Integrating Browser and News Reader

Says Dave Hyatt: “It should be possible to make an application for managing a large amount of information flow that is accessible to mainstream users. Browsers are trying to make information easier to manage with smarter bookmarking systems and page management capabilities (tabs), and news readers are emerging that (in effect) push new information to you in as it’s posted and allow you to switch rapidly between different information sets as well.” [via Kevin Werbach]

Dave Hyatt is the lead developer of Safari (Apple’s newly released browser) and former lead developer of Chimera. He writes about the possibility of integrating features between the news reader and the browser. There are some very interesting comments. Padawanhas nicely summarised the agruments for and against the integration.

BlogStreet’s Future

Dana Blankenhorn has a comment about BlogStreet in a post entitled “Opportunity in Blogging Tech”:

Blogstreet measures the “success” of a blog by the number of other blogs with permanent link to it, called a “blogroll.”

This is really quite unfair.

There are other mechanisms that could be used. Total audience, easily obtained through site logs, could be used. But that is also unfair. Blogs run by major media organizations would dominate such rankings, and those are far from the most influential. Even blogrolling sounds good.

There’s another metric, that is the number of total links to a blog there are from other blogs. In particular these would include links to stories on other blogs. So-and-so said something Really Cool, with a link to it.

But even that is a trifle unfair. You may have one really good story, that a lot of blogs link to, and you may quickly fade out.

The best metric would combine all these — blogrolls, links and audience. The aim is to uncover influence.

Anyone care to put something together?

While blogroll analysis may not be the most ideal metric, it is definitely the best available at this point of time and that is what we have used. We do recognise its limitations – it is more of a Popularity index.

One of the things we’ve been working on over the past few days is on weighing the links that link to a blog. For example, a link from Scripting.com or Instapundit would be much more important than a link from say Emergic. So, just adding up the links may not be enough. Giving a weightage to the links is also important. We have done this and are calling this “Blog Importance Quotient” (BIQ). You should be able to see the results from this soon, and then decide for yourself.

Down the line, a question we have been asking ourselves is what do we want BlogStreet to become. Our answer: “a place to find experts” (expert bloggers, that is). My belief is that there will be two types of blogs: those by experts which will have high influence and reading (high in terms of traffic may be only a few hundred pageviews, but its the quality of traffic that matters here), and the others who have primarily their own small network of friends and family among the traffic.

The key in the blogging world is to establish via the blog a “sphere of influence”, where one’s opinion matters and is respected. These are the blogs (and people) one needs to find. And that is what BlogStreet shoud be able to enable. I should be able to type WiFi or Microcredit or Java, and it should point me to the bloggers who are “experts” in these areas.

From there, the rest of what BlogStreet offers will take over – showing me other interesting blogs (via the neighbourhood analysis and blogback). It is the first part that is missing and what we hope to work on in the coming weeks.

So, in essence, we want to make BlogStreet a window to the microcommunities that have begun to form around bloggers. For example, yeserday, I visited Dave Hyatt’s blog for the first time (floowing a link from Kevin Werbach’s blog), and found a wonderful discussion on browsers and news readers. I was amazed by the sheer number of comments that people had left behind. Dave has managed to pull in a community of techies interested in web browsers. This is because Dave is a “hub” – one who knows browsers better than most others. So, the next time, I am looking for ideas on browsers, his is the blog I should be visiting first. And that should happen as easily as typing “browsers” in BlogStreet.

SPOT and FM

From San Jose Mercury News on how used FM for its new smart personal object technology (SPOT): “When Microsoft researchers wanted to know how to bring the Internet to everyday devices like the wristwatch, they turned to the sleepy technology of FM radio. It turned out that the trick to making a smart electronic watch was to put in a radio that could pull bits of data out of the same radio waves carrying Muzak into malls and elevators.”

The impact:

SPOT watches promise to offer users personal data, like the local weather, wherever they are, custom-tailored news headlines, stock prices from the user’s portfolio, personal calendar data and scores for the user’s favorite sports teams.

This type of data could liberate bored employees stuck in meetings, or tell you that you’ve got only 20 minutes to make it to the airport and that traffic is bad on your usual route.

