The Internet can help bridge the digital divide not just between people in a country, but also among countries. It is perhaps the most useful technology as emerging markets modernise. But to make that happen, countries like India have to think of build out the “Mass Market Internet”. This has not happened so far – with a user base of 5-6 million, the Internet still remains elitist. The Internet needs to become the cornerstone of a broader technology agenda to raise the standard of living and quality of life for the masses. In emerging markets, the Internet needs to be viewed as both a utility, available at low-cost and for all, and as a pain-killer, for those activities that citizens and enterprises do which have a lot of friction associated with them.
To build a Mass Market Internet for consumers, the Internet must be available on low-cost access devices and through Internet community centres (the equivalent of Internet Call Offices), the cost of access must be brought down dramatically, prepaid payment systems need to created to ensure ease of collection, and a variety of applications and services need to be developed which value-add to the lives of people. (An earlier Tech Talk on the Mass Market Internet discusses these ideas further.)
The Internet also holds a lot of promise for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Besides the usual use in terms of bringing down the cost of communications, the Internet can help create SME clusters in different segments of industry. Just as in a city we see a clustering affect with shops in a specific sector (for example, various jewelry showrooms will be seen along together), the Net can help achieve a similar effect online.
Clustering is useful for sharing of information and knowledge, even though the individual shops themselves compete. In that sense, clustering helps create a higher-order intelligence from the decisions made by the individual entities.
This notion of “emergence” can be used to created online SME communities which cut across geography. One site which has done this extremely well when in comes to aggregating the collective intelligence of the technology community is Slashdot. Think of a Slashdot for SMEs – after all, who understands the challenges an SME faces better than another SME? The Net now becomes a two-way medium – with sharing and learning happening between the enterprises and their owner-managers. There are industry associations which are supposed to fulfill the same purpose but invariably, participation is limited to a handful of members due to time and distance constraints. The Net is ideally suited to help SMEs in emerging markets create clusters of knowledge, intelligence and opportunities which go far beyond what a single enterprise would have been able to do.
For people and enterprises in emerging markets, the Net becomes a lifeline and a ladder – a lifeline as it keeps them in touch with the world around and opens up new horizons for their business, and a ladder because it helps them climb up the growth path. The Internet needs to be thought of as mandatory infrastructure for everyone. Emerging markets have the opportunity to use the Internet to leapfrog through some of the intervening generations of technology deployment. It is the Final Frontier – and the Final Opportunity.