Searching for Customer No. 1

Its the challenge which every entrepreneur faces – a product is ready for the marketplace, awaiting the first customer. Until the first customer signs up, the product is merely a research project, an interesting idea. The first (paying) customer lends legitimacy to the entire effort. It also gives the entrepreneur the much-needed boost that if there’s one out there willing to pay there will be others. Finding the all-elusive first customer is always a big challenge.

We are in exactly the same situation with our Thin Client-Thick Server project. We have got a few trials ongoing, but no paying customer yet. Maybe I was overly optimistic that by September-end we’d have had our Customer No. 1. It still looks to be some distance away. I’ve been through this many times before. It is never an easy feeling. One has to battle all kinds of self-doubts. This is the time when has to keep faith in the vision – because everyone else in the organisation is watching.

I know we have a winner on our hands with TC-TS (have christened it Emergic Freedom: Thin Client Desktop-Thick Server OS). But we need to position it right and take it to the right customers. We are struggling a little here. But I am hoping to set that right soon. Initial feedback from those who have seen it has been positive, but we haven’t yet made the conversion. I am getting the brochures ready, so we ourselves are clear on the product.

This is the fun part of being an Entrepreneur. One has chosen the road out of choice with all its ups and downs. Each day brings greater hope, greater optimism. There is a confidence we are headed in the right direction. It is a long road ahead. I am prepared. Disruptive Innovations and Revolutions aren’t for the faint-hearted. And for me, Emergic is even bigger – it is about taking computing to the other 90%. One does not get such opportunities every day.

Proxim takes WiFi to 12 miles

From News.com: “The Proxim product can achieve long distances because the company boosted the power inside its access points–the radios that create the network. It also added additional antennas to the access points so signals could be beamed directly to a home, rather than creating a cloud of access. Proxim’s product, priced from about $2,000 to $6,000, will include all the equipment necessary to become a small-scale network provider. The price differs depending on the quality of equipment and add-ons that a buyer may want. Each kit can serve about 250 customers.”

What began as technology for a Wireless LAN is on its way to bridging the last mile(s). The 3G cellcos better watch out.

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PC’s Next Innovations

John Robb writes about what is needed to spur PC sales (ref: this NYT article my comments):

In my view, the personal computer is all about personal leverage (as is most technology: my car, microwave oven, telephone, etc.). If you want to keep the cycle alive, increase the leverage. What is the biggest opportunity available for increasing personal leverage? Suck the Web down to the PC. Reinvent it on the PC.

I want the entire value of the best of the Web on my PC (Watson). I want to be able to publish a complex website (Radio). I want to add rich content (video and audio files) via my personal website and distribute it in a way that doesn’t break my piggy bank (P2P multi-cast). I want to recombined data available via the Web in new ways that make it more meaningful to me. Reinvent the Web and it will drive PC sales.

An interesting comment on what John has to say comes from Seth Russell: “Indeed ! That way one browses and sees the web according to and within one’s own context. This doesn’t mean that each PC needs the power of a Google on the desktop, just that each PC cotains the ability to remember the context of of the PC’s owner. See also CoherentExperience mentograph. The node labeled `Your Memory’ is what is lacking in a PC at the moment and is the reason that human’s experience of the semantic web is not quite working yet.”

For emerging markets, this implies bringing the web down to the LAN server (because the desktop may actually be a Thin Client). Bandwidth is a huge problem. But one can be creative by using RSS streams and replication. Yes, at some time bandwidth will improve, but the LAN-WAN disconnect in emerging markets is massive. In India, for example, most WAN connections to the Internet are 64-128 Kbps – for entire organisations. This is why locally generated content becomes content and that is where k-logs can come in.

The next PC innovation which can make a big difference is Google News or Samachar. Take RSS feeds, add a Scratchpad as a universal writing tool and an Events Horizon as a unified reading tool and lace with application links. One screen to show them all.

Predictions from Tech’s Thinkers

From the WSJ comes an analysis of some of the past predictions (along with some new ones) made by technology’s big thinkers. Here’s what one can expect in the future:

Nicholas Negroponte: Grass-roots wireless services could in some ways overtake traditional telecom operators.

Lester Thurow: Biotechnology advances will radically transform our world and our bodies.

Glover Ferguson: “Insight” is the next key to competitive advantage. [Mr. Ferguson says services will become commodities, too. Insight is essentially a breakthrough analysis of a situation you keep secret and use to beat rivals. So, a bank might see a baby crib purchase on a customer’s credit-card bill and know from previous analysis the majority of people buying cribs are having their first babies. There’s a predictable progression of needs and purchases, including a bigger home, life insurance and so on. The bank can exploit that knowledge to cater to the customer. But it needs to keep the insight to itself.]

Alan Nugent: Web services will come of age.

Peter Cochrane: Customers will take over local telecommunications.

Michael Earl: The Internet will ultimately be more about information than transactions.

Laos project for Internet access

Look, ma, no electricity needed! This is exactly what is happening in Laos. Writes the Economist: “The Jhai Foundation devised a machine that has no moving, and few delicate, parts. Instead of a hard disk, the Jhai PC relies on flash-memory chips to store its data. Its screen is a liquid-crystal display, rather than an energy-guzzling glass cathode-ray tubean exception to the rule that the components used are old-fashioned, and therefore cheap. (No Pentiums, for example, just a 486-type processor.) Lee Thorn, the head of the Jhai Foundation, an American-Lao organisation, estimates that, built in quantity, each Jhai PC would cost around $400. Furthermore, because of its simplicity, a Jhai PC can be powered by a car battery charged with bicycle cranksthus removing the need for a connection to the grid. Wireless Internet cards connect each Jhai PC to a solar-powered hilltop relay station which then passes the signals on to a computer in town that is connected to both the Lao phone system (for local calls) and to the Internet.”

