Metabolic Pathways

Jon Udell describes an experiment with Virtuoso (“enterprise middleware that unifies SQL, text, XML, and object data will play an increasingly vital role in delivering business data to users”):

Data moves from a SOAP service in Radio UserLand, through an auto-generated WSDL wrapper, into a database stored procedure, which calls out to the Web through a C# extension and stores results in an indexed XML database. Then an XPath-enabled SQL query gathers results, converts them to XML, and virtualizes them as a WebDAV resource, which Excel finally reads and analyzes.

Fascinating flow. Its what Udell describes as “metabolic pathways”, adding that “I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which energy and information flow through biological systems, and the IT realm is starting to feel more and more like that.”

It is the kind of flow we need to enable in our eBusiness suite that we are working on.

PDA as Thin Client

Yesterday, Prakash, who was at Cebit, forwarded me an email from a company in Taiwan (whom he had met there) which offered PDAs for USD 28 in quantities of 2,000. These are very basic PDAs. The only port they have is an RS232 serial port to connect to a PC or a modem.

What amazed me was the price point. This is one of lowest computer price points I have seen. In India, the USD 28 price point would probably lead to a selling price of Rs 3,000 or so, considering shipping costs, import duties and local taxes. That is a very attractive price point. And that set me thinking.

Can we use this PDA as a thin client in addition to its standalone operation? There could be quite a few applications where one may just need to have a small screen and tap through it, without the need for a full-blown desktop PC. So, in a setup, one could have say 5 PC Terminals (proper PCs as thin clients with 14 or 15-inch monitors), and then complement that with some of these low-cost PDAs, which could connect to the thick server either through one of the thin clients or through dial-up. By running “vnc”, one could get the entire desktop on the small PDA screen.

We need to try this out. We have a Sharp Zaurus I had bought a year ago, which we will try it on with. It is already running Linux. Lets see how the apps look in reality.

What could such a PDA-based Thin Client be used for? For one, it could be used for data entry or surveys away from the LAN, and then connect to the thick server to update the data and allow the user access to his desktop. In schools, it could be used for students to go through “micro” pages or tests. In organisations, it offers one more option for some applications, given that the PDA is now a portable device. So, in a sense, one has to think of how a small footprint thin client with some local memory and standalone applications could be used in a server-centric computing environment.

PC co-creator on its Future

Mark Dean was one of the people who put together the first PC at IBM in the late 1970s. He is now at the IBM Storage Systems Division here, where he is vice president of architecture and design. USA Today talks to him. Here are a couple of his thoughts:

Storage systems will be where it’s at. We’re growing data so rapidly. Data will dominate and computing will be an artifact of data. There is just a flood of data.

There’s a time where we will develop a tablet. It will look like an 8-by-11-inch Plexiglas. It will have the resiliency of paper. It will have all the functions of a PC plus many other things. You will be able to play DVDs and music through it, all through this piece of paper.

Social Software

Dan Gillmor writes: “The smaller the group, the more immediate value in the relationship. That’s one notion behind an emerging phenomenon called social software, products that help groups work with each other more effectively.” He discusses about Socialtext and Meetup.

Stuart Henshall has a compilation of various social networking software tools.

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A Book Idea

I have contemplated writing a book for quite some time. I have a fair amount of writing that I have done, and am doing. What a book will do is consolidate all of it together in one place and make it read like an integrated story, rather than the discrete, individual posts that are there today.

Writing a book is a scary exercise. It needs a lot of time commitment, even though the basic raw material in terms of ideas and content exists. Running a company full-time, reading and blogging daily, travelling, meeting people are enough to pack a day. This is what has stopped me short in thinking of a book.

I thought of a title today morning, so this may be a start. The title is “Tsunamis, Slippery Rocks and Disruptive Bridges”. I used it for a talk that I gave last week – covering new technologies (the tsunamis), entrepreneurship (slippery rocks – from Dan Bricklin’s quote) and on the Emergic ideas (disruptive bridges – innovations to bridge the digital divide). This would be the essence of the book.

It would need me to spend a significant portion of time over a 3-month period to get the book done. I will also need the help of a professional editor. The question is: am I willing to do this? Perhaps, now, more than ever before, I am. But the final decision to go is probably still a bit away.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: The Conundrum

There have been various initiatives to take IT to the masses in India Gyandoot, eSeva, Bhoomi, eChoupals are some examples. At best, these have been success stories limited in size, scale or scope. The digital divide is far from being bridged. Where is the problem? There certainly does not seem to be a lack of vision, ideas or even resources. And yet, what is missing is a solution that has been rolled out on a mass scale to make a difference to millions.

As I see it, the problems are the following:

Government as Financer: This is perhaps the single biggest issue which limits scalability. The government can fund 100 or even 1000 centres or kiosks costing Rs 100,000 (USD 2,000) each. But the need is for 50 times as many access points. That is where the government-funded model becomes impractical there simply isnt enough money to set up these across a state or a country. And so, without the scale, the costs of operation are high, the villagers have to walk many kilometers to get to the nearest centre and that is simply not going to happen.

Demo Mentality: The thinking when the plans are drawn up is to create pilots. The reasoning goes: let us do 10 or 50 or 100 such demonstration centres, or showcases. Once the proof-of-concept is proved, then we can look at scaling these up. This approach is one which is setting itself up only for a short-term success; it will not succeed in the long-term. This is because it is much easier to put in all that it takes to make a few centres work because the aim is not to prove commercial viability but to showcase a local success to funding agencies or key decision-makers. The approach is not geared to creating solutions that can be scaled out rapidly.

Silo Solutions: Many approaches think of the problem too narrowly. We think of solving a telemedicine problem or a land record problem or an email and Internet access problem or a literacyproblem or the voting machine problem. The computing infrastructure required for solving each of the problems is almost identical. And yet, we think of each in isolation trying to create economic models which will work in the silos.

Internet-driven: Many of the current solutions assume the existence of a Net connection, essentially functioning as Internet Kiosks. This is a big limitation, because connectivity is one of the biggest bugbears in the rural areas. Without connectivity, the computer is crippled, seriously limiting its usage. While transaction services like bill payments and railway bookings which need real-time Internet connectivity can offer immense benefits to the villagers, these services can be hobbled by the lack of connectivity.

Incrementalist, not Disruptive: The need of the hour is for disruptive solutions. Yet, the thinking that percolates is very incrementalist. That may be because there is an interest in keeping things nearly the same, or because we look at technology that exists today, and not at what the future is bringing. The solutions tend to be driven more by what may have worked in the developed world or in the urban areas, because they are the ones who are either funding the solutions or providing the technologies. The need is for a completely fresh and bottom-up analysis of the rural markets, keeping in mind the emergence of cold technologies.

Thus, the result is that the thinking and therefore the solution is flawed. We need to think in terms of millions of villages worldwide as the potential addressable market, and yet work on making each village commercially viable.

Tomorrow: Rethinking ICT Solutions

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