Rediff Interview

The ‘affordable computing’ dream is the title of a story on me in Rediff by Priya Ganapati. Talks a little about my past (which I don’t like, but maybe that’s why I get heard now!), but focuses more on what I am doing and hope to get done in the coming years (the vision of “a connected computer accessible to every family and employee” in India and other emerging markets). A well-written story.

A TeleInfoCentre would be a computer-cum-communications centre. It would have 3-5 computers connected together in a LAN, in a single room. One of the computers would work as a ‘thick server’ and do the processing and storage. The others are low-cost, low-configuration ‘thin clients.’

“By locating them in the village, we ensure that people do not have to walk too much to use them: access to computing is just a few minutes, rather than a few kilometers, away. This will make them think of computing as part of their lives; a utility, available on-demand,” says Jain.

The TeleInfoCentre would largely work in the offline mode. The server should mirror key applications and relevant data, making it possible for the clients to work without the need for an Internet connection. Updates could be done via CDs or even Wi-Fi (wireless connectivity).

Such radical thinking is what is necessary to bring computing to rural India, says Jain.

How will the supply chain for these low cost computers be created? Who will make them? How will the applications to run on these computers be developed? Will other state governments be open to the plan? If the government cannot pay up completely, where will the funding for the TeleInfoCenters come from?

“I don’t have the answers to all the questions yet. I know we will do it in next 6-8 months. My approach is to try multiple things. Some may work, some may not. But the important thing is to try and I know we are heading in the right direction,” he says.

As I have said before in my paper on Transforming Rural India, it is up to us to bring about change in India “not between two generations, but between two elections”.

I wish Priya had given a link to this blog for people to get read more.

New Normal

Fast Company has an article about superstar investor Roger McNamee, contrasting the “old normal” with the “new normal” in the context of investing and competing (link via Abhay Bhagat):

Old Normal: Internet Time: Measured in days, weeks, and dog years (for the business cycle). Absolutely everything was accelerated, from hiring to going public. Eighteen months was the magic number for major undertakings, from startup to ship, from funding to IPO. The bumper sticker was, “Stop for lunch and you are lunch.” Says McNamee: “It was a kind of hormonal reaction. There was so much urgency that every standard — for due diligence, leadership, recruiting, and investment — was relaxed.”

New Normal: Real Time: “The New Normal,” says McNamee, “is about real life — and real time. Getting things right the first time is more important than getting things done quickly.” That’s the opposite of the late-’90s mantra, “Fail faster to succeed sooner.” Everything — whether it be building companies or hiring top talent — takes longer in the New Normal. Even more important in the new time frame: Don’t waste your own time. Dedicate it to what you truly enjoy doing.

Old Normal: Grow Market Cap: The ’90s were all about fast money. Capital was quickly available and virtually free to businesses growing at exponential rates. (And it didn’t matter what was growing. Any metric would do: eyeballs, page views, or click throughs.) The logic was, spend to grow.

New Normal: Create Real Value: Today, it’s all about smart money. Capital is expensive, but it’s available to truly committed entrepreneurs who have rigorously developed business plans that demonstrate real positives in the near term. In the late ’90s, customers got a free ride, and capital underwrote everything. The new logic is, pay as you go.

Steve Jobs and Digital Entertainment

WSJ writes about how Jobs is the one person who could bring about the much-touted convergence between the worlds of computing and entertainment.

Mr. Jobs is today increasingly fashioning himself as a digital-entertainment impresario. Over the past two years, he has turned Apple into a producer of entertainment technology for digital photos, movies and music, culminating in next week’s unveiling of the online-music service.

Mr. Jobs hopes to create a new model for online music, a business that so far has only been able to draw large numbers of customers seeking free tunes on Napster and other renegade file-swapping services. Napster grew quickly and peaked with about 60 million users but shut down in 2001 after losing a legal battle with the recording industry.

According to people who have met with Mr. Jobs, the new service is integrated with Apple’s iTunes software. Only Apple customers can use it, but that may change. The service requires a mouse click to buy songs and additional simple steps to move them to a CD or an iPod. Apple will charge 99 cents per song and sell albums for around $10, they say. Users will get to keep the songs permanently.

