A Century of Posts

The previous post was my 100th. In 23 days (I began on May 9). Its been a good experience so far. I am enjoying the writing — have discovered that it comes much more naturally to me than I previously had thought. Considering that I had pontificated all of April wondering how I should do my blog, it was much easier than I had anticipated.

Am hoping to sustain this at about 4-5 posts daily, in addition to the Tech Talks. The 5 Tech Talks every week take me about 3 hours of writing, and the daily blog posts take up an average of 30-40 mins daily. The aggregate is about 6-7 hours of writing each week. Its a significant commitment, but I see that as a natural extension of what I am doing…reading, thinking and writing is part of the process of building out the vision of Emergic.

My own observation powers have improved dramatically since I started writing the Tech Talk as a daily column in November 2000. I find myself much more alert when I am reading or listening. I have a much better understanding of technology now — may not as deep as I would have liked, but there certainly is a lot more breadth. Which is important when one is trying to asismilate trends and developments and put them together. Writing for me has also helped clarify my own thinking process.

The RTW (reading-thinking-writing) process is a positive feedback cycle. When I began Tech Talk, I was wondering how I’d sustain a daily column beyond a few weeks. Have not only sustained it for 80 weeks now, but I now feel there’s so much more to write!

TECH TALK: Rethinking Enterprise Software: Trend 2: Standards

Standards are good because they define specifications to which companies can develop products which are inter-operable. The phenomenal growth of the Web was due to two standards: HTML for publishing documents, and HTTP for sending and receiving documents across different machines connected to the Internet. The result was that anyone could write a document in HTML and be sure that it could be accessed and displayed by anyone else as long as the server hosting the document supported HTTP. A similar process is underway in the worlds of enterprise software and business processes. Whether the impact will be as far-reaching only time will tell.

Web Services

Email (and now instant messaging) connects persons to other persons. The Web through HTML and HTTP helps connect people to applications (which serve out information). This is the Web we have experienced in the past 7 years. Now, the next challenge is to connect applications to applications. This is what Web Services are about. Think of Web Services as the equivalent of Software Lego. They enable the development of software components which can be re-used across the Internet. They provide a standard for application-to-application integration.

The alphabet soup of XML, SOAP, UDDI and WSDL is being seen the next big thing in software. Writes Nuala Moran in the Financial Times (May 1, 2002):

By providing a common language for applications to speak to each other, the arrival of these standards will make it much cheaper and easier to integrate systems internally. Them it will do the same for external links with business partners.

Initially, these will be fixed links with existing partners, but as the standards (particularly those relating to security and authentication) and supporting networks evolve, web services will enable dynamic interactions with any number of partners, known or unknown.

Web services will transform IT from a technology and product-driven industry to a services industry where computing power is a utility.

While there is a lot of hype around web services, much of it is justified even though we are only now seeing some of the early applications. An example is the Google API which allows programs to search its document database through a SOAP interface. Think back to the early days of client-server computing in the early 1990s. Once the frameworks and development tools arrived making it easy to build applications, the enterprise software industry really took off. Web Services are at a similar stage. We are now seeing the early development environments from companies like Microsoft, IBM and BEA. As programming becomes easier, Web Services will make a huge impact on software development in the next two years.

Next Week: Rethinking Enterprise Software (continued)

Zaplet

An article on Zaplet in the San Jose Mercury News says: “Zaplet was supposed to be the new, new thing. Instead, the company’s plan to sell its software for collaborative e-mail to individuals and businesses has flopped….Zaplet is now throwing its resources into winning government contracts, hoping to tap into the $38 billion soon to be spent by the government on homeland security.”

Zaplet was a cool company when it started…it had a way to do “magic” via emails — opinion polls, live updates, collaborative apps, and much more. I even remember us trying to “reverse-engineer” what Zaplet was doing — we are after all in the messaging business. It was after all, a Vinod Khosla (Kleiner-funded) company.

The problem was that even though the demos could be neat and cool, the real applicability was still not clear. I still think email applications have a part to play in the future, though I’m (still) not too sure how they’d work and what they’d do. The combination of Email-IM-SMS may provide an answer.

Simputer and the Mass Market Internet

A story in the Financial Express Simputer’s A Year Old, But No One’s Celebrating: “The fate of the much-hyped Indian portable computing device, Simputer, is hanging fire as it awaits commercial acceptance over a year after its launch….Only around 200 Simputers have been sold so far and most of them are being used either in small pilot projects or in research activities.”

