As I have been meeting with people and enterprises in our endeavour to discover the right markets and positioning for Emergic Freedom, here are a few thoughts which are slowly taking root:
what we are creating is an “alternative computing platform” – from its use of cheaper (or even recycled) PCs to use of open-source to wanting to use the next WWW (WiFi, Weblogs and Web Services)
this platform will not be accepted easily by the existing users in big corporates and ones currently using Windows
we will need to create application bundles (think of them as “solution stacks”) for the verticals that we want to target: the thin client-thick server part is just a small part of it.
we need to think of the solution as a “digital bridge” – basically, taking computing for the next set of computer users. The difficult part of it is these markets do not exist, and have to be envisioned and created.
we need to keep in mind two extremes: the benefits of spreading computing and Internet usage to the mass-market, and at the same leveraging the newest technologies to leapfrog over current limitations.
So, the next question becomes: which are the segments we should target? The three which are now becoming clear to me are: SMEs, Education and Tech 7-11 Franchisees. Taken together, the three segments are critical for briding the digital divide. Let me talk a little about each of them. The one commonality across all the segments is that they are large: in India, each is a million strong in terms of the potential market.
SMEs: These enterprises (especially the ones in emerging markets) have very little computing usage today. They don’t know where to turn to for solutions. What is needed is the creation of an “IBM for SMEs” – I am saying this after having just read Lou Gerstner’s new book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” and seeing how he positioned IBM as the services firm which integrated various technology components for the world’s corporates. SMEs need something similar. They are too small and too scattered, but are the weak links in today’s supply chains. They employ the majority of people in nations. They have limited resources – money, staff, time. They need solutions to make their lives simpler, and take their businesses from the “survival” mode to “growth” mode. [A recent post.]
Education: Schools and Colleges are the builders for tomorrow’s developers, workforce, managers and entrepreneurs. For a nation, they decide it’s tomorrow. It is very important to ensure that every student gets computer education, and is well-versed with the Internet before they graduate. This is where the low-cost ideas we have can make a big difference. India has 1.2 million schools, with only a small fraction having computers. We need to ensure that each of these schools can have a computer lab. In colleges, we need to get more computers because the students need to be encouraged to spend more time on them. By adding in new ideas like educational dashboards and weblogs, it can become possible to create a new framework for education in emerging markets.
Tech 7-11 Franchisees: This builds on the idea I wrote about in this week’s Tech Talk series, imagining Nayapur and how the computer and communications centre at the local post office can make a big difference to the lives of its people. Any entrepreneur or institution having space should be able to set up a Tech 7-11 franchise, much like a Starbucks (or in India, Barista and Cafe Coffee Day) outlet. What we need to show is that economics are attractive. Cybercafes today which only offer Internet browsing are very limited in their upside. We need to offer a whole host of new services leveraging (a) the thick server in the store to serve local content and applications, and (b) WiFi to extend computing to the neighbourhood. What the Tech 7-11 does is to take computing to the neighbourhood, much like India’s STD/PCOs did with telephones. The individual ownership model will come later – in developing countries like India, community ownership/usage needs to come first.
To make these ideas a reality, we will need to work with channel partners and software developers to build solution stacks. End-users need integrated solutions, not just the components. That is going to be a significant challenge.
I feel good about the path we have embarked on. The past 3 months have seen a lot of back-and-forth in my thinking as I’ve met with people and thought about what we are doing. It is never easy and straightforward identifying markets for disruptive innovations, and that is exactly what we are doing. Soon, we will need to make our bets in the path that we take going forward. We have very limited resources in terms of people and money, so that has to be compensated with deep thinking and a gut feel for the directions we need to take.
So far, I have let the “wind take us” in the direction that it has blown, and we’ll probably continue that for a little more time. My deadline is to firm up our ideas by December-end. But the past few days have seen a small and important step forward in this thinking.
I will probably take these ideas and grow them into a Tech Talk series soon.