Jobs also owns Pixar, which is releasing “Finding Nemo”, its latest animation film, soon.

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Enriching the Browser

Rafe Needleman (Business 2.0) writes on a solution that will “allow pages to update instead of reload” (think Outlook Express rather than Hotmail):

The startup Laszlo Systems has a clever mechanism that feeds applications that use XML and Javascript — languages in common use and for which it’s easy to write the database access instructions that underlie interactive apps like shopping — into Flash user interfaces. Technically, Laszlo creates client/server applications, where the user interface runs on the client’s computer but the guts of the logic (like a commerce engine or a database) run back on the server.

It is true that this capability already exists with other technologies — Java programs can do what Laszlo can, and so can applications that leverage the DHTML capabilities built into Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (MSFT). But neither Java nor IE is installed on as many machines as the Flash player is.

Small PC from Via and Mini-Box

News.com writes about Via’s Mini-ITX motherboard being part of the Mini-Box PC, running Linux.

The Mini-Box M-100, a general-purpose computer built around Via’s EPIA Mini-ITX mainboard, is about the size of a dictionary and weighs about 2 pounds. Besides being used as a desktop, it can also be used as “embedded” hardware–housed within a larger machine to perform a specific computing task.

The tiny $500 PC sports a Via Eden or C-series processor and 256MB of RAM. The standard M-100 ships with 64MB of CompactFlash memory holding the MediaBox embedded Linux operating system.

Buyers have the option of boosting storage capacity by expanding the CompactFlash memory to 128MB, or by adding a 40GB IBM notebook-size hard drive, thus allowing it to run the Windows XP and Windows CE operating systems.

The device features a 14-key customizable keypad on its faceplate and a general purpose input/output (I/O) port, but lacks an optical drive. The M-100 also features a built-in liquid-crystal display, which eliminates the need for a monitor in some applications.

These PCs could be used as PC-Terminals (thin clients) also.

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Fighting Spam

You know something has reached a critical point when it is written about in the Economist. This is now true about spam (as if we needed confirmation beyond looking at our mailboxes). Writes the Economist:

Why has spam taken off? The answer seems to be a matter of simple economics. Sending an e-mail incurs no direct cost. Even the cost of sending bulk e-mails is so small that a response rate as low as one in 100,000 justifies many bulk mailings (senders of physical junk mail usually need a response rate of one in 100). E-mail addresses on CDs sell for about $5 per million, and spamming software can be downloaded free from the internet or purchased for just a few hundred dollars.

The most reliable, though extreme, filtering approach is that offered by Microsoft’s Hotmail and other web-based e-mail services, which can be set to accept only e-mails from a specific white list of approved senders. But for most people this destroys one of the joys of e-mailreceiving unanticipated messagesand takes more time than they want to devote to managing their e-mail. One start-up, IronPort, is offering a system which employs a white-list of firms who post a financial bond guaranteeing good behaviour.

One new idea is challenge and response filters which bounce messages back to the sender, asking for a confirmation before accepting the message. Some spammers have already countered this ploy with auto-response software. Another new idea is software that statistically analyses the content of incoming e-mails to find spam, but this has yet to be widely tested and may also be vulnerable to counter-measures by spammers.

Enterprise Weblogs

IT-Director asks if enterprise weblogs are the next IM for enterprises. Benefits:

There are two main benefits: they reduce the barriers to information sharing, and they organise fragmented information. By reducing the barriers to publication, Weblogs bridge the knowledge gap between individuals with valuable knowledge and the wider community. Enterprise intranets are too slow, formal and impersonal to attract the titbits of insights and information that are the staple of Weblogs. Weblogs are organised by timeline and topic so authors can put a personal spin on the welter of information and ideas that flows past each of us in our daily work.”

Enterprise Weblogs take the Blogging concept into the organisation. Commercial software is emerging to allow organisation experts to contribute their knowledge in internal Weblogs. Instead of information being locked up in personal folders or stored in static and siloed information stores, contributors can publish the information in an organised, searchable format.

