Knowledge and Prosperity

An interesting essay by Virgina Postrel, based on a book by Joel Mokyr “The Gifts of Athena”, which argues that “to understand why the West not only grew rich after the Industrial Revolution but also kept growing richer, we have to understand the revolution in how people organize and exchange useful knowledge.”

CNet’s Vision Series

CNet has assembled 20 minds to look ahead into the world of technology.

From an interview with Microsoft’s Rick Rashid:

The biggest change in computer usage on the horizon will be the advent of “ubiquitous” computing. Just as the interconnecting of computers to each other through the Internet changed the way people used their computers, so will the interconnecting of smart devices in the home and office change the way we think about computing in our lives. In most major metropolitan areas, you should be able to have constant connectivity from your PC, laptop, tablet, PDA, etc., to the Internet and through the Internet to any of the devices that you own.

Part of what I see happening is an integration of the user interface across all these different devices. Right now, people’s lives are very compartmentalized as far as computers are concerned–there’s me in my office, there’s me in my home, and there’s me in my car. These are all different versions of me as far as these devices are concerned. The job of all these computing devices is to really help users solve their problems and deal with the tasks they have and not to think of these as all separate experiences.

This would be part of what we’re calling “attentional UI,” which means how to manage the user’s attention and how to give the user better knowledge about what’s happening. We’re seeing it a bit in PCs where, for example, when a friend or colleague gets online and connects to instant messenger, you get a nonintrusive alert. Or with e-mail, where a small icon pops up when you have a new message.

But we’re really just starting to use the real estate on the screen in a good way. In the highly connected, highly networked world, where there is a lot of information flowing, the tendency has been to have more event-driven kinds of interfaces. We’ve done some work in research here where you can put an events window on your desktop showing different events like weather, traffic and current news, and my schedule. This is always on my screen on the side of it, and when something changes, I’ll see that and see what changes.

The point of the attentional-UI discussion is this notion that information and notices can find you wherever you are in whatever circumstance. The fact that the underlying system knows something about you means it can get information to you in a form that makes sense in the circumstances.

The “Attentional-UI” that Rashid talks about seems to me to be like a Digital Dashboard, integrated with an RSS Aggregator for collating events together, and IM-SMS for real-time notifications.

Software Usability

From Business Week:

Back in the 1970s, it took a multimillion-dollar mainframe to complete tasks that today can be done by the average desktop. Thus, the idea of dedicating valuable processing power and programming to the task of designing screens that simplify and speed up the use of a particular program or even of an entire computer network was laughable.

The arrival of cheap, all-powerful desktops changed that. Suddenly, it became economically sensible to spend time developing resource-intensive user interfaces — screens that graphically represent the arcane, typewritten commands that would otherwise be needed to make a piece of software run. Today, colorful menu bars and glitzy graphics are just some of the sophisticated tools usability engineers have in their arsenal. They also use scan recorders to track how computer users move through a software product’s command screens and where they make mistakes — then strive for ways to make the task so intuitive that it’s idiot-proof.

Usability experts also perform in-depth studies of how businesses run, so as to ensure that software with a six-figure price tag is compatible with existing workflows — or even better, simplifies them without requiring a sweeping reorganization, which might doom the software installation to failure.

Logistics

From the Economist:

Logistics might sound a simple enough business of moving things around, but it is growing more complex as customers demand more finely tuned services, and as new technology and greater use of the Internet open up new ways of passing around information. Now that companies have delayered, re-engineered and scrubbed the waste from their assembly lines, logistics seems worthy of rather closer attention.

To simplify what goes into the factory and make it more of a snap-together assembly line, [companies] outsource more, and buy in sub-assemblies rather than individual parts. They are also trying to build only to orders from customers (known as BTO), rather than guessing what will be in demand and supplying it from accumulated stocks. Cutting inventories and introducing BTO calls for a comprehensive, flexible freight operation. This is such a challenging task that companies are reluctant to do it all themselves. So more of them are, in effect, outsourcing logistics to third parties.

This movement is forcing the freight-transport industry to reshape, as customers seek service suppliers with global reach. Manufacturers want custom-designed delivery systems, using all types of transportland, sea and air. Distinctions between postal, express and logistics services are blurring. And the fastest-growing part of the business is catering to the demand for outsourcing by providing companies with third-party logistics.