Microsoft found a way to personalize the watches: giving each a unique identification number. The user goes to a Web site and enters the watch number and types preferences into a template. Then, as the watch is receiving the DirectBand signals, it looks only for data associated with the ID number. Hence, your watch only stores data on the sports teams you like and discards the rest.

And because the watch knows which radio station it is receiving the information from, it can use that knowledge to reset itself. For instance, if you travel to Dallas, the watch will pick up signals from the Dallas radio station and reset itself for the appropriate time zone. It can also reset itself with the precision of an atomic clock.

Hosted Software Vendors

InfoWorld gives the world a new 3-letter word: HSV, replacing the much-maligned ASP. It writes: “With enterprises looking for low-cost, low-risk solutions in a tight budget environment, HSVs have started to gain more traction in areas ranging from CRM to human resources. And though they are strapped for cash and staff, just like nearly every other company, HSVs are continuing to push the technology limits of delivering software as a hosted service.”

One of the key challenges faced is cutomisation.

A key objection to hosted software has been HSVs’ inability to customize their wares to the same extent as packaged-application vendors do theirs. So HSVs are working hard to increase customizability while maintaining the cost-effectiveness of a single multitenant code base. “The new model is customization through configuration, says David Thomas, CEO of Intacct in Los Gatos, Calif. You have to design [hosted applications] so they can do extensive customization through configuration, and thats a challenge.

Everybody’s sharing the application, so you cant customize the code, says Employease’s Alberg.

He explains that instead of using programming languages and tools for customization, the best hosted applications use built-in wizards, drop-down lists, and radio buttons. There are an unlimited number of custom data elements you can add, and no software development or database knowledge [is required],” he says.

Separating business rules from the applications base code is also key to “configurable customization,” allowing customers to define and select permissions, role-based usage, approvals processes, and best practices from menus within the system. Finally, customers typically want access to their data via whatever third-party analytics packages they may be using, and this requires a stateless architecture that assures that intensive queries cant adversely affect database performance for any other customer.

These are points we need to keep in mind for building out our enterprise eBusiness suite.

TECH TALK: The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem: 10 Ideas to Tap Invisible Markets

Lets see how we can the 10 ideas outlined by Vijay Mahajan, Marcos V. Pratini De Moraes and Jerry Wind in their paper (Marketing Management, Winter 2000) on The Invisible Global Markets in the context of building our Rs 5,000 PC (5KPC) ecosystem

1. Build products to compete against bullock carts rather than automobiles: The competition for the 5KPC is not necessarily the 20KPC. Rather, it is nonconsumption, or in the case of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the paper-pen approach to writing letters and doing accounts. In schools and colleges, a handful of computers (if present at all) are shared by dozens of students in that case, the computer is not a personal computer, it is more like a TV. By bringing the cost down, we can now create individualised access to the computers, thus making for a learning experience (as compared to a viewing one earlier).

2. Create product and service revolutions that can be exported: India can be the first market, the laboratory for implementing these 5KPC ideas. But that is not the only market. The opportunity lies in replicating these ideas across other markets like India. The language requirements may be different, but the same desires and needs for a connected computer exists across the countries at the bottom of the pyramid.

3. Pay attention to the informal economy: Most of our life is spent in cities. Our friends and family live in cities. Semi-urban areas or the rural villages are alien to us. But these are the places where the next set of opportunities lie. They are not what we come across in our daily life we have to go our of our way to tap into this other economy. Their problems are different for example, uninterrupted electrical supply which we take for granted is a dream for most people outside the major metros in India. This means to make a computer work, we need an alternate and cost-effective power supply.

4. Use global family networks: India has its Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), China has its Overseas Chinese. Can they be persuaded to partake (for profit) in the computing buildout? For example, can NRIs get together and provide Rs 150,000 (USD 3,000) to put together a 10-computer lab for the village/school that was part of their childhood? This microfinance can, in a distributed manner, complement the resources that are available via NGOs and the government.

5. Understand that customers dont know how to be customers: According to me, one of the reasons (besides price) for the poor off-take of computers in the emerging markets is that people and enterprises still dont know what to do with them besides the regular email, browsing and Office applications. Whats needed is the creation of application bundles relevant for different verticals, and appropriate training for end-users on how to make the best use of the computers. A community portal where the users can share experiences and ask questions about computing without being embarrassed about their ignorance would also be very helpful.

