TECH TALK: Blogging: Writing A New Web (Part 4)

Not everyone is thrilled about the proliferating blogs. A counter-viewpoint came from John Dvorak writing in PC Magazine. He commented on the possible reasons for blogging:

Ego gratification. Some people need to be the center of attention. It makes them feel good about themselves to tell the world what important things they’ve been doing and what profound thoughts they’ve been having. Curiously, while this looks like the most obvious reason for a Web log, I think it’s probably the least likely reason, since it’s too trite and shallow.

Antidepersonalization. When people begin to think that they are nothing more than a cog in the wheel of society, they look for any way to differentiate themselves. The Web log proves they are different. Just read it. You’ll see.

Elimination of frustration. Day-to-day life, especially in the city, is wrought with frustration, and the Web log gives people the ability to complain to the world. You get to read a lot of complaining in these logs. If you think I’m a complainer, oh boy!

Societal need to share. As a cynic who gets paid to write, I have a hard time with this explanation. But it seems some people genuinely like to “share,” and this is one way.

Wanna-be writers. A lot of people want to be published writers. Blogs make it happen without the hassle of getting someone else to do it or having to write well-although there is good writing to be found. Some is shockingly good. Most of it is miserable. I expect to see those Open Learning classes around the country offering courses in Blog writing.

An extract from a recent Wired.com article by Farhad Manjoo article provides a response by Dave Winer of Userland and looks ahead:

Dave Winer disagreed vehemently with Dvorak’s assessment of the state of blogging. Winer thinks that critics like Dvorak are “professional, ink-stained journalists who are scared by what we’re doing here. We cover technology better than they ever could.”

He rejects the idea that many blogs are boring or that they’re no longer chic. “The Web doesn’t go out of fashion,” he said.

Winer added that the technology behind weblogging still needs to get significantly easier for the real talent to come online. “What I’m interested in is the doctors and professors and engineers and people who have a good education and a social area of expertise. We need to really reach those people, we have to go a couple of levels in terms of ease-of-use.”

Winer is also interested in getting blogging into companies. He thinks that workgroups in firms would benefit from a log instead of e-mail, because it’s searchable and collaborative, allowing people to “narrate (their) work.”

Like the time when Geocities and other sites made the creation of home pages easier and it seemed that just about everyone wanted to have a home page, blogging will also go through this phase. And out of this will emerge gems – blogs which genuinely influence and make a difference. Writes Dylan Tweney in Business 2.0:

In time most weblogs will probably disappear. Like Tamagotchis, many are just techie toys that confer some short-term prestige but require lots of care and feeding over the long run. Weblogs that aren’t updated every day quickly lose their audiences; keeping your blog fresh and relevant takes a lot of work. (Trust me on this one — I ran a weblog from 1999 to 2000 but discontinued it when I realized I was spending hours every day working on the thing.)

But within specific niches, some weblogs will continue to attract large, highly focused audiences, thanks to the thoroughness of their coverage or the strong personalities of their authors. That means your morning reading may soon include a few weblogs along with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal — if it doesn’t already.

TECH TALK: Blogging: Writing A New Web (Part 3)

Two technologies which have made blogging take off in recent times are the availability of better writing platforms like Userland’s Radio and Blogger.com, and the availability of content as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. Radio is a desktop platform which combines a scripting language, web server, object database and a user interface. It lets you write offline and then sync with the actual blog site. Importantly, it also does two additional things which make all the difference. Firstly, it allows you to aggregate and customise news feeds through RSS from different sites (in XML) allowing you to monitor your favourite sites for updates, and then link and comment on them easily. Secondly, it publishes your own content as an RSS feed which allows other sites to pick it up. This content syndication model makes it easier for two-way linking. It also “pushes” information to users’ desktops rather than going out and seeking it.

One person who has made a significant difference to the world of blogging is Evan Williams, who runs Blogger.com. Writes “The Guardian” (January 31, 2002):

For a little over two years now, Blogger has brought its “Push button publishing for the people” to the net, making it easy for net users to create simple, easily updated websites. In doing so, it has brought the kind of vibrant discussion previously seen on the net’s chatboards to an area previously noted only for its dormancy – the personal homepage. Better still, you can use it for free. It’s used on around 400,000 websites – and it is run by one person, Evan Williams.[Blogger] has made the act of “blogging” much simpler by automating many of the most time-consuming and difficult stages of publishing a website. Because Blogger runs on a central web server you do not need special software on your computer to use it. That means people can add to their site from anywhere that has an internet connection.

In some ways, the turning point of for blogs came with the events of September 11 last year. Wrote Charles Cooper in News.com two weeks later:

As events unfolded, this was turning out to be the Web’s story. To be sure, sundry big media outlets on their own Internet sites were offering ample “content.” Yet deep pockets and all, the big news organizations were still limited by time and resource constraints of their own. What’s more, the initial crush of Internet traffic sometimes made it nigh impossible to get through–and even when you did, the individual menus were relatively limited.

If you were scouring the Internet for news and context during those first terrible hours, you could have done a lot worse than eavesdropping on the free-wheeling mini-universe of Web logs chockablock with first-hand info and spirited commentary about what was going on.

Sometimes they were raw, sometimes they were pretentious and sometimes they were flat-out wrong–I’d dare say that many times it was all three combined–but the information was fresh and real and unmediated by any intervening institutions.

To the degree that they complement, supplement and otherwise advance understanding of our human condition, bloggers far and wide merit serious praise. Because they help tell the story.

TECH TALK: Blogging: Writing A New Web (Part 2)

For long, our news and information has come from the standard news sources – papers, magazines, TV and more recently their websites. This, along with companies and many millions of home pages, created a vast web, with lots of information – and plenty of useless stuff too. Publishing and updating frequently on the web was not very easy, unless one had access to sophisticated content management software. The end result was that we stuck to a few websites we trusted and then used search engines to find specific information.

Step back a little and think about how information, analysis and opinions get generated. There are experts who know specific topics well. To create news stories, journalists talk to these experts, extract out the essence and use their branded publication which has wide reach to get this aggregation across – in print or via television. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get to the experts directly and read the raw, unedited version of what they had to say? Wouldn’t it be even better if the experts could reach us at all times with their opinions on news as it breaks? That is what blogs are about. Blogs help “domain specialists” form connections with interested readers.

