The Second Superpower

A new meme is taking shape. Writes James Moore in a must-read article:

There is an emerging second superpower, but it is not a nation. Instead, it is a new form of international player, constituted by the “will of the people” in a global social movement. The beautiful but deeply agitated face of this second superpower is the worldwide peace campaign, but the body of the movement is made up of millions of people concerned with a broad agenda that includes social development, environmentalism, health, and human rights. This movement has a surprisingly agile and muscular body of citizen activists who identify their interests with world society as a whole – and who recognize that at a fundamental level we are all one. These are people who are attempting to take into account the needs and dreams of all 6.3 billion people in the world – and not just the members of one or another nation.

New forms of communication and commentary are being invented continuously. Slashdot and other news sites present high quality peer-reviewed commentary by involving large numbers of members of the web community in recommending and rating items. Text messaging on mobile phones, or texting, is now the medium of choice for communicating with thousands of demonstrators simultaneously during mass protests. Instant messaging turns out to be one of the most popular methods for staying connected in the developing world, because it requires only a bit of bandwidth, and provides an intimate sense of connection across time and space. The current enthusiasm for blogging is changing the way that people relate to publication, as it allows realtime dialogue about world events as bloggers log in daily to share their insights. Meta-blogging sites crawl across thousands of blogs, identifying popular links, noting emergent topics, and providing an instantaneous summary of the global consciousness of the second superpower.

This is similar to a theme discussed by Howard Rheingold in his book “Smart Mobs” and what Joi Ito has described as an “Emergent Democracy”.

Project Weblog

Jon Udell writes: “Running a project Weblog is a great way to collect, organize, and publish the documents and discussions that are the lifeblood of the project and to shape these raw materials into a coherent narrative.” He describes how Radio Userland and MovableType can be used to setup project weblogs.

Perma-net and Nearly-net

Clay Shirky writes about 3G in the context of what’s happening with WiFi, starting by describing the two types of networks that are there around us:

Call the first network “perma-net,” a world where connectivity is like air, where anyone can send or receive data anytime anywhere. Call the second network “nearly-net”, an archipelago of connectivity in an ocean of disconnection. Everyone wants permanet — the providers want to provide it, the customers want to use it, and every few years, someone announces that they are going to build some version of it. The lesson of in-flight phones is that nearlynet is better aligned with the technological, economic, and social forces that help networks actually get built. The most illustrative failure of permanet is the airphone. The most spectacular was Iridium. The most expensive will be 3G.

The idea [with 3G] is that users want to be able to access data any time anywhere. This is of course true in the abstract, but there are two caveats: the first is that they do not want it at any cost, and the second and more worrying one is that if they won’t use 3G in environments where they have other ways of connecting more cheaply.

The nearlynet to 3G’s permanet is Wifi (and, to a lesser extent, flat-rate priced services like email on the Blackberry.)

Wifi is like the cell phone, only useful at either end of travel, but providing better connectivity at a fraction of the price. This matches the negative feedback loop of the airphone — the cheaper Wifi gets, both in real dollars and in comparison to 3G, the greater the displacement away from 3G, the longer it will take to pay back the hardware investment (and, in countries that auctioned 3G licenses, the stupefying purchase price), and the later the day the operators can lower their prices.

The lesson of nearlynet is that connectivity is rarely an all or nothing proposition, much as would-be monopolists might like it to be. Instead, small improvements in connectivity can generally be accomplished at much less cost than large improvements, and so we continue growing towards permanet one nearlynet at a time.

Emergic State of the Union

It has been a while since the previous Emergic Update. As we begin a new financial year today, it is a good idea to reflect on what has happened, and the road ahead.

We began work on the Emergic vision about a year ago, coinciding with our move to a new office in central Mumbai. Then, there were a collection of ideas. We had a broad idea of what we wanted to do. Over the year, this has become clearer, and we are now working on three broad areas, which Ill discuss shortly.

