Rural Tech Innovations

The reality about rural areas in India (and perhaps other emerging markets) is that power (electricity) is scarecely available, and telephone lines are either not there or don’t work most of the time. In this context, if we want to set up teleinfocentres with 3-5 computers per village (thin clients with a thick server, and using open-source software), how do we do it? I have been thinking of some of the innovations we will need in technology to take computing to the rural areas of countries like India.

1. Power: Pedal Power (Car battery, powered by bicycling – Pedal Power, like what’s being used by the Jhai Foundation in Laos), Solar or Wind Energy

2. Power Supply: Think of using a 12 Volt supply for all the PCs directly, rather than stepping down the 230 V supply for each PC as we do now.

3. Connectivity: WiFi as a wide area network, or perhaps, Wireless Mesh Networks. The key challenge is the distance – to make a wireless WAN solution work, we need it to work over distances of about 15-25 kms (10-15 miles). It would be nice to get an always-on connectivity via wireless, because then the village can just have the thin clients and the thick server could be a shared infrastructure across multiple villages.

4. TV as Monitor: The monitor is now turning out to be the most expensive part of the “thin client”. A new monitor costs about USD 100 (Rs 4,500-5,000), while an old monitor costs about half of that. A TV is already available in most rural areas, and is probably cheaper. How can we get TVs to work as computer monitors – such that we can get higher resolution displays?

Any ideas or examples of what is happening elsewhere in the world?

Microsoft Middle Age

Seattle Times story, with a Bill Gates interview, industry market shares and a timeline chart. [Slashdot thread]

It is interesting that people talk of the “post-PC era” even as 90% or more of the people in the world’s emerging markets do not have access to computing. The PC era hasn’t even touched them. This is the opportunity being overlooked by Microsoft as it seeks to retain its margins. This is the biggest invisible market of them all, and one which needs companies to work with 10-20% margins, not 80-90%.

Sony’s Dreams

Economist writes about the breadth and depth of Sony’s ambitions:

[Sony’s] are in many ways even bolder than those of the other media giants. Like them, it believes that the spread of broadband and the shift from analogue to digital require media firms to find new ways to sell their content to consumersin Sony’s case, mostly music, films and video games.

More importantly, however, Sony is pursuing the other big idea in the media giants’ growth strategy: vertical integration. But once again, it is doing it in its own way. The difference is that Sony is reaching much further down the chain, to what Mr Idei believes really matters: the televisions, personal computers, game consoles and hand-held devices through which all of that wonderful content will one day be streaming.

Sony’s networking strategy assumes that these audio-visual and computer devices, besides talking to one another, will also share content with a wide range of smaller gadgets, from its cameras and music players to its mobile phones and hand-held computers.

Mr Idei believes that, by continuing to link together devices such as these, Sony can carry on both selling new gadgets and encouraging people to keep paying for music and videos.

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Overture and Search

The most successful search company is – maybe hard to believe – is Overture. We may search at Google, but Overture makes more money. It has a simple business model: it sells search terms to the highest bidder. Recently, it bought AltaVista and the Web search division of Norway’s Fast Search & Transfer. News.com has more:

Overture began as the brainchild of Bill Gross, whose start-up investment company, Idealab, incubated one-time Internet highfliers like eToys. He founded the company as GoTo.com in September 1997 and a year later, launched its search advertising service with results appearing on GoTo.com and partners including Netscape Communications.

Unlike most of Gross’s ideas, Overture has not only survived but thrived: This year, the company expects to generate more than $1 billion in revenue, up from $667 million in 2002. By contrast, some analysts estimate that privately held Google likely took in around $300 million in revenue.

The company compares its service to the Yellow Pages, the phone book that offers a useful resource even as it serves the marketing goals of its advertisers.

The company claims its goal is to create a win-win situation for customers and Web surfers, enforced by self-interest. Because advertisers are required to pay a fee each time someone clicks on one of their links–a practice known as pay for performance–companies are discouraged from misleading readers.

I was among the skeptics of Overture (then GoTo). But I’ve been proved wrong. Now, as consolidation in the search business is underway (Yahoo recently bought Inktomi), it is interesting to see how the various players (including Google) evolve.