Monday: 10 Ideas to Tap Invisible Markets (continued)

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Netcore Plans

Over the past month or so, we’ve been brainstorming on how we (as a company) grow, and what areas we focus on. Two things have been very clear: first, the messaging business (which accounts for all our revenues currently) has become increasingly commoditised and while our customers are increasing (we have 180+ corporates), revenues per customers are falling. So we cannot necessarily rely on messaging to provide our entire bread-and-butter business.

Second, Emergic Freedom (the thin client-thick server solution) business will take time to build. This is our bet on a big upside in the years to come, but given that we have to build out new markets and target nonconsumption (of computing), the gestation period is not going to be small. We know the segments we need to focus on: schools, colleges, government, bank branches, telecentres (cybercafes), SMEs and homes. The long-term future of the solution is great, but I cannot tell which will be the near-term market successes. In the coming months, we need to get reference installations in as many of these verticals as possible.

So, given this dichotomy, we need to create a revenue stream which can ensure we are breakeven/profitable in the coming months, until the time that Emergic Freedom starts kicking in with the revenues. I hate losing money and have always believed that both making profits and losses can be habit-forming. Better to develop some good habits!

The area we have identified is what I call “Information Work and Collaboration”. Its about providing our existing (and growing) corporate base with cost-effective knowledge management solutions based around blogging. We’ve been doing a lot of work around this (Digital Dashboard, for example) over the past many months. We now have a set of products which can help enterprises better manage their knowledge base – the unstructured information not in databases. This also builds on the messaging base, and works as a bridge on what we want to do in the future – offer an integrated eBusiness suite for SMEs.

The set of products that we will be marketing in India (and then to other emerging markets) are:

Traction. We’ve been using Traction internally for the past few months and its been a great platform for managing tacit knowledge. We will also set up a hosted service for community blogs.

– News Aggregator, Reader and Digital Dashboard. This suite, which we have developed internally, lets users in the enterprise subscribe to RSS feeds, and get alerts on their Dashboard in a browser. I believe RSS is a “disruptive” force in getting information delivered to you. The same concept can be extended later to enterprise events. As users get these feeds, they can post items to their blog using Traction.

– Events Builder. This too has been developed internally. It lets users define event streams from any ODBC-complait development, and generates an RSS feed which can be picked up by a News Aggregator.

So, all the three ideas are built around RSS and events. The Events Builder helps generate RSS from existing databases, the News Aggregator-Reader and Dashboard takes the RSS feeds and delivers them to the user, and Traction helps the users add comments and post the items (along with emails, etc.) to a personal, group or project blog within the enterprise. The hosted Traction service lets users work in ad hoc groups across locations or enterprises.

I think the set of ideas make sense. They can be used independently or together. They leverage on the base of messaging which is now existent in enterprises. Knowledge management systems today are very expensive. What we have is something which can get them started quickly and intuitively, without making large investments or changing user behaviour.

The News Aggregator also leverages the work we have been doing in BlogStreet. Besides identifying the top blogs and neighbourhoods of blogs (and we have now information on over 50,000 blogs), we also know about 5,000 RSS feeds from these blogs. Taken together, BlogStreet’s base can be a good starting point to expose enterprises to blogs and getting them started on blogging, as the first step en route to building a knowledge base internally.

So, the two themes that we will focus on in the coming months are Accessibility and Affordability. Messaging, the Knowledge Management suite and BlogStreet focus on Accessibility to information and people. Emergic Freedom emphasises on Affordability of computing.

They are two different tracks with different market segments. One will help us take care of our near-term growth, while the other is our long-term bet. As I’ve said often, small companies have to ensure both long-term growth and short-term survival. We need to ensure cash comes in every month, even as we make bets on some big future opportunities.

The past few months have been exciting. We’ve opened up many fronts for Emergic Freedom and a clearer and realistic picture of where the opportunities lie, and at the same time came up with a plan leveraging all the R&D we have been doing in the past to get our customers on the path to becoming “real-time enterprises” with a set of cutting-edge ideas and software.

Lindows does DVD and Music

From News.com: “Idot, a small PC maker specializing in direct online sales, will sell a Lindows Media Computer model that incorporates some home entertainment functions such as DVD and digital music playback. The company plans to begin selling the PCs early next month, with prices starting at $330 without a monitor…The Idot PCs are based on budget processors from Via Technologies and are similar to low-cost Lindows PCs sold by Wal-Mart, with the addition of a DVD drive and accompanying software. Lindows uses software maker Elegent’s etDVD program to enable DVD playback.”