These new ideas have generated little by way of new revenue, which has meant that our bread-and-butter business continues to be messaging. That is not enough to cover our expenses at this point of time, so we are in a lossy state as of now. At the same time, I am more optimistic than ever before on the work that weve been doing.

The ideas will pay off, but it may take some time. I imagine us to be in an unknown terrain, without a map. It needs one to make some forays in a few different directions to get a feel for the land around, and then hone on a direction which will take us towards our destination.

Affordable Computing

Emergic Freedom is our desktop computing (thin client-thick server) solution. The economics and value proposition are good, but we need to make breakthroughs in new markets and target new users. This is taking time. Weve also realised that we will need to look at a hardware-software combo for the thin client, rather than looking at a software only solution.

Sourcing either old PCs or low-cost new ones still is not easy. What it is coming to is that we need two price-points: Rs 5,000 (USD 100) what we call the 5KPC for an old PC-old monitor combo, and Rs 10,000 (USD 200) for a new PC-new monitor combo. An intermediate price-point is Rs 7,500 (USD 150) with a new PC-old monitor combo. We will probably need to get a supply chain setup and brand the PCs ourselves. [About a third of the price of a new system consists of duties and taxes in India, while old computers attract an anti-dumping duty of Rs 10,000 this is what has prevented us from bringing the price points down lower.]

In the near-term, our best bets are markets which will give us large volumes. This is not a solution that can be easily sold to enterprises. The focus has to be on todays nonconsumers. Some of the segments that we are looking at are: homes (via Internet Service Providers and cable operators), schools (via NGOs and the government) and in rural areas for TeleInfoCentres.

In between the city and rural extremes, we should also look at the semi-urban areas in India they too need affordable computing solutions. It is not something we have focused on a lot over the past year, given our base in Mumbai. We have also been working to reach out to organisations internationally.

One positive development in recent times has been our ability to get the solution to work on low-speed connections between the thin client and the thick server. Earlier, we needed to have a 100 Mbps LAN between the two. Now, a 128-256 Kbps connection is good enough, opening up the opportunity to run it over ISDN, cable or WiFi.

So, our biggest challenge in the coming year is to ensure that we can carve open the new markets for this disruptive innovation.

Enterprise Software

The focus here has been on two areas: building a new desktop via a digital dashboard which can aggregate events via RSS, and putting together an open-source based eBusiness suite. Progress has been steady, and the components are being put into place. It will still be about 3 months or so by the time we have the complete information refinery ready.

The core idea revolves around enabling an intelligent, real-time enterprise and creating a set of solutions for SMEs in emerging markets. While this has been something Ive been keen on for nearly two years, it has only been now that the tools are being assembled. I see RSS, events and weblogs as the key pillars around which the infrastructure will be built.

A good conceptual framework for what we want to do has been captured very well by William Gurleys recent column on Business Process Management. As I read it, I could now see the components that we are doing mapping on to what he talked about. Of course, we want to make it simple and low-cost for end-users, so the base will have to be Linux and open-source.

I want us to build application cores in the four areas of messaging and security, desktop computing, information management and business process automation. Once we have the cores ready, it should make it easier to customise for different verticals. We have to make the components simple enough that customers themselves (managers in SMEs) can assemble the software they need by defining their business processes. Think of it as Dell-meets-Enterprise Software eliminate the need for consultants and software developers.

It is an ambitious challenge, but if we have to disrupt the existing value chain and increase adoption, the ideas and solutions that we come up with have to have a 10X tsunami-like impact on the world around us.

Blogs

The world of blogs has beckoned for a long time. Last May, I launched my blog. In August, we launched our blog neighbourhood analysis and search engine BlogStreet. Since then, weve grown the feature set of BlogStreet. The core idea that we have to build on is people as information filters. The mix of individuals writing blogs and RSS as a means for distribution of content is creating a powerful combo. There are quite a few ideas we have going ahead I wrote about one recently discussing personal directories as the missing link in information management.