In 2000, I had looked at low-cost devices to help create a mass market in India. In fact, my first Tech Talk talked about the vision of using low-cost devices to provide Internet access to 100 million Indians.

The vision is right, the problem lies in how we implement it. The approach many Indian companies are taking is to look at reverse-engineering PDAs and reducing their Bill of Materials. I had treaded along a similar path. My realisations were that (a) it would be extremely difficult to bring the cost down for anything which is custom-created to less than USD 200-250 (Rs 10-12,000) initially (b) the process is very time-consuming and expensive because manufacturing is done typically in Taiwan (c) initial investments are large because one has to look at volumes of 5-10,000 units or more.

My opinion is that for a mass market device to succeed in India the price-point has to be Rs 5-6,000. By selling at double this, the current set of devices limit their market and will only find niche applications.

When I see multiple companies going down this path, I get the feeling that we are trying to focus on the invention rather than solving the need. Yes, there is a great joy in holding an Indian-made device running Indianised versions of Linux (in local languages) but at what cost?

Lets think like entrepreneurs rather than researchers. We need to build the computing base in India first. We need to play to our strengths — which lie less in hardware, and more in software. We need to bootstrap this process — without investing too much money or spending too much time.

This is the thinking that led me to abandon the custom-PDA/device option and focus on leveraging older computers as Thin Clients. These PCs (and I have one on my desk) work just fine for the limited set of applications that most people will ever need to do. The price point for a 3-year-old PC (including colour monitor) is Rs 6-7,000.

Even in India, we can easily generate a base of 1 million second-hand PCs. If we need more, import them from the US or get NRIs to donate them. Volumes are not a problem. And in no case will the price point go beyond USD 150. Focus on writing the software applications on this platform.

Blogging Communities

Matt Mower writes about Creating Communities From Thin Air:

What I have in mind is a program, I haven’t thought of a name so lets just call it blog connector (BC for short), that you can register your blog with. BC then indexes your blog and creates a list of key words that it thinks are relevant to the content on your site. You are then asked to prune, extend and rank the keywords.

Then BC takes a look through all the other blogs it has indexed looking for blogs whose keywords have similar rankings. It checks to see whether you are already linking to those blogs and if not it sends you a suggestion that you might want to check out that blog and/or link to it. It also applies the same criteria to the other blogs, optionally sending them similar information about your blog.

Matt, we are working on just such a thing with BlogStreet. The first part would be a directory and search engine. The second part of it would work on automatically identifying clusters of blogs (and bloggers). Probably hard to do with keywords only — it will need a mix of looking at the blogroll, links and the text in the blogs.

PS as TC?

I remember reading somewhere that Sony plans to drop the price of its original PlayStation to USD 49. If so, that would make it a good Thin Client candidate! Make the Enterprise Software as a video game, get low-cost TVs, and there’s a great alternate environment going in enterprises. Some work, and lots of play! Battling competition might then become killing off some off the enemy orcs on the screen…

Open Source Enterprise

In response to my post Emergic Update, Krishnan writes:

I am regular reader of your column in Tech Samachar. I came across your blog after reading your column last Friday. While I find your ideas truly original and blog very interesting to read, I am afraid I can’t understand the rationale behind sharing details of your progress with Emergic with the world. Isn’t this information your company’s “Intellectual Property” ? Don’t you feel sharing it with the world might hurt you more than it helps you in the long run?

Good questions. Why am I putting out the ideas and the progress in public? Should this not be proprietary and confidential? Will this hurt us or help us? My take on this is:

– Ideas are plenty. What differentiates is the execution and the sequencing. The Emergic ideas, while being original in part, are also built upon various things that I am seeing others do. I believe that no one has put them together like we are trying to do. I have spent the better part of the past year thinking through these ideas. That is much harder to replicate. Theres a lot more to the thinking then what appears on the blog. The blog is like an iceberg: theres enough visible, but theres a lot underneath the surface also.

– For small companies like us, it is important to use our knowledge in the development of the mass market. We need to be able to attract like-minded people and form clusters of people and companies. To succeed, we need clout and influence disproportionate to our small size. The web and the blog is perhaps the most cost-effective way of doing so. By being open and transparent to what we are doing, I hope to attract partners and prospective customers over time.

– Updating our progress on Emergic is, to me, akin to putting up our software in the open-source. Yes, anyone else can also take the ideas and concepts and customize them in their own way. But, it also means getting more to build on a similar platform. It means harnessing the minds of many. This, according to me, is our only chance of success in the ambitious tasks that we have set ourselves to do. We need to become thought and action leaders. I am confident that we are on the right track with Emergic. I am willing to let the blog create a record a public record of our success or failure. Only time will tell whether this was the right decision or not.