Technology topics, not unsurprisingly, are a favourite among bloggers. Writes Carlye Adler in Fortune Small Business:

Tech “bloggers” (that’s really what they call themselves) are most often industry pros who keep their Weblog as a hobby-something to do at 2:40 a.m. While some of the sites offer straight tech news, most are sprinkled with a lot of personality, authoritative firsthand information, and fresh insights.

With so many tech magazines out of business (we’re not naming names), these e-newsletters, once solely for tech heads, are becoming mandatory information sources for the mainstream.

Here are some of my favourite blogs (with a strong technology bias):

Dave Winer’s . Dave is the founder of Userland, which makes blogging tools. Scripting.com is also one of the most popular blogs.

  • Dan Gillmor is with the San Jose Mercury News. His eJournal is another compelling blog.
  • Doc Searls is the editor of Linux Journal. His blog covers a diverse range of topics.
  • Glenn Fleishmann is an excellent example of a “domain warrior” – his blog on 802.11b offers great news and incisive analysis.
  • Jon Udell’s blog offers excellent tech insights.
  • JoelOnSoftware offers great tips for software developers.
  • O’Reilly is one of the largest publishers of technical books. Their blog offers a great collection of links and comments by their authors.
  • Slashdot and Kuro5hinare community blogs, with incredibly high signal-to-noise ratio. Both are self-organised (where postings are ranked by members).
  • TECH TALK: Blogging: Writing A New Web

    A year ago, I would get nearly all my news and analysis from the mainstream publications. Now, a significant portion of my time is spent reading the collections of “bloggers” that I visit regularly. These are experts whom I respect and whose views are frank and to-the-point. They help shape the way I think. Mainstream publications are definitely still around and they are not going away. But a change is in the air. Reading blogs is like picking the best brains. Its may not be the best writing but it certainly is some of the best thinking.

    The Web as we know is undergoing a change. For long, it has been a broadcast medium. Companies and publishers put up websites and readers came to check out the content. The read-only web is becoming two-way, a Writing Web. This transformation is being led by amateurs and is bringing forth a richness which has been missing. This revolution goes by the unlikely name of Blogging.

    Blogs (also called Weblogs) are personal journals by people like you and me, updated frequently (maybe even multiple times a day) and relying heavily on a mix of links and commentaries. There is a rawness to this writing which is missing from the mainstream publications. The naturalness and candidness of blogs promise to change the way we get our information and insights, and how we form our opinions.

    Writes Jeremy Wagstaff in the Wall Street Journal (January 30, 2002):

    Weblogs are Web pages built by real people, blessedly free of corporate-speak and ubiquitous images of tall-shiny skyscrapers, smiley people gazing intelligently into laptops, or besuited, smarmy business-types shaking hands. Weblogs — logs of the Web, see? — are the where the real action is. They are the creation of individuals, usually musings on national, local or personal events, links to interesting articles, a few lines of comment or discussion collected and presented by one person. While not sounding like much, Weblogs are a milestone in the short history of the Internet.

    Part of a blog’s charm is its simplicity. In most cases it’s plain text simply but elegantly laid out. Pages are quick to load. The content is concise and measured. The more you read a blog you like and the closer you feel to its author, the more you will trust their choice and follow the links offered. While for some people the appeal of the more personal blogs is in connecting with others through a kind of virtual diary of one’s thoughts and observations, for others the more straightforward digest of recent news — and the blogger’s interpretation and comment on that news — serves a more prosaic purpose. Above all, it’s free.

    TECH TALK: Digital Gadgetry: Emerging Companies

    Netflix, Shutterfly and Moxi Digital are representative of some of the new companies and services that are being launched to piggyback on the emerging world of digital gadgets and media.

    Netflix is a DVD rental service with a difference. No late fees and a flat monthly subscription of USD 20. Here’s how it works: you create an account to their website, and select the movies you want to watch. They mail the DVDs – three at a time. After you are finished watching, you mail the DVDs back (postage is on them) and they send you the next three. Netflix has a subscriber base of 500,000 and growing. A mix of clicks, bricks and flicks!

    Shutterfly is a web-based photo service that lets you print and share photos. Writes a visibly impressed Stewart Alsop in Fortune: “You can print your pictures in various sizes; edit your pictures by, say, removing red-eye or cropping nasty relatives; and share digital photo albums by sending people e-mail links. But then, sometime before Christmas, Shutterfly added a new application to create photo greeting cards. That in itself isn’t big news, since all the services let you create a greeting card with your own photos. But it is a lot of fun.So where’s the magic? Shutterfly designed its application so that you can see a pair of hands holding the card you designed. It’s a nifty way to envision what your card will actually look like in the hands of your correspondent. True, this feature is no big deal technically, but it’s a brilliant piece of customer service: As a consumer, you can now be absolutely sure that your card is going to look the way you want it toMy dollars will not be going to Kodak or to my local drugstore for traditional photo processing. After 30 years of taking pictures, I am beginning to handle my photography in a completely different way. That seems significant.”

    Moxi Digital is creating the ultimate media server. Writes Lisa Bransten in the Wall Street Journal: “Moxi’s souped-up boxes combine the functionality of cable or satellite receivers with DVD players and the personal video recorders. The VCR-sized box hooks up to one television and can send data such as audio and video to electronics around consumers’ homes that are hooked up to smaller auxiliary devices. With the new offering, [Moxi] hopes to address the problem of too many home devices and remote controls that can’t communicate with each other.

    The incompatibility makes it difficult to do things like download a music file from the Internet and play it on the stereo, or start watching a program in the living room, pause it and then watch the rest in bed. The Moxi boxes are designed to do both those tricks.Moxi will give away the hardware design and license the operators its software to make and run them.”

    There are opportunities aplenty as change rumbles through. Writing in his weblog, John Robb gives a glimpse into tomorrow’s world, and some ideas on what’s needed:

    In five years, you will likely have a Personal Storage Device with ~1 Terabyte (1000 GB) of storage space. It will connect to sub-$300 video/still cameras, play-back audio and video to any monitor, and connect P2P with other PSD users via high-speed wireless. I will be able to download an entire library of music and movies to you in 20-30 minutes during a face to face meeting. Further, I will be able to manage this library of content via my PC. This replaces CD and DVD technology with ferocity.