(The article also has a brief mention of BlogStreet.)

BI and Dashboards

Roland Piquepaille points to two stories from ComputerWorld:

  • The future of Business Intelligence: “Knowledge workers have tended to analyze data in isolation because the software they use doesn’t let them do anything else. But data analysis must move from solo to collaborative if we’re ever going to eliminate the bottleneck of specialized business analysts. This means packaging analytical applications into portal interfaces that ordinary people can access online and then allowing them to share not just the static output, but [also] the actual dynamic analytical experience through online collaboration.”

  • Management Dashboards Becoming Mainstream : “What we’re seeing today are management dashboards, which have been pushed down through the organization, providing relevant information to a particular manager. At Southwest Airlines, they call them cockpits, and they’re specialized, so that the guy in charge of putting peanuts on airplanes gets a different view than the guy who’s in charge of purchasing jet fuel. But they all see what planes are flying where. So I’d say dashboards are leaving the early-adopter phase and becoming more mainstream. ”

    Slashdot thread

  • Crummy Products Opportunity

    HBS Working Knowledge has an article on Clay Christensen’s ideas on creating sustainable new-growth businesses.

    The third model Christensen termed new-market disruption, whereby you create a product for a customer who hasn’t been able to participate because of low skill level or low wealth. The initial product for this new market usually isn’t very good; in fact, it’s usually “crummy,” Christensen said.

    But it’s good enough. When Sony developed the first transistor radio in the 1950s, the sound was awful. But Sony sold them to teenagers, a group that couldn’t afford the nice-sounding, floor-standing radios their parents enjoyed. For them, a transistor would do just fine.

    Once the initial crummy product has kick-started a market, follow-on products become better and better, eventually drawing in customers from above. As transistor radios evolved into the Walkman, parents bought them, too.

    Another key in identifying potential markets is to never compete against the customer’s manifest priorities. Instead, he said, facilitate them.

    Google and Blogs

    Always-On has an interview with Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, and asks him about the Pyra Labs acquisition context:

    We’re extremely interested in getting more information published on the Web in any kind. A relatively straightforward analysis says that a lot of the digital authoring empowerment in people’s hands is at a stage where people do not appreciate how powerful this is. I’m not just talking about computers. I’m talking about digital cameras and those types of things.

    I believe that this notion of self-publishing, which is what Blogger and blogging are really about, is the next big wave of human communication. The last big wave was Web activity. Before that one it was e-mail. Instant messaging was an extension of e-mail, real-time e-mail.

    The next step in general for information is the self-publishing part. If somebody takes the time to write something, having Google understand that is very important to that person. So if you view the world as one person at a time, getting that person, that author to understand that we value, we index, we search, and we care about their information is a very important part of our strategy.

    TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Googles Domination (Part 2)

    To convert its technological superiority into commercial success, Google stuck to its simplicity rule by creating web advertising that actually works, according to a Fortune article by David Kirkpatrick: For all the flash and animation that marketers have put into building Internet ads, the geeks have figured out the real trick: Relevance is more important than style. We’re turning to the Internet more and more in the ordinary course of our lives. Whether I’m researching a person or a company, finding the distance between Phoenix and Santa Fe for next week’s vacation, seeking a movie review, buying a book, or learning about bird watching, I turn to Google first, then move out. The marketer that can reach me with a relevant message while I’m searching will win.

    Google has, reportedly, over 100,000 advertisers. It takes only a few minutes to set up an advertising program on Google and it can be all done online in do-it-yourself mechanism. Wrote Wall Street Journal recently: Google’s site has become the prime battleground because of its unprecedented power over the Web. Barely four years old, Google has grown largely by word of mouth to become the place where most people start to look for something on the Internet. Three-quarters of all online searches use Google or sites that use Google’s search results, according to WebSideStory Inc Because of its importance, Google can make or break businesses that sell over the Web. It’s the new location, location, location for online retailers, for whom ranking at the top of a Google search is the Web equivalent of landing a choice corner on Miracle Mile or Fifth Avenue.