Swarm Intelligence

A topic I am fascinated with is emergence, where simple rules can generate complex behaviour (and the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts). Swarm Intelligence deals with applying these ideas of self-organisation from the world of insects to business problems. O’Reilly has an interview with Eric Bonabeau: Some quotes:

Human beings suffer from a “centralized mindset”; they would like to assign the coordination of activities to a central command. But the way social insects form highways and other amazing structures such as bridges, chains, nests (by the way, African fungus-growing termites have invented air conditioning) and can perform complex tasks (nest building, defense, cleaning, brood care, foraging, etc) is very different: they self-organize through direct and indirect interactions.

In social insects, errors and randomness are not “bugs”; rather, they contribute very strongly to their success by enabling them to discover and explore in addition to exploiting. Self-organization feeds itself upon errors to provide the colony with flexibility (the colony can adapt to a changing environment) and robustness (even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks).

The big issue is this: if I am letting a decentralized, self-organizing system take over, say, my computer network, how should I program the individual virtual ants so that the network behaves appropriately at the system-wide level?

I’m not telling the network what to do, I’m telling little tiny agents to apply little tiny modifications throughout the network. Through a process of amplification and decay, these small contributions will either disappear or add up depending on the local state of the network, leading to an emergent solution to the problem of routing messages through the network.

So that’s the main concept here. Solutions to problems are emergent rather than predefined and preprogrammed. The problem is that you don’t always know ahead of time what emergent solution will come out because emergent behavior is unpredictable. If applied well, self-organization endows your swarm with the ability to adapt to situations that you didn’t think of.

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TECH TALK: RSS, Blogs and Beyond: RSS Mailbox

Last week, we saw how RSS and Blogs are bringing forth a new era of microcontent and nano-publishing. This week, we will discuss a few ideas revolving around RSS and Blogs.

RSS Aggregators (also known as News Readers) have been around for some time. Their popularity has been largely limited to bloggers. How can they be made to have greater mass-market appeal? It does make sense for each of us to get information (or events) pushed to us through RSS feeds that we subscribe because it amplifies our ability to process information. The idea Id like to propose is a Hotmail-like hosted RSS Mailbox service.

What this RSS Mailbox does is provide a POP/IMAP account into which RSS feeds that a user subscribes to are delivered. The user can add this account into his mail client. There it just shows up as another mail account. The user can then use client- or server-side filters to separate incoming RSS feeds into folders. The mailbox is also accessible from a browser-based front-end, just like a Yahoo or Hotmail account. So, in a sense, it looks and feels just like a mailbox, but is free from spam because only the feeds that the user subscribes to are delivered.

What the RSS Mailbox does is to enable the use of the email client as an RSS feed viewer. In fact, if one sees the RSS Aggregators, most of them use a 3-pane format, with the left pane showing the list of subscribed feeds, the top right pane showing the item headlines,and the bottom right pane showing the actual item, with the appropriate permalink for the item. With this kind of similarity in look-and-feel, why not just use the email client as the viewer? This eliminates the need for users to download and install a separate News Reader program. All that is needed to access the RSS Mailbox is to add an account into the email client.

If this is the case, then why not just set up an RSS2Mail feed? This way,the RSS feeds can be emailed directly to a users existing email account and the user can equally well set up the appropriate filters. The reason I have not advocated this approach is that we are getting too many emails anyways in most of our existing accounts, so separating RSS feeds may not be easy (they could be spoofed by spammers). Also, by setting up a separate hosted service, the RSS Mailbox is accessible even outside corporate firewalls and through a browser. Of course, organisations could set up their own RSS Mail Servers internally.

On the backend, the RSS Mailbox Server would become a Google-like collector and sorter of RSS feeds. It would fetch the RSS feeds from news sites and blogs as soon as they are updated (if the sites ping it) or would do the botting periodically. It would then parse the feeds into the individual items, and distribute them (using a local mail infrastructure) into the mailboxes of the users who have subscribed to the feed. The RSS Mail Server would thus need to fetch a feed only once per site, unlike today when every blog which subscribes goes out and gets the feed. Of course, this means that the RS Mailbox Server would need to have plentiful bandwidth and storage.

The side-effects of this approach are many. From the users point of view, there is a convenience. Just as one goes to Google when one is searching for content, one would go this RSS Mailbox Server for searching and subscribing to RSS feeds. In addition, by using collaborative filtering techniques (the way Amazon does), the service could also recommend other feeds and items that the user may be interested in based on what others with similar interests are reading. Take this further, and it could create clusters of like-minded readers. The RSS Mailbox Server could this become the ultimate reader-driven content-filter.

Tomorrow: Events Horizon

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