    An interesting aspect of this is that much of the new content created will need to be published. The volume of content created will require that personal publishers provide end-users an easy to use interface. There are two approaches on how to do this: server based systems and desktop systems. The server side systems could never keep up with the volume of storage necessary to share this content. Desktop systems in contrast, will allow people to share the pointers to personal content within an easy to use Weblog interface on a central server, and enable the actual transmission of the content via P2P. Further, permission-enabled desktop hosted Web Services will make it possible for me to search a database of content, select the items I want to utilize, and then easily download what is available from the closest source.

    TECH TALK: Digital Gadgetry: Trends

    As the revolution with digital gadgets and media takes shape, many trends are discernible:

    Integration: Devices which were once separate are coming together. For example, take cellphones and PDAs. Handspring’s latest device Treo combines both. Moxi Digital aims to combine various functionalities like MP3 and DVD player, cable modem, satellite receiver and personal video recorder into a single device.

    Specialisation: This is the counter-trend to Integrated devices, with the belief being that consumers will want specialised, feature-rich devices for specific purposes. Take the gaming consoles, for example. Nintendo and Sony are focused on packing power into its consoles, while Microsoft aims to add much more value by its decision to equip the Xbox with a hard disk. There is likely to be a mix of both integrated and specialised devices, much like the software industry. However, the lessons of what Microsoft Office did to its competitors is worth remembering. It’s the “suite vs best-of-breed” battle all over again.

    Connections:These devices are getting inter-connected. These connections are happening in two ways: peer-to-peer (P2P), and through a computer (hub-and-spoke, or client-server). Napster was an example of a P2P service which used resources at the edge (music files on hard disks on everyone’s computers). Apple’s iMac is an example of the “digital hub” strategy at work, where ease of connection and software creates a platform for sharing and managing digital data from multiple devices.

    Messaging as Emperor, Content as King: Messaging in all its forms – email, IM, SMS – remains a key driver for many devices. People just love to communicate! The next generation of cellphones will have small, in-built cameras to send photos across to the other person. Multimedia Messaging is already being touted as one of the key reasons to drive a cycle of cellphone upgrades. Digital Content follows closely behind: we want our music and our movies! Witness the numbers buying up DVDs, creating another stream of profits for the content owners.

    Media Servers: Will the computer serve as the hub around which all the other devices will be organised?

    Or, is this the start of the post-PC era? Amy Wohl thinks there is a new category emerging: Entertainment Centres or Home Media Servers. Writes Wohl on the functionalities:

    Deliver, store, and manage TV programs, movies, and music from cable, satellite, the Internet, or CD sources to the media center’s hard drive.

    Provide electronic mail and messaging. Support web browsing, on-line shopping, and on-line games.

    Provide its services to any appropriate (digital?) device in your home from TV’s and stereos to portable devices (tablet PC’s), personal computers, and other household-of-the-future devices (say, the bulletin board on your refrigerator where you do the web-based grocery shopping).

    Emerging out of all this is the Home Theatre. Writes Katie Hafner in the New York Times (January 24, 2002):

    A home theater is defined as a setup with at least a 27-inch television, an audio-video receiver that includes surround-sound processing, a videocassette recorder or DVD player and four or more speakers, all placed strategically around the room.

    According to estimates by Odyssey, a market research firm in San Francisco, some 25 percent of American households now have a home theater, and 37 percent of households have a television with a screen 30 inches or larger.

    Also emerging: companies with innovative business models. More on this tomorrow.

    TECH TALK: Digital Gadgetry: Key Drivers

    Some of they key drivers pushing innovation in the world of gadgets are:

    Miniaturisation: Things just keep getting smaller. Driven by Moore’s Law (processing power doubles every 18 months), more and more power is being packed into tinier spaces, creating smaller gadgets. This has been the key factor in the PC revolution and continues to drive to the next era.

    Storage: Storage capacities are increasing rapidly (estimated to be doubling every 9 months) and costs are falling. Apple’s iPod comes with a 5 GB disk. As storage space increases, it now becomes possible to put hundreds of songs or even movies on to hard disks and equally importantly, be able to transfer them.

    Bandwidth: The fibre optics revolution and falling bandwidth prices may have caused grief to many telecom companies but it has surely made customers very happy! As broadband now moves towards homes, it becomes possible to push digital content to consumers.

    Wireless:This is being driven in two directions – the cellphone companies are creating high-speed networks (2.5G and 3G, capable of transmitting in speeds in excess of hundreds of kilobits per second), and wireless LANs (via the 802.11 family of protocols, using open spectrum). Both will co-exist: 802.11 will deliver connectivity for the last few feet (for example, in homes) while the cellular networks will create the platform for ubiquitous wide area networks.

    Digitisation:The world is moving from analog to digital rapidly.

    The Internet Protocol (IP) is forming the distribution base for digital media. Digital communications was earlier limited to messages and files; it now extends to photos, music and movies. This digitisation leverages on the Internet as the transmission medium and computers and specialised devices for storage, recording, playback and manipulation.

    Content Distribution: How do you get the content to the users? Writes Kevin Werbach in Release 1.0, “Distributed content distribution focuses on end-to-end delivery of replicated objects or streams instead of packets or code. It differs from content-delivery networks (CDNs) such as Digital Island and Akamai that are now widely used by popular Websites, because these services optimize distribution from Web hosting facilities only to the edge of the public Internet, not all the way to a particular desktop. Distributed distribution creates multiple copies of each object and uses smart algorithms to pull data from nearby sources, including other users. Because it involves replication, it works well for one-to-many scenarios, such as streaming video broadcasts and downloads from a Web page. The economics of the distributed approach improve as the same content goes out to a larger audience.”

    Battery Power:Improving battery power is critical for portable devices. We want to take photos without having to worry about the nearest power socket. We want our music to travel with us. As batteries last longer, our usage of digital gadgets will increase.

    Taken together, all of these drivers are creating the underpinnings of a revolution in the converging world of computers, communications and consumer electronics.