    Adds Business Week: Advertisers love Google. They supply two-thirds of its revenue by purchasing keywords on Google.com and Google’s network of affiliates, including America Online. Owning a keyword allows the advertiser to place simple text spots on pages returned for searches containing that keyword. The ads on Google.com are unobtrusive. No Flash player or screen effects are allowed, and ads are confined to a small box on the side of the screen and a handful of slots at the very top. Still, according to Google, the barebones format is effective enough to drive click-through rates several times those of standard Web ads.

    Google has become the eBay of information, in the words of Mary Meeker. For advertisers, it is important to be part of the Google Economy. Wrote the New York Times: Much as eBay spawned an army of entrepreneurial auctioneers, Google has become enough of a Web gatekeeper that its leads now prop up plenty of commercial sites.

    Next Week: Constructing the Memex (continued)

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    Datacasting

    News.com writes:

    n essence, the technology involves inserting a data stream into a TV or radio broadcast and receiving it in a way that does not interfere with the primary audio-visual signal. The data can be combined with the audiovisual signal or sent along as a separate part of the spectrum, then transmitted to a special receiver tuned to capture the bits.

    The economics seem irresistible: Transmissions can reach millions of people as easily as one, and provide steadily increasing margins as the viewership grows. Internet and cellular phone technologies, by contrast, create additional costs for every new connection.

    Could be an interesting technology to look at for updates in remote/rural areas.

    Microsoft v Linux

    NYTImes has an interesting comment on Microsoft’s strategy to counter Linux:

    Mr. Gates argues that Microsoft will retain its advantage over Linux by offering more on a feature-by-feature basis.

    “They’re replacing their commodity leverage with a bundling strategy,” said Ted Schadler, a computer industry analyst at Forrester, and one of the authors of its recent Linux report. With the new software, he said, Microsoft’s business strategy is to integrate multiple applications — e-mail messaging, printing, Web page creation and the like — with its server operating system, but to charge for them separately depending on how extensively they are used.

    More on Memex

    I would have loved to attend this talk by Maciej Ceglowski and John Cuadrado on “Peer-to-Peer Semantic Search Engines: Building a Memex”. From the abstract:

    Imagine searching through your own research notes, Google, and a set of your favorite weblogs all at the same time, the results coming back to you ranked in a meaningful order. Imagine getting relevant results to a search even when there is no keyword match, or being able to refine your search by selecting a set of good results and asking for more.

    The presenters, who first met and discussed the concept at last year’s ETCon, have been working on just such a project: an open-source latent semantic search engine that lives on the desktop and lets users navigate and search their own writing – notes, articles, or weblog entries. Because it examines patterns of word use across many documents, the tool offers significantly improved search results, and can accept long natural-language search queries, including entire documents. By allowing documents to organize themselves into topic clusters, the tool also offers a macro view of the user’s data, in useful digest form.

    Apart from its utility as a standalone desktop program, the prototype is designed to work as a web service, creating the potential for a distributed peer-to-peer network of individual search engines. This kind of network, which is the project’s ultimate goal, would allow users to send queries out over the Internet, decide where those queries should look, and receive collated results from a variety of different, complementary sources. Unlike other search aggregators, the ability to interleave results in a meaningful way is an organic part of the search algorithm’s design. Whether searching weblogs, research notes, article archives, or personal notes, users would have full control over what they searched, and an unprecedented ability to make their own work accessible to others.

    Maciej points to a note on Semantic Indexing for more info.

    This is a topic I began this week in my Tech Talk, and will be writing about for the next few weeks. We are also hoping that we can take the base infrastructure we have built in BlogStreet and use it to build a prototype of a personal Memex system.

    Successful Internet Businesses

    The titel of this Business 2.0 story – How to make Money on the Net – caught my attention. It was the subject of a seminar we had conducted in Mumbai in August 1995! The article discusses the strategies of 6 companies:

    The Cross Selling Machine: Wells Fargo
    The Deal Monger: Restaurant.com
    The Opinion Catcher: Harris Interactive
    The Entertainer: Skyworks Technologies
    The Minimart: E-Trade
    The Low-Cost Alternative: United Online

    Successful Internet companies, Yankee Group analyst Robert Lancaster says, exploit the Web’s unique ability to attract and engage. “They’re building profiles of their customers, understanding what they like to do, and delivering a service.”