– I like to think of what we are doing as open-source enterprise. I think in the coming years more and more entrepreneurs will want to write about what they are doing. It helps them build a network of virtual friends who may have gone through or are experiencing challenges similar to the ones they are. As an individual, there may only a few things that I can do. But as a collective, theres so much more that we can accomplish. Think of it as Emergence where the whole is much smarter than the sum of the parts.

TECH TALK: Rethinking Enterprise Software: Trend 1: New Markets

The next action arena in enterprise software is going to the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) segment. SMEs typically lag the big companies in technology adoption by 3-5 years. The Internet is enabling companies to interact much more closely across the value chain, and SMEs are now the weak link in the chains of the bigger companies.

The SME opportunity is significant because this has the potential to be a huge mass market for enterprise software. Leave aside the 10,000 big companies of the world, and there are about 25 million SMEs. Their spending power can rival or even exceed what the big companies have spent in the past few years. But to target these enterprises, it will be important to rethink on how software is delivered to them. Few companies have sold successfully to SMEs.

The nature of SMEs differs across markets; what may be considered as a medium-sized business in India is perhaps a small business in the US. What SMEs do have in common is the need for cost-effective enterprise software solutions which help them move ahead into the eBusiness era. SMEs need a whole solution which provides them an integrated information and transaction system across the enterprise. SMEs do not have the time, inclination or expertise to patch together various specialised vertical applications. So, while the bigger companies are more likely to go for best-of-breed applications, SMEs are going to prefer software suites.

The notion of software as a service is best applicable to this market segment: they can pay for software (and perhaps other technology requirements) on a monthly basis, like they would pay for the other utility services they use (electricity and telecom). So, in theory, ASPs should have done well targeting SMEs no up-front payments, no upgrade hassles, no need to hire specialists. But even the best known of the ASPs (Salesforce.com) has only succeeded in garnering just over 4,000 customers in its 3 years of existence. This is because they may be focusing on the wrong markets the real opportunity lies in the emerging markets of the world. SMEs in these markets have far fewer choices and a much greater need to automate or risk being left behind.

But to target these SMEs, an ASP solution by itself is unlikely to work. It needs to be complemented by software which can run as a service on the local network within the enterprise. This eliminates two problems that have plagued ASPs Internet connectivity issues and the reluctance for SMEs to have their company data residing elsewhere. So, one approach to tackling the SME enterprise software market is to create a distributed computing environment, with the software available on local networks on a server (think of this as a LAN ASP) and data being replicated across locations to provide a near real-time computing environment.

If we look at India and at the software usage among SMEs, the opportunity becomes evident. Most SMEs have built their software platforms using a mix of email, MS-Office (predominantly pirated) and an accounting application like Tally. To this are added custom applications developed by local software companies on a need basis. The market is very fragmented. Besides Tally in Accounting, no other company has established dominance in any of the segments. The international enterprise software companies have not succeeded in penetrating beyond the bigger companies because of the high costs of their applications and customisations not many in India can afford dollar-denominated pricing.

The SME market segment is there it needs disruptive thinking in terms of how the software needs to be developed, packaged and distributed. One source of help is coming from the growth in standards both for software and for business processes.

Tomorrow: Standardisation

WiFi and Weblogs

Steve Gillmor writes:

At the intersection of two disruptive technologies lies the Bermuda Triangle of the Digital Age. Wi-Fi (802.11 wireless communications) and Weblogs (the untethered journalism of the immediate) are comingling to produce an intoxicating blend of chaos and innovation.

Its a theme Kevin Werbach had touched upon first as part of his “The Next WWW” ideas — Web Services, Weblogs and WiFi. I had explored these recently in one of my Tech Talk columns on India’s Next Decade.

Making Connections

Dan Gillmor writes in his column in the San Jose Mercury News entitled Building harmony through the Internet about communications and collaboration as the two technologies that are defining the Internet: Digital hardware, software and communication technologies are creating, as one technologist puts it, a kind of “power steering for human interaction.”

8 Techs to Change the World

Who doesn’t love lists? Especially, one which says “Eight Technologies that will Change the World“. The 8, according to Business 2.0, are (hold your breath): Biointeractive Materials, Biofuel Production Plants, Bionics, Cognitronics, Genotyping, Combinatorial Science, Molecular Manufacturing, Quantum Nucleonics.