Companies realise that organising the supply of incoming parts and outgoing goods can account for 10% of their costs. Yet they know little about how best to do it, according to Mr Bakker of TPG, the world’s second-largest logistics specialist (under its TNT Logistics brand). He says the biggest omission is not counting the cost of holding more inventory than is needed. Even car makers, for all their lean factories, produce cars that sit idle for up to 100 days.

Nowadays, with global supply-chains connecting cheap workers on one side of the world with rich consumers on the other, good logistics can make all the difference to a company’s ability to serve its customers. It is not just what you make or how you make it. It is how quickly you get the parts together, or shift finished products from Asian factories to western markets. The success of retailers such as Wal-Mart in America or Marks & Spencer in Britain depends largely on getting the right goods to the right place on time.

Gerstner’s Elephants and Crichton’s Prey

Two good books I have read recently: Lou Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? and Michael Crichton’s Prey. Gerstner was CEO of IBM for the past 9 years and instrumental in its turnaround. Crichton authored, among others, Jurassic Park and The Lost World.

Gerstner details his IBM years. It is a fascinating insight into how IBM regained its leadership position in the tech industry. A decade ago, it was en route to extinction. Today, along with Microsoft, it is one of the two companies that define the industry. One fears Microsoft, but one respects IBM. And a lot of that credit goes to Gerstner.

Crichton is always a great read, even though his previous book (Timeline) was a disappointment. This time, he delves into Nanotechnology and Artificial Life for his plot. The core of the book is great, but the last third was not as good. Overall, it is still a book you’ll end up finishing in a single sitting.

The latest Economist has a report on Nanotech, taking Crichton’s book as its lead. News.com has a perspective on Nanotech, stating “[it] is an enabling and potentially disruptive technology that can solve problems in industries as disparate as telecom, biotechnology, microelectronics and energy. Currently more than 100 start-ups are developing nanotechnology-based products that will be marketable in the next three years.”

Sidelight: an interesting thing about buying books in India is how cheap you can get them. Gerstner’s book costs Rs 580 (USD 12) vs USD 16.77 on Amazon, while Crichton’s book costs Rs 195 (USD 4) vs USD 16.17 on Amazon.

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TECH TALK: Disruptive Bridges: The First Markets

The first set of markets to target are the cradles of learning the student community in schools, colleges, vocational institutes and the training centres. The educational institutions are the builders for tomorrow’s developers, workforce, managers and entrepreneurs. For a nation, they decide its tomorrow. Computing must become part of the educational curriculums DNA.

Students spend the better part of their day in schools and colleges that is where they learn, individually and collectively. That is where computers and the Internet need to be easily available for them to discover the magic of whats possible with technology. By targeting the younger generation, we ensure that the nation will have a computer-literate populace in the years to come. At the same time, students are the ones who can spread computing to their families, creating a positive viral effect. Since theyve been exposed to the benefits of computing and the Internet, they will play the role of evangelists and become the change agents that emerging markets need to bridge the digital divide.

The next step should be to create a franchise of Tech 7-11s. Technology needs to become, to borrow a phrase from IBM, “the next utility” for the people and enterprises on the wrong side of the digital divide. In developing countries, the individual ownership model will come later community ownership/usage needs to come first. The distribution point for this tech utility needs to be in every neighbourhood and industrial cluster.

Think of these hubs as the equivalent of tech “7-11s”. The 7-11 (which stands for 7 am to 11 pm – the store timings) chain of stores dot many of Asia’s cities. Most of what families need for their daily consumption is available at these stores. They are a part of life.

The Tech 7-11s also need to become part of the digital life. They can be housed in any number of places: schools, colleges, post offices, existing STD/PCO booths, railways stations, bus depots, bank branches, factory floors, and even hospitals. They serve multiple purposes. They have a 10-40 computers. They also showcase the technologies which can make a difference for the masses, host a digital hub for WiFi data networks, provide Internet access, serve as delivery points for eCommerce transactions, become eLearning centres, and serve as a physical world meeting place for people in the neighbourhood to share and learn.

The focus here needs to be on the Tech 7-11 franchisees, who will set up these centers. They can be institutions or private entrepreneurs. While we can hope for the government to set up these centres, I feel the driving force will be the individual space owners, who need a business model which says that for the space they have the best return on their investment can come not from a grocery store or a coffee outlet, but a Tech 7-11.

Monday: The First Markets (continued)

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