    Yesterday, I received William Gurley’s latest newsletter about dotcoms that are working. His reasoning:

    1. They werent bad ideas. In fact many were good ideas. Were there too many consumer startups? Yes! But there were also too many software companies, semiconductor companies, telecom equipment companies, and the list goes on and on. As we later learned, over-funding (i.e., too many startups with too much capital) was the key issue, not the particular investment category. Low-cost, high-scale marketplaces do in fact exhibit increasing returns. And these marketplaces have incredible “moats” (to borrow a Buffetism), that represent unprecedented barriers to entry.

    2. Rationality set in first. As the first to fall, consumer Internet companies were the first that were forced to recognize that money is not in fact cheap, but expensive, and that profitability is the real goal to the game. As such, these companies adjusted and learned lessons earlier than most. The results are apparent.

    3. Quick capacity reduction. Unlike many other sectors, capacity adjustments come quite quickly in the consumer Internet space. There is no such thing as a web site that is selling ads at a discount just to help offset fixed costs. There is also no heavy “infrastructure” that negatively affects the industry dynamics.

    4. Internet growth is systematic, not cyclical. Consumer spending may be down 5%, but online spending is still such a small percentage of overall consumer spending that growth results from the continued increase in online usage. With IT expenditures already at 50% of corporate capital expenditures, the opposite is true for traditional information technology spending.

    Gurley’s last line says it all: “Perhaps being a dot-com isnt so bad after all.”

    SixApart Developments

    SixAprt, the creators of MovableType (the software I use for this blog), have announced they have raised venture capital (one of the investors is Joi Ito’s VC firm), got Anil Dash on board and launched TypePad, as an “an upcoming hosted service providing powerful tools for creating full-featured weblogs.”

    This combination of development is almost as important in the world of blogging as Google’s purchase of Pyra a few months ago.

    TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Googles Domination

    Google has barely spent any money on advertising. It has focused on search and providing the best results fast and free of clutter. It is a rare breed of companies that has put technology above everything else. It launched when a category was seemingly stagnant. Wired (October 2001) takes up the story:

    Everyone loves Google, and therein lies its dilemma. The phenomenally popular search engine – it now performs more than 100 million searches a day – achieved much of its early success by being resolutely uncommercial. As other search engines were selling banner ads and turning into portals to make a buck off what had become a commodity service, Google just did search. Its stripped-down interface (only three elements: a text-entry box, a Search button, and an “I’m Feeling Lucky” link that takes you straight to the top-ranking result) trades looks for speed. And it does search brilliantly, using a unique technique that ranks pages by how many other pages link to them.

    To understand Googles success, it is important to first understand its PageRank technology. Its site has an explanation:

    PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.”

    Important, high-quality sites receive a higher PageRank, which Google remembers each time it conducts a search. Of course, important pages mean nothing to you if they don’t match your query. So, Google combines PageRank with sophisticated text-matching techniques to find pages that are both important and relevant to your search. Google goes far beyond the number of times a term appears on a page and examines all aspects of the page’s content (and the content of the pages linking to it) to determine if it’s a good match for your query.

    Adds the New York Times:

    Google’s rise initially flowed from a single software innovation: a formula to retrieve pages ordered by their relevance to a Web surfer’s request.

    The basic idea, known as “link analysis,” was not new. But in 1996, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, then graduate students in computer science at Stanford, began applying it to the global links that connect Web pages. Their idea was to exploit existing human intelligence by tracking the popularity of billions of different Web pages. Two years later, the two men would found Google.

    Applied to the explosively growing thicket of electronic pointers that make up the World Wide Web, the approach simultaneously being explored at an IBM research laboratory in San Jose created a technical breakthrough.

