Tech Continues to Burn Bright

Jeremy Allaire is leaving Macromedia and talks of the wonderful things happening in technology.

It’s a great time to be in this industry. So many positive things are happening. The experience of media and applications on the Internet is dramatically improving, mostly because of rich clients like Flash. The economic model of sharing applications and data is being revolutionized by web services. Consumer broadband is exploding (you may not know this, but broadband use grew 75% last year and will almost double this year despite a terrible economy). We’re seeing multi-hundred percent growth in wireless broadband using WiFi. Digital lifestyle devices such as digital cameras, video cameras, media PCs, and other Internet-connected consumer devices continue to grow. The role of Internet technology as an engine of social and economic change is still in its early phases.

Add to this the excitement of creating solutions for the next set of users of technology in emerging markets like India, leveraging some of the newest ideas.

Many analysts and commentators have been talking about technology having matured as an industry. I don’t think so. We are just getting started. Yes, the growth rates of some of the companies may have slowed, skewing the overall industry numbers. But in terms of new opportunities, the ability to make a difference and create startups, I think the opportunities are still immense. The key lies in looking beyond US, Europe and Japan.

RFIDs in Everything

RFIDs are one of the technologies I have been excited about. The lead story in the business section of The Economist discusses how RFIDs will revolutionise shopping as the cost of these chips fall to a few pennies in the coming years. Think of RFIDs as things talking to things.

At a Tesco’s supermarket in Cambridge, England, the shelves have begun to talk to their contents, and the contents are talking back. Soon, razors at a Wal-Mart store in Brockton, Massachusetts will begin to let staff know when they suspect theft. This spring, a group of firms will attempt to track, in real time, many thousands of goods as they travel from factory to supermarket shelf. Consultants tout cost savings and extra sales that could run into tens of billions of dollars a year.

Already, RFID tags are made in their millions and used to track pets and livestock, parts in car factories and luggage at airports. Last month, Gillette announced that it had put in an order for half a billion smart tags, signalling the start of their adoption by the consumer-goods industry. If they catch on, smart tags will soon be made in their trillions and will replace the bar-code on the packaging of almost everything that consumer-goods giants such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever make.

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Wireless Convergence

InfoWorld writes about “the seamless hand off between public, corporate, and home networks is here, erasing traditional boundaries and ushering in a time in which one pervasive network will prevail.”

WLANs are reaching out to provide network connectivity between offices, hallways, and conference rooms. But it doesn’t end there. Wireless coverage is on a steady march into public spaces, homes, and cars, and by the end of 2003 it will board the plane on a traveler’s next flight.

While the business and social repercussions are still being understood, the end result is the arrival of transparent, seamless access to services, regardless of location, according to Anil Uberoy of Xacct.

Big Internet Players and Blogs

There is growing interestin blogs from the Internet biggies. Writes WSJ:

Tripod, a consumer Web publishing service of Terra Lycos SA, quietly introduced its Blog Builder tool last week, marking increased interest by big Internet players in the fast-growing world of Weblogs.

Geoff Strawbridge, global director of Web publishing for Terra Lycos, said the introduction of its Blog Builder service brings blogging to a mass audience. “We think our Blog Builder is the next evolution of the personal publishing tool,” he said. The service can be found at blog.tripod.lycos.com.

The article mentions that Yahoo and AOL too were reportedly considering offering hosted blogs.

Story in Dataquest

Of Netcore and the Rs 5,000 Gold Rush is the title of a story on us by Shweta Khanna in the latest (Jan 31) issue of Dataquest, India’s premier IT magazine. [Its adaped from the story which had appeared earlier in DQweek.]

The same issue also has a story by Manjiri Kalghatgi on Linux usage on India. So, who’s using Linux? “IT companies for one, have had good reason to leverage on the cost benefits of deploying Linux in their own organizations, given the financial squeeze that the slowdown brought in. Also, IT companies naturally find it far easier to tackle niggling Linux usage deterrents like the need for good technical support given the technical expertise available in-house. Once out of the technology experts closet, Linux is raising its head in enterprises across verticals, from education, manufacturing, banking and finance to defense engineering, life science and the one with the largest potentialgovernment.”

There is also a mention of Emergic Freedom in a sidebar entitled “Penny-crunching and the Poor Mans PC”:

Enterprises approached by Dataquest-MAIT have cited a variety of reasons for implementing Linux, but the biggest draw to using this system, remains the cost.

