific buildings.

Technology usage and application must not be limited to just urban India. There is another India – in the villages. Technology and the Internet should be used to improve their quality of life also. What is needed is to expose people to the wonders of technology – many of the solutions to their problems will originate from themselves.

The emerging set of technologies offer great hope for India – not just in connecting people, but also in creating solutions which can be applied to other markets like India.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Open Economy

India’s economy needs to be opened up – completely. Over the past decade, various incremental steps have been taken to “reform” the Indian economy. The time has now come to open up and encourage free trade without restrictions. Of course, there will be howls of protest from many domestic companies and industries. The answer to them should be: become competitive or die.

Indian entrepreneurs are a smart breed. They will not die. They will compete. During the licence raj of the past, they found many ingenious ways to work around the system. There is every reason to believe that in an open economy, they will be innovative and thrive. The beneficiary will not be just them but the consumer.

One of the biggest differences between India and China (or for that matter other such countries) is in terms of productivity. So far, Indian industry has made improvements but slowly. Now, the combination of new technology and the threat of competition will ensure radical improvements. In the process, some will die, but the surviviors will be good enough to take on the best in the world.

India needs to focus on getting much larger foreign direct investment into the country. China has received USD 350 billion in FDI, and growing at USD 40-50 billion a year. India gets a fraction of that. This can make the big difference.

As a starting point, India needs to position itself as an alternative to China in terms of manufacturing in the Asian region. Global companies like to reduce country risk, so India can be that alternative (just as now there is talk of China being an alternative sourcing point for software services). This will help attract FDI.

Three components to attract investment into India are: privatisation or closure of loss-making public sector undertakings (PSUs), alteration of labour laws to ensure ease of hiring and firing, and creation Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to attract manufacturing. Among other enablers: removal of red tape, elimination of subsidies, improvements in the legal system to ensure faster resolution of cases and protection of intellectual property rights, and severe punishment for corruption.

Indian consumers need to be exposed to the best brands in the world. Conversely, the best Indian brands need to be encouraged to sell internationally. There is no room for inferior quality products in the free economy. If Indian companies cannot produce the best at the right price, some of them may chose to become traders. Let them. The marketplace needs to set the rules of the game.

A side-effect of the open economy, increased foreign investment and rising incomes will be the creation of a bigger and rapidly growing domestic market. This will then provide the base for Indian companies to achieve economies of scale to target global markets.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Infrastructure

India’s infrastructure – airports, ports, roads, water, mass public transportation in cities, power, telecom — needs a dramatic overhaul. This is the basic platform to build upon, and India has not it right in each of the areas. Without proper infrastructure, it is very difficult to even start thinking of tomorrow’s India.

The main problem has been lack of planning and funds, compounded by corruption in the few places that some infrastructure has got built. For example, only recently have roads in Mumbai been getting better – in the form of concretisation, and flyovers. Earlier, the monsoon season would ensure a total mess of the roads and contracts out for rebuilding them – every year!

There needs to be proper planning to put in place the right infrastructure. Infrastructure is not something which can be created overnight, and the price on has to pay for half-baked thinking is extremely high. It will take at least 10 years to build it all out. There needs to be a vision for the world of tomorrow before the process begins.

The solution lies in privatisation. The leading Indian business houses have great huge industrial empires and corporate complexes – their strength lies in project management and execution. India needs to create clear, transparent policies and then get the government out of the action, with incentives for completing projects ahead of schedule. Even international companies should be allowed in to participate in this process.

If one looks at the way telecom had been handled in India, it offers little hope for the future. Short-term and political interests have been put ahead of what is good for the country in the past few years. A similar situation has taken place in power. Trying to appease every type of interest will not get India too far. Policies should be made and stuck to; policies need to be in the interests of the country and not those in power.

The starting point should be India’s airports. This is the first (and last) impression of India for any visitor. Airports need to be thought of us more than just places where flights land and take-off. There are excellent examples ahead of us – Singapore, Hong Kong, to name a couple. Let us begin by making at least one Indian airport world-class. Once tourists start coming in, so will the corporate investments.

There will undoubtedly be pain in the near-term. But that is the price one will have to pay if a better India needs to be built. Without the infrastructure platform, little else will make a difference. The time for bit-solutions is over; what is needed is a rapid, dramatic overhaul.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: Building Blocks for India’s Century

What will it take to build the India into an economic powerhouse, the India of our dreams? Besides discipline, hard work and tremendous sacrifice, there are six building blocks which can serve as the platform for making the 21st century belong to India:

  • Infrastructure: India needs a much more robust infrastructure – from airports, roads and power to ubiquitous telecommunications and computing. Life must become easier both for citizens and businesses.
  • Open Economy: India needs to encourage free trade without restrictions. This will mean that domestic companies either need to become competitive or die. Fewer restrictions will also reduce corruption.
  • Technology and the Internet: The change agent needs to be information technology and the Internet. Technology gets to be vigorously adopted by consumers, enterprises and the government.
  • Education: A mix of English and technical education is critical for creating a smarter and more productive workforce. India has a great opportunity to be the “back office to the world”.
  • Global and Entrepreneurial Mindset: An entrepreneurial mindset combined with and the ability to think out-of-the-box to create solutions keeping in mind a global marketplace is needed, along with venture capital and society’s acceptance of failure.
  • Leadership and Vision: Above all, India needs strong and determined visionaries as leaders who can make the future happen at every level – in politics, science, government and industry.

