A Childhood Dream Fulfilled

I visited London after 22 years. For a person who has travelled much in his life, this is an aberration that has been corrected. I had been to London as a 14-year-old, as part of a family package tour to Europe in 1981. While I remember almost nothing of that trip, its been good to spend some time walking around the city.

During this trip, I also fulfilled a long-cherished dream of mine: finishing BBC’s Bush House headquarters. A friend, Vijay Rana, who used to work with the Hindi Service, and continues to spend some time there, was instrumental in making this happen.

If there have been three things that have shaped me over the past two decades, they are the radio (BBC), the computer and the Internet.

I had grown up listening to BBC World Service for hours on end. It was a habit that continued when I was in the US. Even now, I listen to BBC World Service (radio) news daily at 5:30 am.

I would in my childhood imagine what BBC Bush House would be. So, it was a wonderful feeling to actually be inside the building. I also saw the live braodcast of the Hindi edition, and met some of the editors and journalists from the South Asian service. A most wonderful time, and one I’ll always remember.

Continue reading

Blogs and Scoped Collaboration

Writes Jon Udell, explaining what scoped collaboration means by quoting a chapter from his book:

If I am seeking or sharing information, why do I need to be able to address a group of 3 (my team), or 300 (my company), or 300,000 (my company’s customers), or 300 million (the Usenet)? At each level I encounter a group that is larger and more diffuse. Moving up the ladder I trade off tight affinity with the concerns of my department, or my company, for access to larger hive-minds. But there doesn’t really have to be a tradeoff, because these realms aren’t mutually exclusive. You can, and often should, operate at many levels.

Blogs offer a solution, as he quotes Chris Anderson (of Microsoft):

One reason I believe that blogs are great for corporation internal communication is the question of distribution lists. Inside of Microsoft we live and die by email. However the constant spam of email to large distribution lists ends up drowning out the important information. For many types of communication (but not all) blogs provide a better way of communicating. There are many cases where you as the publisher of a piece of information don’t know who would be interested. Blogs are a way to “publish and forget” – you fire the information out there, and interested people will find it. Once I add our internal blog server to the corporate search service, suddenly I could find people that worked on products that I wanted to communicate with. Amazing.

An interesting set of ideas to build upon for enterprise weblogs. Summarises Rahul Dave: “Imagine a blogging and daily work tool which made this easy. A personal hub server.”

Blog News Network

Rahul Dave has an interesting idea: “It is said that freedom of the press is only available to those who own one. so lets create the infrastructure for everyone to own one.”

The BlogNN, or Blog News Network is in many ways just the regular blogging network. The additions to it to make a News Network are mostly technical, with an optional central aggregator interface, zero-install support for news item related trackbacks and subscription, Google like targeted and actually useful advertising, audblogging and moblogging. For vertical subjects such as 802.11 for example it wont be very different from traditional subject-interest driven blogging, but for coverage of global history such as this present war, it will represent an explicit news driven blogging financed by us and by Google Adword type advertising, where the advertiser looses power over the medium in return for a more effective advertisement, being read by people who might be actually interested.

Second Superpower Ecology

Jim Moore asks:

How do we strengthen the Second Superpower? What are the next vital developments we need to make? Are there one or two things which, if accomplished, would enable more rapid and fuller evolution of emergent democracy and the second superpower? Are these spiritual, technical, political, or in our collective mindset?

What are the assembly rules for emergent democracy?

Do read the comments on his blog for an interesting discussion.

Continue reading

Open Software and Open Standards

Jonathan Schwartz discusses the two:

open standards are the most critical, because making a choice today shouldn’t preclude you from making a different choice tomorrow.

That’s what open standards are all about. They’re documents that outline agreed-upon conventions to enable different programs to work together, along with some means to ensure that they actually do a process or set of tests. With open standards, your company can pick and choose among competing vendors and not be locked in to any one of them.

Many people seem to think that open-source software offers the same advantages. Not necessarily.

Open source simply means that the underlying software code is available for inspection and modification.

Argues Kevin Werbach:

The problem with Jonathan’s argument is that it conflates two processes. Standards are critically important. As he points out, open standards are what allow for choice and prevent lock-in, regardless of whether source code is publicly available. But there are two sides to the standards process: development and implementation. If a standard solves a real problem and has a critical mass of industry support, it will promote openness. That’s what has happened with HTML and RSS, for example. What application developers do with standards is another story, and this is where open source comes into play.

Open source changes the dynamics of building software. It creates opportunities that would not otherwise exist. A successful open source project, like Linux, creates a large and diverse community that contributes to or makes use of the codebase. In effect, it creates a standard through developer adoption rather than vendor promotion. Linux leverages the Unix standard, and the standards-based GNU tools of Richard Stallman. But Linux itself has become a de facto standard. Bill Gates has often described Linux dismissively as just “the first version of Unix that works on Intel processors.” That’s true, but not the whole picture. It’s ironic to see a top executive at Sun, Microsoft enemy #1, make the same basic characterization.