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It’s an Analog World

Excerpts from an interview with National Semiconductor CEO Brian Halla:

It’s fine to do zeros and ones for spreadsheets, and that’s why the PC uses the least amount of analog. But we’re not doing spreadsheets anymore. We’re doing digital photography. We’re downloading images and graphics from the Internet, and we’re doing more and more stuff wirelessly. All of that is analog.

At Berkeley they are looking at a 10 gigabit-per-second radio with an onboard variable length inductor that can change its personality. You walk into the red carpet room at the airport and your PDA or your personal computer starts sniffing the air to see if there is a 2G, or a 2.5G, or 802.11b network. It covers the spectrum and it picks the cheapest path to the IP backbone and configures itself to be that radio. Let’s say you’re doing something that’s voice intensive. It will still keep sniffing to see if another protocol gets introduced that is even cheaper.

Web Services for Software Integration

From News.com, which says that web services is “work in progress”:

Today, Web services has begun to find a home as a much-needed technology that allows systems from different companies to communicate and work together, regardless of age or origin. This software “integration,” as it is known in the industry, has become especially valuable for the many businesses that need to connect internal systems. Now, many of those same firms see Web services as an easy way to link systems between companies, in the area of business-to-business e-commerce.

The routine business of exchanging data between partners and corporate departments may not sound as interesting as the consumer applications originally touted for Web services, but it’s a business nonetheless.

Most initial Web services projects focus on exchanging information between internal systems.

TECH TALK: The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem: The Markets

The Rs 5,000 PC (5KPC) is the anchor for taking computing to the next 500 million users. These are markets which are as yet invisible. The technology vendors have not tapped these users in the past two decades, because, among other things, the price-points have been too high. The existing value chain created by the likes of Intel and Microsoft is not geared to tap these next users and make a profit. Whether they will do so in the future is a matter of conjecture. But what this does do is open up an opportunity for the creating of a new value chain, a new ecosystem built around the 5KPC.

Which are these markets? Think of the worlds emerging markets countries like India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Russia. Then think of the schools and colleges, the government offices, the small- and medium-enterprises, the BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) sector branches, the homes, and the telecentres in these countries. These are what constitute the bottom of the pyramid. The limited adoption of technology has hampered their integration into the worlds economic system. This is where access to computing can make a big difference by making them more productive, their work and businesses more efficient, the children and students smarter and much more aware of the wide world outside. In essence, computing can be the passport to a better quality of life in the coming years for these nonconsumers.

These markets are what Vijay Mahajan, Marcos V. Pratini De Moraes and Jerry Wind call the Invisible Global Markets. They state that developed markets with a GDP of more than USD 10,000 constitute only 14% of the worlds population. Companies focusing on these markets do not see the other 86%. Among the strategies that they outline in their paper (Marketing Management, Winter 2000) are:

1. Build products to compete against bullock carts rather than automobiles
2. Create product and service revolutions that can be exported
3. Pay attention to the informal economy
4. Use global family networks
5. Understand that customers dont know how to be customers
6. Recognise that low income doesnt mean low quality expectations
7. Use demand pooling to reach critical mass
8. Bring your own infrastructure
9. Rethink the entire marketing and business strategy
10. Bridge the digital divide

(The most recent issue of The Smart Manager has an adapted version of the same set of ideas by Vijay Mahajan.)

In tomorrows column, well take a look at each of these ten ideas and apply them in our context to see what we can learn. And we can contemplate how to target this next (or rest) 86% of the world, it would be useful to keep the following comments by the authors in mind:

Customers in these invisible markets stretch out like countless grains of sand on the beach. Individually, they may represent a very small opportunity. Because of their sheer number, however, this forgottem 86% of the world represents a huge opportunity. Companies that see these opportunities will find creative ways to gather these grains together to build castles.

You cannot wait for these customers to appear on your radar screen. You have to go and find them. You need to move off the beaten path both in the products you develop and the creative strategies you use to turn these invisible markets into visible returns.