Vow! Quite a mouthful (phraseful). 8 new phrases to learn there. But then, we are talking “changing the world”.

RSS Aggregation

Writes Jon Udell in his Byte column on Personal RSS Aggregators:

The relevance engine that powers the emerging RSS network is, very much like Google’s relevance engine, decentralized and ultimately social in nature…The raw output of the online news collective is filtered for me by people doing what they do best: spotting patterns, alerting the tribe.

Lots of people get the idea of publishing blogs to the web. Not so many, as yet, see that publishing an RSS channel, and subscribing to channels, closes the communication loop and creates a new interactive medium.

I haven’t been using RSS aggregators, but I think I will begin. Have been thinking that this is an important discontinuity in the way we get our information. Once again, Jon Udell’s post shows the way forward.

TECH TALK: Rethinking Enterprise Software: Emerging Trends

The unrestrained spending by the worlds big companies on technology in the 1990s has now slowed (and in some segments, even reversed). The one driver for all IT spending now is ROTI Return on Technology Investment. Companies want to see quantifiable returns in a defined time-frame. They no longer have a desire for the next new thing. Questions like Do I really need it? What is the benefit? How quickly will I see the payback? Do we really have to spend so much? are being asked of enterprise technology spending.

This has come about because of three factors: a worldwide slowdown in sales due to a global recession and vanishing growth, a realization that companies spent too much on technology in the previous decade, and perhaps, surprisingly, an increase in productivity due to IT as has been evident in the US productivity statistics which came out recently. Companies are now getting more for less (and from fewer people).

At the same time, there are changes afoot. Seen in isolation, these may seem incremental. Taken together, they promise the next wave in enterprise computing. Many of these changes are built upon the automation of the back-office and partial automation of the front-office. But the biggest impact is happening due to the Internet. The ubiquitous connectivity which is now happening, the reduction in communications and interactions costs, the seamless sharing of information across enterprises are all laying the foundation for a new set of innovations.

We will discuss the trends in enterprise software by looking at four aspects: the target markets, standards, information flows and the emerging technology infrastructure.

The market segment which is only now beginning to feel the impact the technology is the small and medium enterprise (SME) segment, especially in emerging markets. Typically, SMEs lag the larger companies in technology adoption by 3-5 years. Their time has now come. They do not want piecemeal solutions for aggregation, their need is for whole solutions.

Standardisation is driving the world of not just software but also business processes. Web services promise to make computing the next-generation utility. Standardisation of business processes will ease the flow of information across enterprises. Taken together, they offer the Holy Grail of software: re-usable software components. In fact, this idea can be taken further in the creation of open source business components libraries of business process which companies can inherit and perhaps customise.

Companies are realising that, increasingly, the game is about managing information flow within the enterprise and across the value chain. The Real-Time, Extended Enterprise is here. Information is getting out of the silos and getting integrated being routed to decision-makers via enterprise information portals either on the desktop or on their wireless devices. Weblogs promise a new way of extracting hidden knowledge among employees. Two driving themes are collaboration and analytics.

At the same time, the technology infrastructure among enterprises is also undergoing some change. Open-source software is much more acceptable. Storage is no longer a constraining factor as desktops are coming with more disk space than what most of us may need in a lifetime. The platform for distributed computing is being laid. Wireless networks and devices make us reachable everywhere. Search engines like Google make it possible to get access to almost anything if is out there.

We will examine each of these areas in the coming columns, and then see how the new generation of enterprise software solutions can be constructed.

Tomorrow: New Markets

Mail Blog

The problem in Email with the notion of Inbox and folders is that (a) as soon as messages came into the Inbox, one wants to get rid of them — reply and file, or delete (b) once the mails go into the folders, it is hard to see an “aggregate” view.

It is like walking at “street level” (a phrase used by Steven Johnson in his book Emergence). At the street level, one misses out on many of the networks / relationships which are present. One needs to get a higher-level view.

So, imagine if we could do the following:
– mail blog, which has all that I write shown on one page (all emails sent)
– mailroll, which automatically lists out my favourites — people whom I have corresponded most with in say the last 1/2/3 months
– mailmap, which shows the clusters of people I communicate with. Distance could be based on the frequency of my communication.
– mailpost, where each mail that I write (and dont delete) gets a unique URL, so I can refer to it

Mails are ongoing conversations with people — colleagues at work, friends, family. It would be good to browse through them via the weblog metaphor. A lot of our writing is being done in mail — it is a natural narrative environment.