Open source cannot simply be reduced to open standards. Jonathan understands this, and in the article he acknowledges that different software licenses have value in different contexts. Open source projects tend to be better at some things, while proprietary software tends to be better at others. There are no abolutes, just general trends based on the underlying incentive structures of each method. The “best” open source projects are those that facilitate a community and achieve its members’ objectives, whatever those may be. Today, when no application is an island, the same is true for proprietary software.

Drudge Report’s Nanopublishing

Business 2.0 writes about how Matt Drudge’s news portal makes him over USD 800K per annum. Its an aggregation model, one which we used in Samachar. Drudge goes much further – we used to give links to established news sources, while Drudge ferrets out the hot stories and scoops also through his network of sources. The lesson: nanopublishing can work.

Drudge’s minimalist approach dates to 1995, when he noticed that people posting on Usenet often scooped the networks. “Matt and I spent hours talking about how slow the big boys were in breaking news,” recalls Harry Knowles, the founder of movie site Ain’t It Cool News. “I remember Matt saying to me, ‘The Internet is going to be the thing that knocks off CNN.'”

“There is always this feeling that Drudge is about to break something,” says Phil Boyce, program director at WABC radio in New York. That leads many loyal readers to check the site 10 to 15 times a day. That drawing power has turned Drudge into one of the Net’s biggest traffic generators.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: TeleInfoCentre Economics

How much does it cost to setup a single TeleInfoCentre? Assuming 3 computers to begin with (2 thin clients and a server, which can also be used as a client), the costs are as follows:

Thick Server: Rs 30,000 (any standard desktop can work as a server; also has a CD-writer to write CDs for offline data distribution)
2 Thin Clients: Rs 20,000 (over time, we will get to the Rs 5,000 per PC price point)
Software: Rs 7,500
LAN Networking, Modem, Telephone Line (if available): Rs 12,500
Scanner, Printer, Webcam, Speakers: Rs 10,000
Power Supply: Rs 10,000

This brings the total set-up costs to Rs 90,000 (USD 1,800).

Monthly Operating Costs are as follows:

Operator Salary: Rs 2,500
Connectivity: Rs 1,000
Consumables (Paper, CDs): Rs 500
Maintenance: Rs 500

This totals Rs 4,500 (USD 90) per month.

Assuming the set-up costs can be amortised over three years (through a bank loan or some other form of financing), the monthly cost on account of the upfront investment comes to Rs 3,000. Add to this the Rs 4,500 monthly operating costs and we get a figure of Rs 7,500 per month as what is needed for break-even.

The assumption made here is that space costs are zero that is, the space is provided by the entrepreneur or the village at no charge for the TeleInfoCentre.

The question is: how does the TeleInfoCentre generate a minimum monthly revenue of Rs 7,500?

As we had discussed earlier, if the TeleInfoCentre supports a village of 250 families (1,000 people) and each family pays Rs 20 per month as a subscription fee for a basket of services, then this generates a monthly income of Rs 5,000. The deficit is still Rs 2,500 how does this get covered?

There are multiple ways by which the TeleInfoCentre can generate additional revenue:

It can take up data entry jobs or other such work to better leverage the computers that it has.
The state / district can pay for some of the services that it uses. For example, on account of the TeleInfoCentres, the information collection and dissemination costs can be reduced. Part of those savings could be channelised through to the TeleInfoCentre.
Some funds could be allocated from the village for the operation of the TeleInfoCentre, since the village administration will also be a significant user and beneficiary.
Additional services can be offered for the villagers beyond the base set, which can result in more revenue.
Ads can be shown on the screens to create a revenue stream from companies interested in reaching the rural markets.

In addition, the amortisation (or loan payback) period could be extended from three years to four years, resulting in bringing the break-even figure down to under Rs 7,000. Also, if older PCs can be re-used or duties on new computers can be reduced, that would lower the start-up costs by Rs 10,000 or more.

The monthly gap can thus be narrowed and even eliminated. Over time, as the villagers realise the benefits of the TeleInfoCentre, usage will increase. Also, as content developers and software companies realise the potential of the audience being created, additional revenue-generating services will get created. The aim should be to get the per capita income of the villagers to increase, since that will mean that they would be willing to spend some more money at the TeleInfoCentre.

The TeleInfoCentre should be the responsibility of a local entrepreneur. There should be no government subsidies in their set-up or operation. The role of the government should be that of an enabler, not a funder.

Tomorrow: TeleInfoCentre as a Business

Continue reading