The 3-year-old Computer for Rs 5,000 is the starting point. To make it effective, one needs software and connectivity. There are two ways to solve the software conundrum. The first option is to use open source alternatives like Linux – and there is an alternative for almost every package that one can think of – it will be less featured, and perhaps not be supported, but one can trust the Indian software community to rise to the task here. With more engineers than are required in our services business, we need to create a domestic market to absorb them. Let them loose on creating and supporting open source software technologies.
The second option is to consider buying older versions of specialised software packages from vendors (or an eBay – how about a category for older, unused software licences)? This is better than piracy – we obviously don’t want to build a Great Nation of Robbers. We can do in software what we are thinking of in hardware – use vintage products. Get the software companies to provide limited versions of their products at 1-10% of their price points. The carrot: in 3 years, we will all be ready to upgrade to their newer products. Most importantly, with a base of tens of millions of units and their profits already made from the developed markets, the Indian market is all straight bottom-line money (and just the surprise they need for Wall Street!)
Connectivity is a trickier problem to solve. The phone line approach is out because if anything, in India the cost of local phone calls is set to rise (even as long-distance rates fall). Even today, an hour of Internet connectivity costs Rs 30. The solution: Use the Air. Open Spectrum. Use the 802.11 wireless LAN protocols to build our Wide Area Networks. Since they use open spectrum, the government doesn’t get involved.
Set up 802.11 hubs in neighbourhoods and let the community use them for a small fee. It is not that people and businesses need megabits of bandwidth – we need kilobits for nano-rupees!
Yes, 802.11 is just emerging and there are a lot of security issues and the price points are still high. This is where Indians can take the leadership by flipping the model – what is an alternative technology in developed markets can become a mainstream technology here and this can help the critical mass needed to both fuel innovation and lower prices. India can become the biggest testbed for wide area wireless technologies and position itself at the centre of the wireless data revolution.
It may hard to imagine a poor country like India adoption technology on a mass scale, but I am confident that given the few right nudges, India is a market waiting to tip. If we can seed these ideas in hardware, software and connectivity, the Indian spirit of entrepreneurship (“go to do where the money is”) will take care of the rest. We need to get this grassroots revolution in technology to create a foundation for building our other pillars for the New India.
Time for the next question: What do we do with all these Connected Computers?