Broadening Email Usage

A story in Information Week (May 6) on Email:

This pervasive acceptance [of E-mail] presents business-technology managers with a choice of two paths for helping companies make the best use of E-mail. The first route, the one the biggest vendors are taking, is to focus on making E-mail easier to use by offering better in-box management and message filtering. The second, more ambitious route is to use E-mail as a gateway for broader collaboration and instant messaging, to boost the productivity of tapped-out desktop applications, and even to link to back-end systems.

Bridging the Digital Divide

An article in ACM, “View from Bangladesh: The New Literacy” by By Mir Lutful Kabir Saadi looks at how communications can help bridge the digital divide: “The goal for information technology must be to deliver revolutionary breakthroughs in terms of giving the world’s poor access to global economy. We must work towards the day when through the Internet, through distance learning, through cellular phones and wind-up radios, the village elders or the aspiring students will have access to the same information as the finance minister. Communications technology gives us the tool for true participation. This is leveling the playing field. It may bring real equity to information.”

Microsoft at Home

Writes the Seattle Time on what was earlier codenamed Freestyle:

Microsoft, in its latest attempt to place its software in consumers’ home-entertainment systems, is disclosing details today of a dramatically new version of Windows that’s scheduled to debut on special PCs this fall.

Called Windows XP Media Center Edition, the software will run a class of computers built to record and play music and television shows, as well as process words, crunch numbers and surf the Internet.

The software displays a simplified control screen on the computer monitor and may be manipulated by remote control. It’s designed to allow users to sit on a couch with friends as they peruse digital photos or watch DVDs on the computer monitor, rather than crowd around someone sitting at a keyboard.

A small group of computer companies is set to begin selling specially designed Media Center Edition PCs this fall. Priced at roughly $1,500, the machines will be aimed at college students, teenagers and digital-media enthusiasts.

Mono Project

Interview with Ximian’s Miguel de Icaza on the Mono project. Writes .Net magazine: “Ximian initiated the Mono project to develop an open source, Linux-based version of the Microsoft .NET development platform. The project’s objective is to include key .NET compliant components, including a C# compiler, a common language runtime (CLR) just-in-time (JIT) compiler, and a full suite of class libraries. The hope is for developers to be able to create .NET applications, then run them on Windows or any Mono-supported platform, including Linux and Unix.”

Low-cost Computing

Two recent stories: one on Simputer (MSNBC, Slashdot thread) and another on BBC. The Simputer story is about the lack of investor support for the project, which has slowed manufacturing. The BBC story is about “Computer on Wheels trials, a technician visits villages on a motorcycle, carrying a laptop computer. The villagers can then look at pages which have been downloaded from the internet.”

Microsoft Word and Universal Canvas

Jon Udell says that the new version of Word is “a genuinely XML-capable version of Word. By that I mean, and Microsoft seems to mean, not just the ability to export to XML, or to consume SOAP services — capabilities that are in parts of Office XP today (Excel, Access). More profoundly, it’s about a writing environment that natively produces XML which is valid with respect to an arbitrary XML Schema. ”

He adds: “The endgame is what Microsoft has called the universal canvas. In the long run, that means migrating software to a common storage model. That won’t happen any time soon, but there’s a big near-term opportunity to leverage XML as an exchange format much more aggressively. I’d like to see that happen across the suite of Microsoft’s clients by the time Office 11 ships. ”

I wrote about this earlier (with reference to a ZDnet article on MS Office).

Amazon Web Services

Amazon.com Launches Web Services (Press Release): “Amazon.com’s Web Services will allow third party sites to search and display products from Amazon.com’s web site, and enable visitors to those sites to add items to their Amazon.com shopping carts.”

After Google’s API, Amazon is the second major Internet company to offer a programming interface to its database.

Peter Drayton writes about some uses of the Amazon API.

Smart Cards target US Youth

Smart Cards, which have been an “emerging technology” for quite a long time. I too had looked at smart cards in 1999 and had thought then that they could be a useful payment alternative in India where the credit/debit card penetration is still quite low. But somehow, smart cards have not taken off though many banks are making attempts. I have a feeling that smart cards have been like ISDN in the telecom area – “I Still Don’t Know” what to do with them!