The goal? Build out Vannevar Bushs vision of the Memex an information system that connects us to the ideas, people and knowledge we want, allowing us to probe as deeply as we want. Today, centralized search engines like Google are the only way. What is missing is an individuals context. If we can layer that with concepts like small worlds (Ive been reading Duncan Watts new book Six Degrees highly recommended), there is a potential to build about a contextual connection machine for information in an emergent manner.

Looking Ahead

I have never been more excited about what I have doing in a long time its that energy that I felt in the early days of IndiaWorld, where one cannot wait to get up in the morning and look forward to the new ideas and opportunities that each day will bring. Of course, Id have been much happier if we were also profitable. But at the same time, given a choice between short-term decisions which could deflect us away from our path and perhaps get immediate revenues, and a long-term execution plan that will move us in the direction that we want, I will chose the latter. I have done that in the past year. Now, I need to inject an approach which also ensures that we can increase our revenues and move quickly towards self-sustainability.

The three areas that we have chosen are seemingly diverse. Most people would recommend a single focus. But then, in all that Ive done, I need a bit of diversity. In IndiaWorld, we had 13 portals and a website development business. The wide array of portals gave me a lot of latitude to think, experiment and innovate. Not all of them worked, but it was only because of our willingness to try out new concepts that we succeeded in creating a few winners. It is much the same way today.

The three areas will converge into creating a new information and computing framework for the next set of users in the world. What were just a few paragraphs on paper a year ago are now becoming a reality. The task ahead is to find the markets and users wherein we can make a difference. My personal fascination has and continues to be technology innovation and aggregation. Now, I have to convert this into solutions that real-world users will start paying for.

So, all in all, it has been an exciting though financially disappointing year. Lets make sure we keep the excitement going (jumping over, in Dan Bricklin’s words,”slippery rocks”) and correct the monetary aberrations. It is not one or the other successful entrepreneurs are those who balance both the short-term and the long-term.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: Village Vision (Part 2)

From a village administration viewpoint, the solution should:

Help in village planning and monitoring. It should assist in identifying and tracking the resources that a village has. In case any of these resources has a problem, there should be a way the village can notify the appropriate government department for action.
Share and discuss best practices with other village administrators. This is a peer-to-peer interaction model which is not possible today, except for sporadic gatherings. Think of this as a community weblog (like Slashdot.org) which helps bring out good ideas and success stories from what others are doing.
Provide a microcredit facility to enable villagers to save money and get loans when required.

This is what the state administration would like to see in the solution:

Two-way information flows: the administration can update the village and its residents on various government programmes and schemes (this is typically done through the publishing of gazettes), and in turn get regular updates from the village on progress on key parameters reflecting the health of the village (this is typically done by sending government officials for periodic visits to the village).
Electronic accounting for the funds which are disseminated by the state/district administration for village activities.
Ability to provide better services to the citizens (for example, telemedicine).
Provide comparisons across villages on various parameters, to be able to identify success stories and enable their replication across other villages. [In a way, this is akin to how Walmart uses business intelligence from its various stores to identify consumer purchase trends.]

Rural marketing organisations would like to:

Use a medium by which they can reach out to villagers for their products and services.
Get a distribution point for eCommerce (delivery could take place through the postal system).
Have a mechanism by which they can collect payments for their offerings.

One can think of the state (or district) as managing an enterprise with multiple branch offices (the villages). To ensure a successful and profitable business, there needs to be a right mix of centralisation and decentralisation. This is what the solution will have to offer. This is the first step towards the transformation of the rural economy and its people.

There are three key ideas in using technology to transform Rural India. First, set up a TeleInfoCentre in every village. Next, network these TeleInfoCentres to create a Village InfoGrid to ensure a peer-to-peer communication network between villages. Finally, computerise key government operations in an eGovernance initiative, starting with those that can have the greatest impact for the villagers.

Well begin by first looking at the TeleInfoCentre.

Tomorrow: TeleInfoCentre

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