    TECH TALK: Digital Gadgetry: Options Unlimited (Part 2)

    Continuing with some of the recent developments in electronics and digital gadgets:

    • Handhelds and Cellphones are, in the words of Bill Gates, “becoming one market.” Consider the recent Handpsring Treo, which uses the GSM network to make voice calls from the PDA. In another interesting development, TeleSym has turned a Pocket PC handheld into a mobile phone using Voice over IP technology. In the words of Dan Gillmor of San Jose Mercury News, “This could be the killer app for Microsoft’s otherwise uninspiring handheld operating system The fact is that voice is heading toward free. What customers want is a pipe and bandwidth, and the right to use it as they see fit.”
    • Intel is developing a cellular Internet chip, which will enable the use of cellular networks just like we use LANs. Wireless networking through 802.11 is creating freedom at home and in offices – take the notebook anywhere and Internet connectivity is there. Guerilla networks using Wi-Fi protocols threaten to undermine the 3G revolution in which telecoms worldwide have invested tens of billions of dollars.
    • Anyone with a quarter will be able to try out what is being called the US’ first outdoor Internet pay phone, on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 46th Street [in Manhattan]. The new phone, which allows users to send e-mail, surf the Web and call anywhere in the world for 25 cents per minute. (New York Times)
    • From a News.com article: Is that a router in your pocket? As funny as it may sound, the answer to that question could be “yes” if a start-up called IXI Mobile has its way. The company on Monday announced its vision for a personal network in which a small cell phone and inexpensive e-mail device connect to cellular phone networks via a miniature server and router that would reside in the owner’s pocket.
      The server, which would be about the same size as a tin of mints, would have a GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) modem to provide the connection for the cell phone and other devices. Amit Haller, CEO of IXI Mobile, said the advantage of such an approach is that it would allow all the complexity to be on the server, paving the way for accessories that could be cheap and sleek.

    • By using a very thin hard disk and battery, Toshiba has managed to produce a full-width laptop (Portege 2000) only a bit over a half-inch thick, and weighing a mere 2.6 pounds. Yet it has a bright 12.1-inch high-resolution screen, and a keyboard that is surprisingly good, with full-width keys that have decent vertical travel, and are arranged very well. (Walter Mossberg writing in the Wall Street Journal)
    • IBM has developed a prototype of a portable computer module that is the size of a small pad of paper and has the computing power of a typical notebook or desktop computer. The portable computing device includes 128 MB RAM, 10 Gb hard drive and a microprocessor that runs at 800 Mhz. “We’ve taken the PC down to where you can take it home and finish your work,” said Kenneth Ocheltree, manager for next generation mobile at IBM Research. Code-named “MetaPad”, the module is 5 inches long, 3 inches wide and about three-quarters of an inch thick. The module fits into a larger accessory piece that features a small, flat screen on front and is about 6 inches long, 4 inches wide and 1 inch thick. (Reuters)

    These are, but, a few glimpses in the digital world of tomorrow. It is coming to us from various sides, but the message is the same: a mix of digitisation, connectivity, convergence and communications is dramatically changing our everyday life.

    TECH TALK: Digital Gadgetry: Options Unlimited

    One bright spot in the world of technology is the plethora of digital gadgets that are now making their way into lives. These gadgets (like software in the enterprise space) are no longer silos: they are being integrated together to create new applications and forms of entertainment. The pace of innovation has been relentless. At the same time, they are also enabling innovative new business models. This is also spurring a fascinating race for domination among many companies.

    Take a look at the range of digital gadgets that are now becoming available: Game Consoles, DVD players, MP3 players, webcams, Digital Cameras, Satellite Radios, Flat-Screen TVs which form the centerpiece of home theatres, PDAs, Cellphones, Smart phones, ultrathin and ultralight notebooks. The choice and some of the price points are astounding.

    Even in India, VCD and DVD players from China and Taiwan are now available for Rs 2,500-Rs 5,000 (USD 50-100). Uptake is actually faster in some of the second-level towns and cities because the theatres haven’t improved much over the years – the result being a rapid growth in the rental market. Consumers worldwide are not too different in their need for entertainment!

    Consider some of the recent developments in the world of consumer electronics and digital gadgets:

    • DVD players are selling like hotcakes, and so are the DVD movies as Hollywood races to exploit the next window for its huge library of movies.

    “Pearl Harbour” collected more money in DVD sales than in its US theatrical release. “Shrek” has already sold over 8 million DVDs. Already, 30% of US homes have DVD players with 13 million players being sold last year.

    • In 2001, 8 million digital cameras were sold in the US and an additional 10 million internationally, creating a USD 8.6 billion market.
    • Foveon, plans to begin shipping a new type of digital image sensor that outside experts agree is the first to match or surpass the photographic capabilities of 35-millimeter film. Foveon’s chip technology, which captures images more efficiently than existing digital cameras, is expected to make possible multipurpose devices that take both high-quality still and video images. Eventually, some mass-market cameras with chips from Foveon could cost less than conventional film cameras. (New York Times, Wall Street Journal)
    • Moxi Digital has announced a device which combines the functionalities of a DVD player, stereo, cable modem, satellite receiver and personal video recorder. Microsoft has been rumoured to be working on a product called HomeStation which would use the Xbox gaming console and add to it a video recorder, DVD and MP3 player, and allow Internet email and Web surfing.
    • Apple’s new table-lamp-style iMac is part of its “digital” hub strategy to serve as the central node to enable the management of all digital content – from music to movies, from photos to home videos.

    TECH TALK: India’s Software Industry: A Different Future

    Even as the Indian software industry races ahead in its effort to become a key component in the value chain of global companies, a few pointers need to be kept in mind which could dampen overall prospects in the coming years.

    Domestic Market: Except for a handful of companies, the Indian domestic market has remained woefully slow in its adoption of technologies. The result is that most of the leading Indian software companies have negligible revenues in their own backyard. While the dollar-denominated earnings (a lot of them tax-exempt) are great, software companies need to help Indian industry become competitive with their global and state-of-the-art expertise. Obviously, Indian companies cannot match the dollar rates but what they can offer is a fertile training ground. No country can become a great player globally by ignoring its domestic market.

    Software Products: There has been little of note by the Indian software companies in the global market for packaged software. The “intellectual property” creation is being for others. Not to say that Indian companies aren’t involved in cutting edge work – there are many of them engaged in mission-critical outsourced RD projects for global majors. The time has come for some of the Indian companies to look at making investments in using their expertise to develop products which can be targeted at global products. The lessons can be learnt from the Indian pharma industry, which is now moving from generics (the equivalent of outsourced services) to molecules (products).