Tomorrow: 10 Ideas to Tap Invisible Markets

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Why and How I Blog (So Much)

In response to a recent posting on “Emergic Turning Points“, a few commenters asked where do I get the time to blog so much.

I consider blogging as part of my job and business. The blog focuses on technology, and helps me share my ideas and get feedback. It also connects me to people I would otherwise have never met. The blog also helps build trust and reputation, a sort of “digital identity”. It also servers as a searchable repository of articles and ideas I find interesting.

Viewed in this manner, I view the blog as a critical component in our efforts to get traction for our ideas. As someone I met said the other day, “Today’s business is a battle of ideas.” And there, my blog comes in useful – it is a low-cost way to market our ideas.

I do read quite a bit. It is a habit inculcated in me since childhood. Reading widely is what has been very helpful through the years in building up a vision for what the future will be, and what we should be doing to stake out our place in it. Blogging as an extension of reading (and thinking) takes up only a little extra time. My estimate is that I spend about 2.5 hours writing the 5 Tech Talk columns each week (normally on Sundays), and an additional 20-30 minutes a day blogging. So, a time investment of 5-6 hours may seem a lot, but spread over a week, it is easy to do, given the benefits.

A few tips and suggestions:

– Determine to blog daily. Blogging has to become part of the day’s routine. In case I am travelling or know that I will not be able to update the blog on a specific day, I try and create posts in advance, thus ensuring that readers find plenty of new things daily. This is something I learnt from IndiaWorld – we updated every site of ours daily. Things have to become habits – for both readers and writers.

– Read widely. One may not understand everything, but over time, one gets the lay of the land. Maps start forming. Stories acquire a context. And over time, the linkages between developments start becoming apparent. They prevent us from tunnel-vision. In today’s world, it is very important to have a wide-angle view.

– Think aloud. The one thing I decided when I started blogging is that I would write what I thought. This means I don’t have to worry about whether I need to “protect” this idea or not. Write everything. And that makes life simpler!

– Meet people. I find some of my best ideas come when I am meeting people and talking. Something they say or how they react sparks off a new thread. This reinforces the underlying thinking or sets me off on a new path. Either way, more fodder for the blog!

– Start. Even when I feel I may not somethign to say, sitting in front of the computer changes everything. The words just come. I find this happening with uncanny regularity especially for the Tech Talks.

– Always keep a notebook (paper/pen) handy. Ideas come by anytime. So, I jot them down, and then build upon them for the blog later.

US Computers Opportunity

There are two disconitnuities that are coming this year in the US. Companies (assuming the economy improves) would be seeking to upgrade their PCs, keeping in mind the 3-4 year upgrade cycle. Helping them along in this decision is the stoppage of support for older versions of Windows (other than 2000 and XP) by Microsoft in June. Forbes estimated that there are 200 million PCs in corporates worldwide still running the older Windows OSs.

I was speaking to a friend recently and he mentioned that a significant portion of the USD 199 Walmart PCs (running Lindows) are actually being bought not by consumers, but by smart CIOs, who are realising that they don’t really need new, Intel-PCs running Microsoft’s Windows and Office, and a cheaper Via-CPU and Linux-OpenOffice combo could work as well, saving them at least USD 500-600 in the process.

This set me thinking. If some corporates are willing to consider Linux desktops why not go further and look at a Linux-based thin client-thick server solution. This can help bring costs of hardware down even further – it should be possible to get desktops (excluding monitor) using Via CPUs for less than USD 125, since one can get rid of the hard disk and CDROM, and use a lower speed processor. Of course, this means an investment in a “thick” server, which could cost USD 1,000 for about 40 users, adding USD 25 per client. Thus, the additional saving is USD 50 or so per user, if one looks at 40+ users.

There are some other advantages to this approach. First, the cost of management of the desktops gets reduced dramatically since there is nothing to manage – all administration needs to be done on the server. Second, performance on the client is super-fast, since all processing is being done on the server. Third, clients never need to be upgraded.

Maybe there is an opportunity for Linux thin clients in the US and the developed world. As companies seek to upgrade their computing environments in the context of the two discontinuities, Linux on the desktop (through the server) may have its best opportunity in the US market.

Most Important Invention

Time for a few more smiles. Writes CNN:

In a nation obsessed with sparkling teeth and minty-fresh breath, the lowly toothbrush is the king of inventions.

