Why can’t we all be punctual? Its a question I have often wondered. Maybe there are other things which come up just as we are trying to be on time. Maybe we don’t think its important, or don’t quite care, or feel that a few minutes leeway is always there. Some among us set clocks 5, 10 or even 20 minutes fast in order to gain control over time. To little avail.

Punctuality is something I have made a core part of my life. I try and be a few minutes early wherever possible. I get very upset with myself if I am late – doesn’t matter the excuse (traffic, or last-minute to-dos). It is actually quite easy to be on time – if we decide. Just as easy we decide to be late. A little planning and thinking can help us be punctual. Once others know you will be punctual, they too will start truning up on time. And hopefully, that can start a chain reaction.

Two postscripts: first, I don’t wear a watch, though I do carry a cellphone which has an inbuilt clock. Second, I have this theory about meetings and appointments: those closest to the venue will come the latest.

Pondering the Next Killer Apps

We are all in search of the next killer apps. Embedded.com has this view from Ralph Cavin, vice president of research operations at the Semiconductor Research Corp.

Cavin thinks it includes thinking machines and devices that would replace human assistants. He defined a killer app as something that significantly expanded a desired capability for a large number of people, and was based on existing technology. As examples he cited the VisiCalc spreadsheet program, the cell phone and the World Wide Web.

Among his scenarios were proactive computers that could anticipate their user’s needs rather than simply responding to commands; machines that could fill some of the roles of a human assistant, for which Cavin cited the Sony SDR 4X robot as an extreme example; and a number of applications at the intersection of microelectronics, nanotechnology and medicine. He also suggested holographic virtual meetings and the possible move to a hydrogen-based energy economy as potential areas.

Looking across this set of possibilities, Cavin reached some generalizations about what all this means for engineers. First, he pointed out that nearly all the areas listed represent the intersection of existing electronics with some other, quite different technology. Hence, he concluded, the engineers who will be in on the next big thing will be multidisciplinary, not purely electronics specialists.

I think of the next killer apps as those that can enable the next set of computing markets – for the coming 500 million users in emerging markets like India and China. These will be a collection of technologies that can bring down the cost of computing to a fraction of what it is today. Think USD 100 computers, open-source software, server-centric computing and WiFi – which could help bring down the cost of computing and communications to as little as USD 10 per month.

On the software front, I think RSS and what it can enable via events (more than just news) delivery to the desktop on a digital dashboard can be a big driver for enabling a “real-time” and “two-way” interface.

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RSS Aggregators

Greg Notess writing in InfoToday provides an excellent overview of RSS and News Readers. ” For those who like to skim many of these frequently updated sources, a better approach is to find something that summarizes the new content, presents it in a compact format, combines multiple sources in one interface, and provides links to the full content to make it easy to pick and choose which new articles to read. And this is exactly what a news aggregator is designed to do.”

Here’s his explanation for what RSS does: ” RSS is a way of creating a broadcast version of a blog or news page. Anyone who has frequently updated content and is willing to let others republish it can create the RSS file. Typically called syndication, the RSS file is an XML formatted file that can be used at other sites or by other intermediary software such as news aggregators. The original incarnation was to use RSS to include several headlines on a personalized portal page. But an RSS feed can also be easily pulled into other functions, such as an aggregator.”

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The 64-bit Chips

Fortune writes about Intel’s Itanium and how it promises to redraw the computing landscape. So far, Itanium, Intel’s 64-bit CPU, is off to a slow start for a variety of reasons. But that doesn’t in any way take away from its impact in the coming years. Remember the last major shift? Fortune’s article reminds us.

Intel’s last major architectural change, from 16-bit to 32-bit processors, occurred in 1985, when it introduced Pentium’s granddaddy, the 386 chip. It gave PC makers the power they needed to complete their conquest of the desktop and usurp the hold of minicomputers on office computing. It also cemented Intel’s dominance of microprocessors. An investor who spent $25,000 on Intel stock back then would today have nearly 30 times that in his pocket–a compound annual return of about 22%.

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WiFi Hopes

Wireless technologies, especially WiFi are seen as the hope for the digital economy. News.com has a series of articles.

What began as a pet project for technophiles has become a multibillion-dollar industry, with uses ranging from untethered computers in the home to major networking connections for telecommunications giants. More than 35 million wireless networks are in operation today, according to industry estimates, and the number is growing daily.

As with all new technologies, however, these networks involve a trade-off–in this case, in the form of security. While wireless products remain relatively inexpensive, the specter of government regulation looms over companies and consumers who have enjoyed free access to date.

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

In India, there are about 200 million students. At Rs 244 (USD 5) per student per annum, the annual cost of providing universal computer literacy is about Rs 5,000 crores (USD 1 billion). The unanswered question: how much of this can be recovered through fees collected from the students? Since we are covering students across every strata, it may not always be possible to get students to pay the entire cost of their computer education, even though as one may look back later, it may be one of the best investments made in their future.

So far, we have talked about computer education. A related area is computer-enabled education, where computers are used to teach other subjects like Maths, Science, History and Geography. These benefits are still not clear, as a recent Economist article (Oct 26, 2002) states:

Classroom computers can be disruptive. They rarely enhance the studious atmosphere in which children are most likely to learn. The new conventional wisdom is that young children in particular learn best when they face the teacher. But computers encourage children to split into noisy little groups. And one of the vaunted advantages of computer-based learning, that it allows children to proceed at their own pace, has so far turned out to be wrong: educational software is much more one-size-fits-all than a good teacher, skilled at tailoring the lesson to the varied abilities of a class.

This view may be somewhat biased towards the West, where the assumption is that families are likely to have a computer at home and the quality of teaching is very good. While no computer can replace a good teacher, it is not always possible to get good teachers in schools in developing nations, especially in the interiors. Besides, a digital library and the Internet can help enhance and widen the learning process. It would be nice to see some of the scientific concepts brought alive through animations, making for a richer and more interactive learning. (This is my personal view I remember spending a lot of time in the school library going through encyclopedias and discovering the world beyond. It was this which helped stimulate curiosity and fire the imagination both about the past and the future.)

The 5KPC can make computer labs in schools a reality at an extremely affordable price-point. It must become one of the key priorities of government and NGOs. Also, by replicating content on the thick servers, they can bypass the need for high-speed connectivity, and at the same time open up vast digital libraries for the students. The connected computer, like the radio, can open up new windows to the world. Computer education is no longer something that should be available only to the elite it has to become a universal right. This is one of the fastest and surest ways to begin bridging the digital divide.

Tomorrow: Colleges

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