    Wider View of Technology: So far, the concentration in India has been only on software and related services. From an enterprise point of view, technology comprises of hardware and communications also. Indian companies can leverage their core skillsets in creating innovative solutions in these areas also. Lest we forget, there is an Indian hardware success story in Moser Baer, which has in the words of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Nov 1, 2001), “transformed itself into a turbocharged producer of recordable compact disks.It claims to produce the same quality disks as its Taiwanese competitors, but at a significantly lower costIt has now embarked on a risky strategy to double its production and become the world’s No. 4 manufacturer.In order to take a bigger piece of this fast-paced, high-risk industry, Moser Baer will be competing with the world’s best, both on cost and quality.”

    The knowledge-intensive economy offers opportunities to build the foundation for a new India, which occupies its place in the world not due to geo-politics and its past but due to its economic prowess. While not discounting the inherent risks and challenges in their current businesses, Indian software companies and budding entrepreneurs need to focus beyond the labour arbitrage which has served it well in the past. They need to be able to envision a vastly different future – one in which India is not just the “back-office of the world” but a driver of technological innovation.

    TECH TALK: India’s Software Industry: The Next New Thing

    The biggest set of opportunities seen by software companies, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs is in the area of BPO – Business Process Outsourcing (the less glamourous phrase for this being IT-enabled services). The same outsourcing concepts which have worked with software are now being extended to other business processes – from call centre functions like answering phones and emails to accounting and HR processing. Why pay double the money hiring people locally (in the US, for example) when people in India can do they at less than half the cost – so goes the logic. The last two years has seen many startups in the BPO/ITES space. The software companies too are expanding their range of activities – after all, they have the advantage of the client base and execution skills. BPO is the Next Big Thing in India.

    Elaborates a recent report on BPO by Birla Sun Life Securities:

    BPO refers to the delegation of a company’s IT intensive business processes to an outside agency to help increase value. The external vendor, combining his technology skill sets and domain expertise, adds new dimensions to the process to attain better efficiency and cost management.

    The growing tendency amongst organizations to manage costs and focus on core competency (read: revenue generating activity) is leading them to outsource processes such as HR, finance and accounting, logistics, administration, sales and planning. Within broad areas lie certain niche pockets like risk management, tax planning and US GAAP accounting.

    The key drivers for growth in BPO shall be positioning by the external service providers to portray themselves as partners in their clients’ fortunes and not just entities raising bills.

    Take a look at some of the recent activities on the BPO front:

    • Infosys has added on its website BPO to the list of services that it will provide. (Business World)
    • A few months ago, Wipro picked up a 17% stake for USD 10 million in Spectramind, which is a third-party outsourcing firm.
    • HCL Technologies has invested USD 15 million in its call centre subsidiary (HCL E Serve) and plans to invest up to USD 40 million in the next two years. It also announced the formation of a 90:10 JV with British Telecom to run a 400-seat call centre in Belfast. (Business World, Business Today)
    • WestBridge Capital led a USD 15 million investment round for First Ring a few months ago.

    Business Today (November 25, 2001) explains the lucrative economics. (As a comparison, software companies charge about USD 25-30 per hour for offshore development and about USD 55-60 for onsite development).

    The typical Indian call centre charges customers USD 8-12 an hour (per seat) for providing email services, USD 15-18 for real-time chat, USD 25-35 for voice-based services, and above USD 35 for technical help. The last includes value-added BPO activities such as processing insurance claims, mining customer databases for information and maintaining books of account. Operating margins vary from as less as 15% for low-end email contact centres to 60% for BPO-centres. Ergo, the only way a company wanting to succeed at the low-end of the business can do so is by building up its volumes.

    Therein lies the catch; it takes between USD 16,000-20,000 per seat to put up a call centre focused on the international market. That works out to around USD 2 million for a 100-seater, and that amount doesn’t include the operational costs.

    Not a game for companies with small pockets, anymore! Expect to read more of BPO activities in the coming months. Says Phaneesh Murthy, Infosys’ director and head of sales and marketing, “BPO will be the industry of this decade as IT services was of the nineties.”

    TECH TALK: India’s Software Industry: Consolidation and Growth

    Software is the one industry which has made India proud over the past decade. We have seen in the last decade the result of leaving an industry unfettered by silly rules and regulations. By no means is long-term success assured for all of the players. Yet, as in every competitive industry, the challenges are great and so are the opportunities.

    A recent report by Enam post last week’s Nasscom observed:

    • Despite the current slowdown, long-term fundamentals of the industry remain robust. There are various opportunities that are emerging in the immediate term; the off-shoring wave is likely to gain momentum due to heightened awareness of Indian cost advantage.
    • Indian IT players need to work significantly on their positioning and services offerings, as the new customer segment, with unique requirements likely to emerge.
    • The pricing environment is likely to remain tough due to the structural shift in negotiations from the Tactical to the Strategic level. This implies that growth is likely to be achieved by volumes rather than pricing.
    • Larger companies and mid sized companies with clear domain focus are likely to maintain growth as the buyers are becoming more discreet and a thorough due diligence process has been put in place to select offshore vendors.

    The coming years needs to see more of the same – business as usual. Indian software services companies have conclusively proved that the business model of outsourced development and works – to the benefit of all. Writes Douglas Lavin about GE in India in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

    General Electric Corp. hired 6,000 people in India last year,

    bringing its headcount there to 10,000, to handle accounting,claims processing, customer service and credit evaluation and research for GE around the world.

    This year it expects to hire roughly 1,000 scientists. The firm is so gung ho on India it posted signs around its GE Capital unit there reading “trespassers will be recruited.”

    Indian companies are already aiming for larger projects – having built up efficient software factories in India, just like China has done in manufacturing. The supply of engineers remains abundant. The cost differential while diminishing is still significant. Execution is a skill which companies have honed well in recent times. The challenges to growth lie in being able to market effectively to the leading companies in the world and be able to provide an ever-increasing portfolio of services to the client base.