So say the findings of a new survey released Wednesday by the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which asked which of five inventions Americans could not live without. The toothbrush emerged the undisputed champ, beating out the car, the personal computer, the cell phone and the microwave — in that order — as the most prized innovation.

“It makes a lot of sense,” said American Dental Association spokesman Dr. Richard Price. “Your teeth are always with you. … You can always update your car or a computer, but you just can’t update teeth.”

Reminds me…I think I better go visit a dentist soon. Been a few years. Can’t forgot to have them teeth crashing on me…

Qualcomm’s Power

From San Jose Mercury:

Last week, Qualcomm did something unusual for a tech company in these tough times: Excluding investment losses, Qualcomm reported record profits for the recently ended fiscal quarter — $241 million on sales of $1.1 billion, up from a net of $139 million on revenue of $699 million a year earlier.

Tomorrow’s networks are being designed for much faster connections, largely for data traffic that many believe will dominate usage.

Qualcomm has pitched its own vision of the future based on CDMA, and even its chief rival is moving to a standard that uses a form of the technology. Which means, as CEO Irwin Jacobs says, that some form of CDMA could eventually be part of just about every wireless communications device.

And, it is fair to assume, Qualcomm will be there.

In India, Reliance Infocomm will be launching their cellular service nationwide based on cdma1x, offering upto 144 Kbps data. It is a big bet for both Reliance and Qualcomm, which has so far been a GSM country (with 10 million subscribers). These are still early days – India has the potential to reach a few hundred million subs in the next 4-5 years. GSM or CDMA – that is the question.

TECH TALK: The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem: The Alternatives

To make affordable computing a reality for the mass-market, it is not that the Rs 5,000 Personal Computer (5KPC) is the only option. There can be other candidates a handheld computer (PDA), the TV and set-top-box combo, a data-enabled cellphone are three other possibilities. Let us discuss each of them.

The handheld computer or the PDA has been touted for a long time as the way to get mass-market adoption for computing. One such example out of India is the Simputer. While these are all laudable initiatives, I dont think they will ever become mass-market computing devices for a number of reasons: the size of the display is too small, data entry is a hassle, mobility and portability are not essential for most users, and the price-points will still be on the higher side. My belief is that most of the new users need a full-fledged desktop, with a 14 or 15-inch monitor and a proper keyboard. The PDAs can, at best, become adjuncts to the desktop, but not replace the need for it.

The TV with a set-top box is a second option. The problem with the TV approach is on four counts. Firstly, the display resolution still does not match that of a computer monitor. The TV may be good for showing the rich graphical worlds for games, but it does not yet display the text and numbers that most users need for their basic applications. Secondly, the TV is synonymous with leisure and entertainment, and is used in the lean-back mode. The PC is used in the lean-forward forward for study and work. So, for the kind of uses that we envision for the computer, the TV is not suited from a mental image that we have of it. Thirdly, the TV is present in homes and not in the workplace. Finally, even at home, the TV has alternate uses as an entertainment device in most cases, it is shared by multiple family members. Try wanting to check email when prime-time soaps are going on in the evening

The wireless or Java-enabled cellphone could be the third alternative. The cellphone suffers from similar drawbacks as the PDA. The numerical-oriented keypad makes it hard to do a lot of extended data entry (even though SMS has become popular in much of the world) and the display size is quite small. The cellphone can become an accessory to the computer, but will not be able to replace it as the primary device for information work.

So, I believe that the road to making computing a utility and ensuring its widespread deployment is to look at the Rs 5,000 PC. And as we saw last week, it is definitely possible to bring down the price-points as long as we accept the existence of a network. (In fact, both the cellphone and the TV are useless without the network.) The question we now need to consider is how can the 5KPC make a difference to our lives. Which are the market segments it will impact and how? How will the future be different with the 5KPC?

Tomorrow: The Markets

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Complexity

From Red Herring:

The principle is straightforward: all complex systems share some profound similarities. Each of them is massively parallel: they have many quasi-independent “agents” interacting at once. (An agent might be a single firm in an economy or a baggage handler at an airline.) These agents are adaptive: they are constantly responding to each other (the baggage handlers interact with their bosses). And they are decentralized: no one agent is completely in charge (baggage handlers may not always follow management’s directives). Like all complex systems, then, the overall behavior…emerges spontaneously from myriad low-level interactions.