Several innovators in the country are combining Linux with various low cost hardware options that are far more affordable.

The best known among these is the Linux based Simputer set to make waves with its Rs 10,000 price-point.

Another innovation is the use of a thin client-thick server architecture running on Linux systems combined with the software called Emergic Freedom developed by Netcore Solutions.

Simple Concepts

I have realised one thing in the past few months. To catch attention, one needs simple ideas and concepts (or analogies) to describe what one is doing.

For the few months, we talked of Emergic as a “thin client-thick server” computing solution, or “the alternative computing platform” or “computing for the next 90%”. Too difficult for people to understand. Now, I have simplified the message: its about the “5KPC” – the Rs 5,000 (USD 100) personal computer. The 5KPC concept immediately strikes home. Its something people can relate to.

And, then to bring out the notion that it needs to be networked, I give the analogy of the TV and Cellphone: both need a network to be useful. In the same way, the 5KPC needs a network connection to do its tricks. Put this way, people can understand and relate to what I am saying. The “thin client/thick server” phrases are too techno-rich, and have their own connotations.

I realised this when over the past month, I found people and companies calling us after a few people in the media wrote about the 5KPC – that was in fact just one of the comments I had made at a seminar two months ago. But I now realise that the simplicity of the concept and the fact that I put what seemed to be an unachievable price point has helped garner attention. Phrases like “Affordable Computing” just don’t have the same kind of impact.

We now need to be able to do this to other products and solutions we are working on. Like for BlogStreet, I said we need to be able to “search for experts” just like one searches Google for content. The simplicity of the concept can go a long way in being to both communicating it to others and making it a reality.

TECH TALK: The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem: Engineering Colleges

Engineering colleges can be the hubs for both the requisite manpower development and for propagating the Rs 5,000 PC (5KPC) ecosystem. Here are five more ideas:

1. Ensure that the projects done have industry applicability. For this, all students should be spending 6 months at industry in their final year working on Linux/open-source based projects. This is the period which bridges academic work to the world outside. It can also serve to expose enterprises to open-source software. Students can take up vertical industries and create relevant solutions. This work with enterprises will also help them with employment offers from the places where they work, provided they do a good job.

2. Contribute to open-source software projects. There are many projects (eg. Wine) which can do with additional development resources. For the student community hungry for projects, what better opportunity to make a difference! India and China have a very large pool of engineering talent which can be used to build upon the base of open-source software. Considering that these two countries will be the biggest consumers of computers and software in the coming years, the cost savings can be significant. For this, it will also mean that the faculty will need to look beyond rehashing the previous years projects but think more managerially and create multi-year development efforts. So far, few notable software contributions have come from the worlds developing nations. The engineering colleges have an opportunity to change this.

3. Make the engineering colleges responsible for the neighbourhood community. Engineering colleges dot the landscape. Because of their ubiquitous locations, they can be thought of as technology hotspots and can provide services to institutions in the vicinity. For example, students at engineering colleges can take up responsibility for teaching computers at nearby schools. (During my days at IIT, I remember joining the NSS and teaching students from nearby schools this program of computer education can be an extension of such a program.) Alternately, they can become part-time system administrators at nearby hospitals, bank branches, government offices or SMEs. Either way, they can now be given an opportunity to deploy their skills in the community.

4. Start a Linux Certification Course. The need of the hour for the Linux-based 5KPCs to proliferate along with applications is for more engineers to be familiar with Linux and system administration. A certification program will create the confidence among other organizations to start deploying Linux.

5. Deploy Linux-based Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) to encourage students to get familiar with software development on Linux. This needs to be combined with a revamp of the curriculum which besides teaching languages like C and C++ also places emphasis on Perl, PHP and Python.

The 5KPC Ecosystem creates a new set of opportunities for students as they graduate from their colleges. By becoming users of computers powered by Linux and open-source software, they can be the harbingers of the next computing revolution. The 5KPC can also bridge students to enterprises, thus also becoming an employment generator for these students when they graduate. The 5KPC has a potential to become a bottom-up agent for change in the developing nations. All it needs is a little push from the government agencies in charge of education to make Linux and open-source part of the core education curriculum.

Next Week: The 5KPC Markets (continued)

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