    Consolidation has not really happened in the software sector – so far. The bigger Indian companies have chosen organic growth. What has perhaps prevented acquisitions so far have been the high valuations of other companies (in India and abroad) though these have become more rational in recent times, and the perceived management and cultural differences. In addition, talent has never been in short supply, so growth has meant continued recruitment and training.

    Even as Indian companies continue to “actively look” at targets overseas, the reverse may start happening. There have been rumours in the Indian press of companies like EDS targeting investments in leading Indian software companies to accelerate their own growth, strengthening the belief that outsourcing software development to India is an irreversible trend.

    TECH TALK: India’s Software Industry: Overview (Part 2)

    The past year has sliced the software industry into three. There are the giants, who now have enough scale, marketing and execution prowess to continue growing at rates in excess of the industry average. Then, there are the small companies, who specialise and survive. And in between are the middle-tier companies, who are caught between the need to specialise and the desire to grow big rapidly. The middle-tier companies run the risk of becoming the “living dead” unless they achieve rapid growth. Software is one industry in which consolidation is likely to happen less through mergers and acquisitions but more through the departure of clients and employees in the middle-tier companies.

    While the going was good (read “the dotcom and telecom era was thriving”), there was plenty of business for everyone, and some. In the past 18 months, most of this business was evaporated. The software services business is now focused on helping the larger corporations of the world in implementing their eBusiness strategies and making the most of their existing IT investments. This requires not just execution skills, but also a deeper understanding of their industries and business processes. This is where relationships and branding matter; this is what the biggest Indian companies are on their way to exploiting. This is also where the middle-tier companies face their biggest challenge because their ability to differentiate is limited, and competing purely on price is not going to take them too far.

    So, as the pressure builds on Indian companies to “move up the value chain” (an oft repeated term), there is also the looming threat of China with its “what-India-can-do, China-can-do-better-and-cheaper” approach. At the same time, newer opportunities are opening up in IT-enabled services and business process outsourcing, as companies worldwide look to cut costs and shore up earnings. Newer markets are being scanned across geography (outside of the US) and in industries like biotech, where IT is playing an ever-increasing role. Emerging technologies like Web Services and the Mobile Internet promise more investments in technology in the coming years, creating a need for even greater demand for integration services.

    All in all, India’s software industry is growing up – fast. The opportunities are there but so are the challenges. As the euphoria of sky-rocketing stock prices has faded away, there is a growing realisation that while the market opportunity is there, a lot more needs to be done to grab it. After all, India’s largest software company has revenues of less than USD 1 billion. Compare this with IBM Global Services’ revenues of USD 35 billion. India’s share of the total world market is just 1.3%. We have a long way to go!

    TECH TALK: India’s Software Industry: Overview

    Software Services have been perhaps one of India’s biggest export successes in the past decade. Led by companies like TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Satyam, India’s software industry earned USD 6.2 billlion in the year ended March 2001. Growth for the current financial year is pegged at 30-35%, impressive given the turn of events and the global economic environment. This is, however, lower than the 50%+ growth rate the industry has been used to in the past few years. What are the challenges facing India’s software industry? In the words of a recent Business India cover story, “Can Software Shine Again?”

    The advantages of India’s software industry are summarised by Business India (Jan 21-Feb 3, 2002):

    According to a Forrester study conducted in November 2001, India’s IT strengths are:

    • the country’s decade-old experience in this area
    • fluency in English
    • supportive government policy infrastructure, and
    • high-quality offerings

    This is amplified by a 1999 World Bank study, which says that India is the only country that figures in the high-quality-low-cost segment of the quality-cost matrix. An October 2001 survey by McKinsey indicated that the cost of doing offshore software development in India was almost 30-80% lower as compared to development in Europe and US.

    India also has a talent base with enormous potential. It has the world’s second largest pool of English-speaking scientific manpower.

    It churns out a huge number of engineers every year and the government aims to triple that number by 2008.

    The tremendous growth (and potential) has helped companies like Infosys, Satyam and Wipro list on US stock exchanges. Fresh from its acquisition of CMC, TCS is considering an IPO in the coming year. All the leading Indian companies have strong management teams, a growing clientele and are cash-rich.

    Here’s a look at the top 10 Indian software companies, ranked on 2000-01 export revenue (Rs 1 crore = USD 0.2 million, or USD 1 million = Rs 5 crore):

    Rank Company Exports
    (Rs, crore)
    1 TCS 2870
    2 Infosys 1853
    3 Wipro 1756
    4 Satyam 1241
    5 HCL Technologies 1127
    6 Cognizant 703
    7 Silverline 647
    8 NIIT 570
    9 Pentasoft 555
    10 Pentamedia 548
    11 Patni Computers 516
    12 IBM Global Services 506
    13 Mahindra British Telecom 450
    14 HCL Perot 439
    15 DSQ Software 438

    TECH TALK: Linux World: Embedded Linux

    Digital gadgets are proliferating rapidly. cellphones, PDAs, hybrid smart-phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, game consoles, DVD players – all are making their way into our lives. From being isolated devices they are becoming part of a network and that significantly increases what their capabilities. Thus, cameras which earlier would take photos on film now in their new avatars are focused on enabling sharing of the images with family and friends through the Internet. The camera becomes a spoke to a digital hub. The same is the story with MP3 players, which can play downloaded files giving us music wherever we want and whenever we want. Game consoles become gateways to the Internet allowing for multi-player, online gaming.

    This is the post-PC era: an era where the PC does not necessarily become defunct, but its value is enhanced as it becomes the hub around which many devices can be integrated. This is a world of embedded software, where the operating system game is still open. This is a world where embedded Linux can serve as the preferred development platform.

    Writing in Linux Journal (February 2002), Rick Lehrbaum points out some of the attributes of the coming era:

    • The number of smart devices (i.e., products with embedded operating systems inside) will grow exponentially, reaching numbers in the billions.
    • The choice of CPU will be more a matter of cost than technology or architecture.
    • Nearly all devices will have connectivity, whether wired or wireless.
    • Most devices will have the ability to be upgraded or repaired remotely, by downloading new firmware or software.
    • Most devices will have specific rather than general-purpose functionality, so their application software will be defined by the manufacturers (rather than loaded by their users).