Writes WSJ on a new approach being taken in the US:

Having seen the near-complete failure of large-scale smart-card applications, a handful of companies now are thinking small. They’re seeding rock concerts, movies and playgrounds with smart cards, hoping to spur young consumers to adopt the technology.

“The young-adult marketplace is the ideal place to start with new technology, especially if it’s low cost,” says David Morrison, president of Twentysomething, a Radnor, Pa., marketing-research firm that focuses on young people. “The companies can start recovering some capital investments and get a better feeling about the applications.”

The theory goes that once American kids have adopted the technology, their parents will become more familiar with it, and eventually more comfortable in using it. “Not only are you conditioning the youth market, but through demonstration and explanation, the larger market as well,” Mr. Morrison says.
One of the chief lessons learned in the 1998 [New York Upper West Side] experiment was that the cards need to offer more than just a cash substitute. The project’s credit-card sponsors said in the future they would like to put more functions on the cards — for example, allowing you to use the cards as subway passes or phone cards in addition to making simple purchases — and would introduce wider loyalty programs that offer perks to users.

As the article says later, “Smart cards have long been popular in Europe and Asia. In Hong Kong, the Octopus card started as a simple subway-fare card, but is now accepted by businesses ranging from fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. to local movie theaters, and even street parking meters. The cards also are increasingly used for security purposes at schools and residential complexes.”

I still feel Smart Cards have got good potential – what’s needed is a consortium of a few companies to aggregate together apps (so I can use the same smart card in multiple places).

Bezos Interview – Business Week

An excerpt from the interview, in response to a question on what drives Amazon going forward:

When you have computing power doubling every 18 months, and you have the costs of long-haul bandwidth halving every 12 months, and disk-space costs halving every 12 months, you get to layer a lot of innovation on top of that. Things that would have been prohibitively expensive to do [a few years ago] become possible.

And as CPUs get cheaper and cheaper, people will start to have multiple computers in their homes. That will drive our business, too. If you were to install a computer in your kitchen, your Amazon account purchases would probably double. That’s what happened in my house. I strongly recommend this to you [the trademark laugh].

It [still doesn’t] make sense for you to look up a phone number on your computer, as opposed to dialing 411 or using the phone book — we’re not there yet in terms of convenience. [But] that’s not going to happen with any intervention on our part. Those are things that happen from the free market.

As we think of computing in the Indian (and emerging market) context, we too need to take advantage of all the developments. One difference: lag technology. This means, we use technology (hardware) which is a few years old. This eliminates the RD cost and gives us 3-year technology at a tenth of today’s “new technology” prices.

The key to make this model work is to put the smarts in software which uses the latest ideas and standards to make up for the older hardware. Taken together, they provide the base to build out a new tech mass-market infrastructure for the rest of the world.

New Features in Exchange, Outlook

News.com writes about the new features planned in Exchange and Outlook:

The new version of Exchange, code-named Titanium, will be more secure because the company will, by default, disable certain messaging features to prevent hackers or virus makers from taking advantage of openings, said Jim Bernardo, Microsoft’s Exchange product manager.

Outlook will sport a new look, with Microsoft moving the window that previews the text of an e-mail from the bottom of the screen to the right-hand side, Bernardo said.

Another new feature is the ability to group e-mail based on when messages arrived. “It will provide some visual cues and better navigation of what’s important and timely in my inbox,” he said. “You can group messages from when they came in–today, yesterday, last week, two weeks ago.”

Outlook will also feature improvements in sorting mail, including new multicolored flags that people can use to determine each e-mail’s importance. Computer users can then put flagged e-mail in multiple folders in their inbox. If they forget where they put the flagged e-mail, they can do a search to find all their important messages all at once, Bernardo said.

The changes, while good, seem to be cosmetic and incremental. The real leap in productivity will come through the use of blogs and RSS syndication on the desktop, as part of the Digital Dashboard.