Next Markets for PCs

Intel’s and Microsoft’s problems are encapsulated in the following statements in an NYT article: “Computers have reached a point where for the most common home purposes Web surfing, e-mail and word processing they are already more than fast enough to suit a typical home user’s needs…No new computer generally means no new copy of Microsoft Windows sold, no upgrades to word processing or spreadsheet programs.” Adds the article:

Mr. Paul Otellini [Intel’s president and COO] acknowledged that most of the incremental growth in the personal computer market since 2000 is already coming from what he calls “emerging markets” developing countries where there are now few computers.

“We believe that 50 percent of all the incremental units sold in the next five years will come from these markets,” he said. There are now about 500 million personal computers in the world, he said, and with the help of the emerging markets the industry, over a long period, could still expect to see double-digit growth outside the industrial world.

The next set of users in the world’s emerging markets need computing at much lower price points, and so far Intel and Microsoft are doing nothing to cater to that. The cost of computing needs to fall by 50-70% to spur the next wave of buying. This is unlikely to be led by Intel and Microsoft.

Microsoft’s Lack of New Products

Writes Robert Scoble (via Rahul Dave):

Tell me again why companies with one, two, or maybe a handful of employees can come out with products like Blogger, Radio UserLand, Movable Type, TopStyle but the 45,000 employees of Microsoft can’t figure out how to upgrade Office or Windows or many of its other products with many new features that anyone is willing to pay money for?

I think Microsoft has a leadership problem. What’s the problem? They’ve forgotten to ship new things once in a while. Tell me again, what’s the thing that Microsoft has shipped in the past year that’s really new and has radical new features?

Windows XP? It’s more than a year old now and it really didn’t have a radical new feature set over Windows 2000. Xbox? Oh yeah. Anything else? PocketPC? Come on.

The problem isn’t with the evangelists. We’re out here. The problem is we don’t have anything new to talk about. So, we’re going elsewhere. RedHat is shipping a new version. Mozilla is shipping a new browser. Macromedia is shipping a FrontPage-killer. ActiveWords has a better way to interface with your computer. Radio and MoveableType and all the other blog tools are giving us a better way to build a Web site.

Interesting points. Maybe the big companies like Microsoft think that unless they create something which generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue (or unless they spend millions), it is just not worth it. Perhaps, also the fear of failure – what will peope think of us if we do something this small. On the other hand, the tiny companies and entrepreneurs have little to lose. In fact, they have to think differently, they have no legacy of the past.

TECH TALK: The Years That Were: 1996 (Part 2)

Mark Halper wrote about A World of Servers Great and Small in Forbes ASAP (June 3, 1996):

In [Oracles Larry] Ellison and [Suns Scott] McNealys view call it the nothing but net vision servers will hold all the applications and data that any $500 user would need. In the same fabric, servers will server the 150 million-odd PCs entrenched in the business world and now getting hooked into corporate Intranet networks.Already a corporate fixture dispensing and managing databases, applications, messages, print commands and other daily occurrences, the server will take on even larger dimensions in a world wired to dumb boxes. The more powerful the server, the more powerful the network, and the richer the network, the richer the network computer, says Ellison.

Forbes ASAPs year-end 296-page issue (December 2, 1996) had articles by many luminaries on the techno-future. Here are some excerpts:

Bill Gates: To make intelligent bets, you have to understand what will be going on in the next ten years. Most people overestimate what is going to happen in the next two or three years and underestimate what is going to happen in the next decade.In ten years, it gets wild. One is the predictable result Moores Law has on computer capability. PC power in absolute terms gets so large that your ability to do rich thingslike keeping your entire personal photo collection on your PC will be a piece of cakeThere are breakthrough things that are certain to come between now and 2006. Extremely cheap flat-panel displayOne the surface of my desk and a lot of my walls, Ill have displays with project status, sales data all there. Input will be done with pointing devices or by talking to the computer. The computer will be talking to us, and it will see. It will see when we walk into a room.

Nicholas Negroponte: So, what is the next Big Thing? What atoms will be turned into bits and really change the world? For me, the answer is simple: cash. What we know today as coins and paper currency will become bits. I dont mean credit or debit cards or accounting systems of that kind. I mean stored value, bits on your hard disk or in your electronic wallet.

Ann Winbald: Object-oriented programming software that can re-used and interchanged among programs has finally hit its stride. For years,software developers have talked of object-oriented software: smart components that can be assembled into a manageable environment. Programmers dared to imagine marts of such components, where they could buy and sell each others components instead of recoding already invented parts the equivalent of a bill of materials for the software factorySmall developers have become specialty parts suppliers to the growing population of software assembly-line workersThe true realization of a working software assembly process, readily available tools, and a rich supplier base has just begun to materialize as we approach the turn of the century.

Scott McNealy: Go webtop. Publish all the information on your internal web. Dont send it to employees on paper or even email, because by the time they can print it out and get through it, its already old. Give the user safe and instant access to the network from a personal web page, from any machine, using any operating system, at any time, with dial-tone reliability. Thats a utility model of computingThe digital industries are converging on this utility model. Data tone will become as commonplace as dial toneThis is where I think the puck is heading. Its a new wave of network computing, based on the fat-server, big-pipeline, thin-client model. Its applications written once to run anywhere, safely. Its web-centric, web-toned and irresistibly open.

Tomorrow: 1997

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