    This need to, in the words of Rick, “minimize cost and maximise specialization” creates the opportunity for Linux. The Sharp Zaurus, a PDA, which runs Linux is one example of the new generation of devices. HP’s Digital Entertainment Center, a home-entertainment appliance that g digital music and information into the home without a PC, runs Linux and Java. Sony announced support for Linux on its Playstation game console.

    Linux has the momentum going for it. Going by the interest from the major computer vendors, Linux is becoming mainstream. According to Dan Gillmor, “the future for [Linux] is both above (servers) and below (embedded) the desktop.” While it is too premature to write off Linux on the desktop in emerging markets, the challenge is significant in creating innovative business models to make it work.

    TECH TALK: Linux World: Linux in the Enterprise (Part 2)

    In the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in developed markets, Microsoft’s products are very strong both on the server and the desktop. Linux’s potential is limited here to the server side, just like in the larger companies. SMEs do have a significant financial incentive to use open source technologies, but the limiting factor is the perceived lack of support and the dearth of developer expertise: there are hordes of Microsoft developers who can custom-develop applications on the Windows platform.

    The situation is quite different in emerging markets. While the large companies are very much similar in both markets, the number of large companies in emerging markets capable of “dollar-denominated” spending is much less. In India, there are perhaps 100 companies who can spend what their counterparts internationally would do on technology. The problem for most companies is that technology is priced in dollars while, for most of them, revenues are in rupees.

    The big opportunity for Linux is in emerging markets for the SMEs. These companies have limited spending power but still need technology to keep them competitive and part of the supply chains of the bigger companies. Linux can play a strong role both on the desktop and on the server. What SMEs may lack in their individual spending power is more than made up by their numbers; it is estimated that emerging markets may have 10-15 million SMEs.

    This is the mass market that Linux needs to target just like Microsoft targeted the mass market of SMEs in the developed countries. Many of the SMEs in emerging markets are just beginning to realize the importance of computers and communications.

    This is a market which is “under the radar” of many of the bigger computer vendors and very hard to reach.

    What SMEs need is technology, and especially software, as a utility – as subscription, or on a pay-as-you-go basis. They undoubtedly need the latest technologies, and yet cannot afford to pay the large upfront costs for purchase and implementation. They need out-of-the-box solutions, which are usable with minimum fuss. For SMEs, software is not necessarily a differentiator, but a necessity which can help them “stay in the loop” with their bigger customers and assist them in their growth. Yet, their ability to spend large amounts initially is very limited. This is where Linux can become the foundation for architecting solutions built on open source.

    While the server market is the obvious starting place, the desktop segment should not be ignored. By using thin clients and a collection of the basic applications needed on the desktop, it is possible for Linux to make inroads – many of the first-time users can quit easily adopt Linux as compared to Windows. It is only when the “Windows habit” sets in that migration becomes difficult!

    Here then is an opportunity to build a software brand – one targeted at the emerging enterprises in emerging markets. It needs to use the newer, emerging technologies like web services, wireless LANs and grid computing to make Linux as the fabric of these enterprises. The model here is not of software as a product but as a service. These are the markets which have so far been ignored. These are the markets which hold out the greatest of opportunities in the coming years for Linux in the Enterprise.

    TECH TALK: Linux World: Linux in the Enterprise

    2002 is being seen as a breakout year for Linux. As we consider the presence and potential of Linux in the enterprise, we will need to look at both the size and geographical location of enterprises. Enterprises are of many kinds – small, medium, large, and in developed markets (US, Japan, Western Europe) and in emerging markets (India, China, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa).

    In large companies in the developed markets, Unix servers typically dominate the higher-end applications market, while Windows NT is present at the lower-end for email, collaboration, and Web-based applications. Driven largely by IBM, Linux on a mainframe is being positioned as a replacement for the large number of servers that an enterprise is. Writes Byron Acohido in USA Today:

    IBM’s “mainframe-lite”, as some are calling it, priced at USD 400,000, is half the cost of a traditional mainframe. It allows the machine to be split into several hundred virtual Linux clusters.It’s replacing dozens of servers running Windows NT software. This trend is expected to gain steam as corporates try to pare server farms than ran amok in the 1990s, experts say. This happened as server costs dropped and companies built out sprawling computer networks to share files, manage print jobs, exchange email and host web pages. But the sprawl has reached the point where server farms have become costly to manage, difficult to keep secure and expandable only by adding ever more servers.Consolidation could potentially reduce the number of servers in a company by a factor of 10 to 20, according to IDC analyst Matt Eastwood.

    Typically, in large enterprises, Linux has made a backdoor entry already in certain departments. These activities are now coming into the open and growing.

    Apache is already one of the most popular hosting platforms for web servers. Linux is also being used for file, print and mail serving. But the desktop has remained a distant market.

    Red Hat, one of the leading Linux companies with USD 80 million in revenues, has focused its enterprise efforts on Unix-to-Linux migration. Says Red Hat Chairman Bob Young:

    [Enterprises] need reliability. They don’t need cost. So they [do not go] from whatever they were on to a Sun Unix machine, to an IBM AIX machine, they [can go] to a Linux machine because they could build a more reliable system.

    The beauty of open source software is that when you run into a bug you can get it fixed. You get source code and you get a license that allows you to modify it. It’s like buying a car with a hood that you can open, as opposed to the traditional model in the software industry where the hood is locked shut. If you can open the hood it means you can fix your car, but it also means you have access to 10,000 car repair shops across the [country]. Whereas if the hood’s locked shut, and if your vendor denies that it’s a bug, which is known to happen, you’re completely stuck.

    Linux is not going to revolutionise the IT infrastructure in the big enterprises. But, it is making inroads and can no longer be ignored – as an alternative to Windows NT and Unix. The usage though has been almost entirely on the back-end, the server side. The desktop game belongs to Microsoft and that is unlikely to change in the near future in the large companies in the developed markets.

    TECH TALK: Linux World: Eye-Catchers

    Among the things which caught my attention at Linux World:

    Sharp Zaurus SL-500: It is a Linux PDA. Sleekly designed, it has a built-in tiny keyboard. It comes with many applications, including a terminal window, text editor, address book, to-do list, a media player and an image viewer. Best of all is the Opera browser which comes bundled with it. Connect the Zaurus to a CompactFlash Modem card, and within minutes you could be browsing the Web on the PDA. There are also some games, one of which is a Word Game like Scrabble). The Zaurus runs Lineo’s Embedded Linux and also claims to have support for Java (have not yet checked this out). The Zaurus was selling at the show for USD 399. PDAs by themselves are old hat, but Linux on PDA is a novelty. From an emerging market perspective, what is interesting is the small footprint of Linux. The embedded version could as well as used to create a desktop which can run on older, low-cost machines.