Leveraging Office

I read a statement which set off a chain of thinking. This was in the January issue of Intelligent Enterprise in a story on Microsoft. The statement: “Lest we forget, humble Excel is still the world’s best known BI tool.” BI refers to Business Intelligence.

We may argue about Windows and Microsoft’s monopoly there, but the real strength comes from MS Office. Word and Excel taken together have become the defacto reading and writing environments for many of us. Excel in fact has become not just an analyser for numbers, but anything to do with tables.

So, if we hope to create an alternative Linux-based desktop, we have to leverage OpenOffice, but diminish its usage. The advantage of OpenOffice, besides its open source, is the transparence in file formats. So, we can use OpenOffice and its components as “Lego blocks” in different applications.

For example, for blogs, instead of every blog application creating its own writing environment, why not just use OpenOffice as a web service? Similarly, for representing accounting information, use OpenOffice’s spreadsheet as the presentation and manipulation application. Build software around OpenOffice rather than trying to chip away at it.

Lord of the Rings: Quotes

A few quotes from the Lord of the Rings which I particularly like:

I wish the ring had never come to me…I wish none of this had happened.”

“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

* * *

To bear a ring of power is to be alone.

* * *

Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

LOTR is one of my favourites: have read the book twice, and seen the first episode thrice. Frodo’s journey and how he and Sam overcome the challenges is a great story. The book is “richer” than the movie, though the visuals reinforce the impact. For me, Frodo’s journey is like that of an entrepreneur, who sets out on a quest knowing vaguely about the final destination and with the firm belief that he can make a difference.

TECH TALK: Rethinking Enterprise Software: The Problems

Lets look at some of the problems with enterprise software today:

High Cost: Most of the enterprise software companies think of the companies in the developed world as their target market. Nothing wrong with that, except that a whole world of enterprises in the emerging markets of the world gets left out because they cannot afford the high costs. Considering that many of these enterprises are now also becoming part of the extended value chain of the bigger companies, the information flow is only as good as the weakest link. Yet, the economics do not allow massive deployment across these small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Lack of Integration: Typically, business applications software have tended to be bought separately for different functions. This ends up creating silos of information within and across enterprises. While this has created a booming market for enterprise application integration (EAI) tools, it is not necessarily the best approach from the customer viewpoint. Enterprises would like to enter data once and have a consolidated view across the enterprise.

Buy and Customise Approach: Enterprise Applications lack flexibility. They are a consultants delight. For every one dollar they spend on the product, they are likely to spend five times more on consultants who can customise the software for their needs. This also means that projects become expensive, open-ended and take longer to implement.

Internet as an after-thought: The legacy of most applications is still the desktop-centric or client-server world. The Internet is still not being leveraged in its entirety. This is the typical Innovators Dilemma: the existing applications are doing well, so why change? Its the thinking that made Lotus stick to the keyboard-centric DOS world and ignore the Windows world. This allowed Microsoft to overtake it in the spreadsheets segment first and the suites segment later.

The Tyranny of Upgrades: Every version upgrade is a huge exercise, especially if it means syncrhonising it with the different applications the enterprise is using. Cost is another issue, as the software companies try and milk their existing customers.

A couple years ago, it was thought that Application Service Providers (ASPs), who offered software as a service via the Internet and at a much lower price point, would solve most of these problems and therefore rule the world. But that hasnt happened. ASPs are still to realise their promise even though some have been doing better. Storing mail on remote servers is okay, but remoting a companys financials and customer lists will take some time! Connectivity hassles havent made things easier. The silos on information havent gone away yet. A couple of companies which have been well: Salesforce.com, which has garnered over 3,800 customers, and NetLedger, which has been rebranded as the Oracle Small Business Suite. But, for the most part, the numbers are too small compared to the millions of SMEs which are there in the world.

What are some of the new trends which can be leveraged to create a mass market, low-cost solution for SMEs? How can we rethink the world of enterprise software, especially for the SMEs in the emerging markets?

Tomorrow: Emerging Trends

Game Consoles as Trojan Horses?

Game Makers Explore New Services for Home Video Sets — A New York Times article on gaming consoles as Trojan horses: “Just as the personal computer has pushed its way into dozens of industries, a chameleonic video-game player could infiltrate the cable and satellite television industries, play CD’s and DVD’s and even take over some of the functions of an Internet-connected PC.”

In our case, I’d like to think of the Thick Server as the Trojan Horse for the Enterprise.