TECH TALK: Tech’s 10X Tsunamis: The Past

The Dis-Integration of the Computer Industry (late 1980s)

Sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s, the computer industry was transformed from a vertically integrated industry to a horizontally sliced industry. Until the change took place, companies like IBM, DEC and Wang made everything that was needed for the computer right from the chips and the OS, to the application software and having their own sales and distribution. The emergence of the personal computer changed the status quo. Andy Grove takes up the story:

The 10X force came about because technology now permitted putting what before had been many chips on a single chip and because the same microprocessor could be used to produce all kinds of personal computers. As the microprocessor became the basic building block of the industry, the economics of mass production kicked in and manufacturing companies became extremely cost-effective, making the PC an enormously attractive tool in both home and business settings.

In other words, the industry was horizontalised different companies competed for market shares in chips, operating systems, applications and distribution. This 10X force created new leaders in Intel and Microsoft, companies who had been until a short while earlier, component suppliers to the vertically integrated players. The new rules meant competing on the basis of mass production and mass distribution. In this world, the rich get richer. The new rules, according to Grove, of the Horizontal industry: dont differentiate without a difference, the first mover has a true opportunity to gain a time advantage over its competitors, and price for volumes, and cut costs in the process to make money at the new price points.

Its a point made very well by Clay Christensen, Michael Raynor and Matt Verlinden in Skate to where the Money will be (Harvard Business Review, November 2001):

As PCs became good enough for mainstream users, profits flowed from the customers through the assemblers (the IBMs and Compaqs of the world) to lodge in the component makers the operating system maker (Microsoft), the processor maker (Intel), and initially to the memory chip makers and disk drive manufacturers. But as DRAM chips and drives became good enough for the assemblers, the money flowed even further up the value chain to DRAM equipment makers and head and disk suppliers.

Whats different about the places where the money collected and those where it didnt? For most of this period, profits lodged with the products that were the ones not yet good enough for what their immediate customers needed. The architectures of those products therefore tended to be interdependent and proprietary. Companies could hang onto subsistence profits because the functionality of their products tended to be more than good enough, and so their architectures had become modular.

In the late 1980s, the computer industry started to get modularized. The components and sub-system makers thus started gaining influence and disproportionate profits at the cost of the integrators. This modularization is something we are likely to see in the coming years in many hitherto vertically integrated industries, none more so than the mobile phones business.

Tomorrow: The Past (continued)

Nanotubes

It Slices! It Dices! Nanotube Struts Its Stuff, writes the NYTimes:

It is stronger than steel and far sharper than a pin. It shoots electrons and draws away heat. It can become the thinnest of wires and, potentially, electronic devices almost as minuscule as molecules.

In the last decade, the cylindrical molecule of carbon known as a nanotube has become a do-all wonder substance, touted for future use in everything from X-ray machines to paint. Nanotubes are already sprinkled in more than half of lithium ion batteries: their ability to carry electricity hastens recharging, and they act like tiny springs to hold apart the sheets of graphite in the battery, extending its lifetime.

US 802.11 Network in Offing?

NYTimes reports on the discussions between many leading US companies to set up a nationwide wireless network:

The Intel Corporation, I.B.M., ATT Wireless and several other wireless and Internet service providers including Verizon Communications and Cingular are exploring the creation of a company to deploy a network based on the increasingly popular 802.11 wireless data standard, known as WiFi, according to several people close to the talks.

The discussions, which are code-named Project Rainbow and have been going on for the last eight months, envision a nationwide service that would provide on-the-go professionals and other Web surfers a unified way to reach the Internet from a wide range of “hot spots” like airports and other public places. It is not intended to supply broadband connections to customers’ homes, an executive involved in the discussions said.

The rapid emergence of the 802.11 standard has been a remarkable phenomenon that has so far been unplanned and moved forward largely without the backing of major corporate service providers. About 7 million wireless cards were sold last year, a number the technology market research firm IDC expects to grow to 25 million by 2005.

802.11 is a disruptive technology, and if this happens, it can be a big blow to the cellular operators. Interestingly, such a move would further drop prices of 802.11 technologies making it cost-effective for leveraging in emerging markets like India as a primary high-speed data network.