The key to these simulations, known as agent-based modeling, is to identify these low-level interactions.

TECH TALK: The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem: The WiFi Advantage (Part 2)

For the emerging markets, WiFi’s disruptiveness stems from it being a low-cost bottom-up network, which can provide wireless broadband to bandwidth-starved societies. For many users, the killer app for WiFi is likely to be voice in the form of VoIP (voice-over-IP), using regular phones but carried over the WiFi networks. A customer-owned WiFi network can be majorly disruptive to the existing telecom operators, according to Clay Shirky:

Two cheap consumer devices loom large on this front, devices that create enormous value for the owners while generating little revenue for the phone companies. The first is WiFi access points, which allow the effortless sharing of broadband connections, and the second is VoIP converters, which provide the ability to route phone calls over the internet from a regular phone.

Hardware symbiosis will further magnify the threat of WiFi and VoIP. The hardest part of setting up VoIP is simply getting a network hub in place. Once a hub is installed, adding an analog telephone adapter is literally a three-plug set-up: power, network, phone. Meanwhile, one of the side-effects of installing WiFi is getting a hub with open ethernet ports. The synergy is obvious: Installing WiFi? You’ve done most of the work towards adding VoIP. Want VoIP? Since you need to add a hub, why not get a WiFi-enabled hub? (There are obvious opportunities here for bundling, and later for integration — a single box with WiFi, Ethernet ports, and phone jacks for VoIP.)

WiFi hubs and VoIP adapters allow the users to build out the edges of the network without needing to ask the phone companies for either help or permission. Thanks to the move from analog to digital networks, the telephone companies’ most significant competition is now their customers, because if the customer can buy a simple device that makes wireless connectivity or IP phone calls possible.

WiFi has the support of much of the computer industry, which sees it as the force to ensure a new cycle of upgrades in the coming years, and a profitable shift from the desktop to notebooks. Telcos are now also getting into the business of setting of setting up hotspots. The economics of WiFi make it very compelling, as Business Week wrote recently: It typically costs less than $1,000 to deploy a hot spot that can accommodate about 10 users at once. That’s only about one-tenth the cost of providing equivalent capacity on a 3G network. End users save, too. Downloading a 20-megabyte PowerPoint presentation over 3G could take nearly 20 minutes and cost $16, while over Wi-Fi it would take about three minutes and cost just $2.50, figures telecom researcher Analysys.

So, where does WiFi fit into the 5KPC (Rs 5,000 Personal Computer) ecosystem?

The 5KPCs can be equipped with WiFi cards, sourced from the developed countries (for older computers) or built onto the motherboard (for the newer ones). This eliminates the need for cabling in the enterprise and for the last mile, and solves the connectivity problem. The wireless access point could be in the enterprise or in the neighbourhood. WiFi can thus become the foundation for a bottom-up wireless broadband network, of which India has already seen two in the past the community telecom access points (via the STD PCOs) and cable.

Using WiFi and a shared broadband connection will also bring down the cost of connectivity for users. Today, it costs Rs 500 per month for more for individual users via dial-up or cable. WiFi can not only increase the connection speeds (from 56/64 Kbps to a 1-2 Mbps) but also reduce the cost to Rs 100-250 per month. At the same time, the barrier of connectivity for getting additional computers is eliminated, thus enabling wider and easier deployment of the 5KPCs.

Tomorrow: The Alternatives

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News Readers

Writes JD Lasica:

The explosion of weblogs and niche news sites poses a problem for any info-warrior: Who the heck has time to read all this stuff?

Well, here’s one possible solution: news readers — a new crop of software programws that fetch updated dispatches from your favorite online writers, bloggers or news outfits.

Instead of the hunt and peck of Web surfing, you can download or buy a small program that turns your computer into a voracious media hub, letting you snag headlines and news updates as if you were commanding the anchor desk at CNN.

One of the chief virtues of news readers is that they propel users into an immediate online dialogue, whether through e-mails, discussion boards or blog entries. Interactivity is much more vibrant when the news is fresh. “News readers help to build community,” says Matthew Gifford, a Web developer in Bloomingdale, Ill. “You can see the ebb and flow of ideas around the network much better now.”