Japan and China are two examples of countries in Asia which have crafted success stories in the past 50 years. Japan rose out of the ashes of World War II while China emerged out of its self-imposed isolation in 1979. For too long, India has been “a caged tiger”. A mix of globalisation, technology, software and success of Indians worldwide (especially in the US) offers a great opportunity for India to win what is perhaps the most important war – the economic one. One generation needs to build so that the next can reap the benefits. It will require sustained effort to create a better tomorrow not for a handful, but for the masses and our children.

TECH TALK: India’s Century: China and India

I recently picked up a book entitled “China’s Century: The Awakening of the Next Economic Powerhouse” by Laurence Brahm. The book has a mix of views on various topics from government officials (including the Chinese Premier) and industry experts. States the book’s introduction: “At the dawn of the 21st century, one country, above all, stands poised to alter the global economy. With one quarter of the world’s population, a stable and increasingly enterprising government, and with recent acceptance into the World Trade Organisation, China’s economic might will profoundly affect the course of this century.”

Now take a look at what we are seeing in India in various industries. Cheaper goods from China are flooding the market. The amazing thing is that they are cheaper not by 5-10% but in most cases by 30-40%. Even in the software services area, where India has made a free run for the past few years, fears are being expressed that China is planning an aggressive entry in the near future.

Compare some of the numbers. China’s trade (exports and imports) is about USD 360 billion, about four times that of India. China has a trade surplus of USD 23.7 billion, India has a deficit of USD 6.7 billion. China’s foreign reserves stand at USD 171 billion, over four times that of India. China’s GDP growth this year and the next is anticipated at 7.5 and 7.8% respectively, both of which are 1.5% higher than that of India. Year-on-year growth in industrial production was 12.1% in China in March, compared to 0.6% in India In February.

While we worry about China, there is little thought being given to what India can do in this century to “alter the global economy.” We seem to be happy ambling along with our famed “lets-wait-and-see” attitude. Other than the occasional study which says that we can do USD 88 billion in software and IT-enabled services by 2008, there is little thought being given to a vision for India in the future. Modern warfare is being played out not on borders but in the world’s economic markets. There, India is not winning. This needs to change. What is needed is a business plan to make the 21st century not China’s, but India’s.

India does have some things going for it. The English language, a democracy, a legal system which works (even though it takes time), and the headstart in software. The question is: can we take some of the strengths and build upon them to create a significant competitive advantage for India in the coming years. In the words of Neil Gershenfeld (MIT Media Lab: “I have a vested interest in the future, because I plan on living there.” The future of India must matter to all of us.

TECH TALK: Envisioning the Future: Putting It All Together (Part 2)

As technology and the Internet dig deeper into our lives, they become a disruptive force for many industries. The focus so far has been on the so-called “New Economy” startups versus the “Old Economy” incumbents. The conclusion of the first phase of the Internet revolution is that there is just One Economy and companies need to integrate the online and offline worlds to maximise growth and profitability. There is another aspect of enterprises which also needs to be looked at.

This is the small versus the large. What the Internet actually can do is to offer aggressive, smaller enterprises the opportunities to grow faster. Small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) number over 25 million in the world. So far, their growth has been restricted to by many things: their inability to look beyond near-term survival, the vision of the owner-manager, the lack of resources, geography as a barrier to opening up new markets, and the high cost of technology. For SMEs willing to re-architect their businesses, technology and the Internet offers hope and a dream for the future – making information markets, and technology as a utility which not only lowers the cost of usage but also minimises the need for in-house IT staff.

For the first time, as the various technology trends get aggregated, SMEs can not just become important links in the supply chains of larger companies as outsourcing increases, but can also hope to grow beyond their smallness. Catering to the needs of SMEs, especially in emerging markets, is an interesting business opportunity. India now becomes a test-bed for various solutions and services – the ones that work can now be extended into other markets like India.

The “whole emerging market SME product” comprises of four components:

  • Content and Community Website: think of this as an “Enterprise Reader’s Digest” where SMEs can get and share useful information, where they can meet others like them. This becomes a P2P (peer-to-peer) network for small businesses, one which they can turn to for news, information and advice.
  • eBusiness Solution: offering a low-cost computing and communication platform, along with enterprise software components as utilities. This will mean getting SMEs to re-engineer their business processes around the software offered. An interesting add-on to this would be an “SME Client” – a low-cost PDA-like device with wireless communication capabilities built in. This way, everyone gets a “mobile browser screen” at a fraction of the cost of a computer.
  • Outsourced Services: using India as the base, one can offer enterprises worldwide services to help manage not just their IT infrastructure, but also the back-office needs. These “remote services” can make for a much closer relationship with the SMEs.
  • Marketplace: using the Amul model of aggregating farmers and cows (“milk producers”) into a co-operative, there is an opportunity to build an SME co-operative, which builds on not just the buying power of the group, but also facilitates the pieces to be part of a bigger whole. Like the fish in the Andersen ad, the SMEs by themselves maybe small but as an organised group can take on bigger challenges and competitors.

Thus, the opportunity, building on our six themes for the future, is to become the business platform for emerging market small and medium enterprises worldwide, offering integrated technology-driven solutions and services, to enable them to leverage the Internet, and grow bigger faster and more profitably.