    Google now employs 800 people, yet it handles 200 million searches of the Web each day, a staggering one-third of the estimated daily total. To keep up with that torrent, Google has essentially built a home-brew supercomputer that is distributed across eight data centers.

    The result of Googles innovative algorithms was that the most relevant pages, as perceived by analyzing the link structure of the web, started showing up on top when we did searches. We suddenly found sense in search even though the results still showed a huge number of matching pages, more often than not the information we were looking for was more likely to be found in the first few pages listed in the results of the Google search. This relevance focus (along with the simplicity of its design) has helped Google occupy centrestage in our lives. Search has come back into fashion. Perhaps too much so.

    Tomorrow: Googles Domination (continued)

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    Innovations via Intersections

    From the Harrow Report come a nice thought:

    In my opinion, the real magic [of innovation] will indeed come from these intersections,” as scientists and engineers from formally disparate fields come together and develop new questions and totally new ideas, sometimes getting “ah ha!” insights into how to do today’s things better, and how to do new things that were only yesterday firmly in the realms of our imagination. This mixing and mining of previously stovepiped ideas and knowledge will be the catalyst that opens our collective eyes to fascinating new visions.

    I very much agree with what Jeffrey Harrow says. That is why reading and interacting with people who can help provide “short-cuts” to different worlds is so important.

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    Linux on the Desktop

    Russell Pavlicek of InfoWorld writes that “features such as virtual desktops and solid e-mail clients help to make Linux desktops viable for business.”

    I normally work with six virtual desktops enabled (KDE allows you to configure as many as 16, and last I checked, Gnome allows 100). I populate each one with applications relating to a different task. One has a Web browser; another has the applications I use while writing; another has multimedia apps so I can listen to music while I work. If I’m doing extensive word processing, as I did when I was writing my book, I’ll leave my office application up in another desktop. And another desktop will have e-mail.

    For a more complex e-mail client with support for calendaring, task lists, and contact lists, there is Ximian’s Evolution. The application even features a customizable summary page which can show you local weather reports and news headlines from various sources. People accustomed to Outlook will probably find Evolution comfortable to use. Evolution sports some notable goodies, including virtual folders. Database people might understand this as “views for e-mail.” Instead of using the old paradigm of placing a physical piece of paper (the e-mail) in a physical folder, virtual folders are more like database queries that select messages based on specified values.

    With this feature, you can group messages according to content rather than just placing a message in a single folder. So when you need to find an old e-mail from your boss about the policy change affecting a new project, you no longer need to remember whether you filed it under Boss Memos, Policies, or New Project. With virtual folders, the same message can be located under all three categories. And that can save precious time.

    Communication Centres

    Slashdot: “Peace Corps Online has published an article by a volunteer who taught computers in West Africa for two years who recommends that the White House’s Digital Freedom Initiative (DFI) abandon the Western paradigm of ‘a computer on every desk’ and borrow a lesson from telephony in third-world countries.”

    Trying to provide a computer for the majority of families in a developing country would almost certainly be a non-sustainable effort.

    Instead, the DFI should look to an existing model that has already been proven to work for another kind of expensive technology: the telephone. A residential telephone line is a luxury item in West Africa, and as a result, the so-called “communication center” has flourished even in the smallest of towns. These centers are nothing more than small shops that include at least one telephone (usually a fax machine, as well) and offer pay-per-minute telephone service to many who could not otherwise afford it. More than just payphones, these centers are private businesses that generate profit for their owners while sharing among the whole community the high cost of telecommunication.

    With so many of these businesses already in place, the DFI could “leverage existing infrastructure” by promoting the use of computers at communication centers. Indeed, some centers located in the cities have already installed a computer or two, but the smaller centers, especially those in more rural areas, are still struggling to upgrade their services with computer technology. DFI could play a role here by providing computer training, installation support, and perhaps some type of financing to help local entrepreneurs overcome the steep cost of computer hardware. It could also promote open-source software, such as Linux and OpenOffice, as a cheaper alternative to commercial software packages costing hundreds of dollars each.

    The idea seems similar to the TeleInfoCentres concept I have discussed in my “Transforming Rural India” essay.