    Linux Terminal Server Project: In a small booth was an open-source project which, according to me, holds a lot of promise for emerging markets. The project showcased a thin client application of Linux on a desktop. No Hard Disk, No CD. It boots off an Ethernet EPROM, which fetches the kernel from a Server. According to the developers, it can work well on even 486 machines with 32 MB memory. Again, by itself, the thin client approach has been used in the past, but taken together with an idea discussed earlier in Tech Talk of using old PCs from
    developed countries to create USD 100 computers for the emerging markets, the idea of using the LTSP to create a low-cost computing infrastructure in the enterprise definitely has potential.

    Hancom Office: This Korean company offers a Microsoft Office alternative. So does Star Office. What’s interesting is that it was one of the non-US companies at the show. Asian companies need to get aggressive in marketing and Hancom was an excellent example of that at the show.

    Linux in Movies: The tone was set by Carly Fiorina’s keynote, wherein she announced a deeper partnership with DreamWorks for using Linux in the movie studio. For some time, Linux has been increasing its presence in the animated movies segment in the production process. Shrek was an example and the forthcoming Spirits from Dreamworks also is being developed on a Linux platform. Pixar, which created Monsters, is also extensively using Linux. If there is one vertical which Linux is capturing, it is this.

    Among the other interesting things at the Linux World trade show were the spotlight on the Linux Standard Base and its support from various organizations (CSFB announced that it will only use LSB-compatible applications by the end of 2002), a Linux kit for the Sony Playstation 2 and Ximian’s Evolution (particularly attractive was the stall with a collection of huts).

    TECH TALK: Linux World: Linux World

    Last week, I attended Linux World in New York for 2 days. This week’s columns explore my observations on what I saw (and didn’t see) and where Linux is headed.

    That Linux is making headway in the enterprise is clear. This was best captured in a statement made by Sanjay Kumar, CEO of Computer Associates in his keynote, “In 2000, out of the top 100 corporates I spoke to, only 5 expressed interest in Linux. The same number in 2001 was 50.” Of course, interest does not mean deployment. But interest is a precursor. And on that front, Linux is on all radar screens. Besides Sanjay Kumar, one of the other keynote speakers was Carly Fiorina, CEO of HP. There was also a senior executive from IBM. All the big computer companies (except Microsoft, of course) had a presence at the show.

    In the big corporates of the world, the interest in Linux is strong in two segments. First, the ability to use commodity Intel-based hardware to run open source software bringing down the cost of computing and achieving “freedom” from proprietary, locked-in architectures. This means Linux-based servers gets deployed for email, firewalls, file and print serving, proxy and caching, and for databases. Second, in an interesting twist, running Linux on mainframes to consolidate various servers, reduce space and the administrators needed for their management.

    The other space where Linux is attracting interest is in embedded systems: PDAs (Sharp had a buzz-attracting and hot-selling – at least among the ones who attended – Linux PDA, the Zaurus), cellphones, appliances, in automobiles, and so on. This is a world which from an operating system point of view is one which Microsoft does not dominate, and thus is open to other options. Where Linux is missing is the Desktop – that is a Windows hegemony, at least in the developed economies.

    Linux is very interesting both as a product and as a development model, and that is why it bears a closer look. It is a product with zero price. The product is given away for free – downloadable from the Internet. So, for companies wanting to make money, services (installation, support, customisation, training) have to be the revenue generators. As a development model, it is unique: thousands of developers worldwide contribute freely to the open source movement, ensuring that innovation is rapid. Linux is a shining example of “emergence” – the collective intelligence is greater than the sum of the parts. Of course, this distributed approach to development also gives the impression that there is no one in charge, that Linux has no “godfather”. This is changing as the big companies like IBM and HP invest money promoting Linux.

    TECH TALK: Envisioning A New India: Agriculture

    It is estimated that 60% of Indians are employed in Agriculture, accounting for 26% of the country’s output, according to McKinsey. To increase standards of living, we have to take the “other India” with us. This is, what we city dwellers call “rural India”. It is an India where time seems to have stood still. The India also needs to become Great.

    As a technologist, it is difficult for me to suggest what India can do in Agriculture. However, technology can be used to ensure that farmers get access to the latest information and the best prices. This is already happening in some parts of India with cellphones. Biotechnology and genetic engineering can also help in making the Indian farmers much more productive.

    One of the banes of rural India is the water problem. What India needs is a much more efficient system of canals and dams to ensure that water is available for irrigation and consumption. The dependency on rain needs to be reduced – the annual uncertainty needs to be smoothened out.

    Rural India can also offer a platform for other experiments – for example, in solar energy. This has been done in fits and starts, but never as a proper initiative. Rural India and especially the economy built around agriculture offers tremendous prospects for those entrepreneurs willing to look “within”.

    Recently, in a talk given by the Tofflers in Mumbai, there was a reference to the clash of three civilisations (or societies): the agrarian, the industrial and the post-industrial (knowledge-based). India has all three co-existing. Somehow, the industrial society in India never made a mark. Even as a part of India wants to leapfrog into the New World, we cannot do so if a part of us is still stuck in the past. Amul in India is an excellent example of a bottom-up revolution in the hinterland. This needs to be amplified and the divide bridged. Knowledge and Industrialisation need to be made available to the Agrarian India, so all can move forward.

    Conclusion

    The creation of the New India (or not) lies in our hands. As a group, we need to take decisions which can move India forward – not in small steps but in giant leaps. The time for incrementalism is long over. Change in India needs to be rapid, sudden and discontinuous. India needs to Tip soon, or else remain forever an emerging and developing economy. There is no Messiah who will come with a magic wand and wake us from our dream. The New India needs innovative and entrepreneurial thinking. The choice is ours and ours alone to make.

    What has been heartening is the overwhelming response this series has written in terms of feedback. If this is an indication, then Hope is not yet lost. The Journey has only begun.