Harry Potter and I

The fifth book in the Harry Potter series releases tomorrow. I must admit that I haven’t read any of the books so far. Have seen both the movies – the first was okay, while I didn’t like the second one much. I am very much a “Lord of the Rings” person. Of course, that’s no reason not to read Harry Potter, but somehow I have stayed away. I missed the initial Harry Potter wave because I was too immersed in IndiaWorld. The impression I had was also that it is more for kids (and I was a grown-up) then. But again, that has not prevented me from reading books like “The Little Prince”. Something about Harry Potter kept me away, and then it was too late. Since I had not read the initial books, I didn’t read the later books.

I really think I should get rid of these biases and read it, and then make a judgement about it.

Meanwhile, two links to read:

TIME cover story on JK Rowling: “[Bravery] is, as Rowling attests from the first chapter of the first book, the virtue that cannot be faked: you either walk into the woods full of giant spiders, or you don’t. Stand up to bullies, or hide from them. Hang on to hope, or surrender to fear. She addresses children as though they know as much as or more than she does about the things that matter. Kids like the characters she has created, Harry above all, not because he is fantastic but because he is familiar. Rowling, they say, gets everything right, writes as though she knows what it is to be 13 years old and anxious or shocked at discovering what you can actually do if you try. Maybe she finds her way straight into the hearts of children because she never left in the first place.”

Economist on the merchandising: “The process is self-generating: each book sets the stage for a film, which boosts book sales, which lifts sales of Potter products. Globally, the first four Harry Potter books have sold some 200m copies in 55 languages; the two movies have grossed over $1.8 billion at the box office.”

IBM’s Leadership

IBM can lead Silicon Valley out of recession, according to an article in the Economist.

The technology market has gone through wrenching changes since every big firm in America dreamed of becoming a dotcom (or feared being devoured by one). Technology no longer sells itself simply because it is new. Real power is flowing to those firms that have begun to work out not what to sell, but how to sell it…IBM’s answer to this problem was its purchase, last July, of PwC Consulting.

By packaging business consulting with IT, IBM now hopes to sell its customers full, all-singing, all-dancing, business “solutions”, rather than vague promises about the benefits of new hardware or software.

IBM hopes that from these consulting engagements will cascade demand for its software, hardware and systems specialists. From the customer’s perspective, however, IBM is now selling something quite differenta commitment to improve a specific part of the business, with payment more clearly linked to results. The famously weak accountability of consulting and IT should improve. As Steve Milunovich of Merrill Lynch put it recently, the customer now has one throat to choke.

So, the next big thing may “not to be a technology at all, but a better way to make it work.”

Continue reading

India and China

A new edition of the Economist is a joy to behold – one of my first activities Friday mornings is to go check their website for the new articles to see which are good enough to link (of course, some articles are available only to subscribers), and then also wait for the hard copy of the magazine which arrives on Saturday. I first subscribed to the Economist at Columbia University (great student discount) and have maintained it since then.

So, imagine the delight when I found the latest issue with a cover story on India-China AND the Technology Quarterly. Plenty to read and think about.

First, the India-China stories [1 2]. They come on the eve of the visit of the Indian PM (Vajpayee) to China. The nutshell: “India is weaker thanks not to democracy, but to bureaucracy, intolerance and pointless rivalries” and “Indians should learn that they have less to fear from their giant neighbour than they think”.

SOME comparisons are stark enough to generate a national inferiority complex. In 1980, India had about 687m people, 300m fewer than China. Living standards, as measured by purchasing power per head, were roughly the same. Then, as China embraced modernity with a sometimes ugly but burning passion, it left India behind. In the next 21 years, India outperformed its neighbour in almost nothing but population growth.

By 2001, India had 1,033m people against China’s 1,272m. But China’s national income per head, according to the World Bank, was $890, nearly double India’s $450. Adjusted for purchasing power, the Chinese were still 70% wealthier than Indians were. In the ten years from 1992, India’s GDP per head grew at 4.3% a year, China’s twice as fast. Some 5% of Chinese now live below the national poverty line, compared with 29% of Indians.

India has only itself to blame for not being able to grow at 8-10% a year and occupy its rightplace in the world as one of the engines for growth. China’s GDP is twice that of India’s today, and growing at a much faster clip. Says the Economist: “If democracy or the lack of it is not the root cause of India’s divergence from China, what is? Mostly, as already noted, that India simply started the process of opening up later. Indians used to joke that the British raj had given way to the licence raj: even the smallest investment decision by a private firm required government approval, very often all the way from Delhi. The work of dismantling this bureaucratic behemoth started only in 1991 under a reformist finance minister, Manmohan Singhthere was no reason why it could not have started earlier, bar the absence of sufficiently intelligent or brave leadershipand pockets of resistance remain. One particular anomaly is the system that reserves extensive sectors of the economy for small businesses. China’s reforms have had 12 years longer to deal with such obstacles.”

I had visited China twice last year – both Beijing and Shanghai. Had written a Tech Talk series after my first visit (to Shanghai).

As Karthik put it at yesterday’s Book Club meeting, CK Prahalad recently said that the last time Indians had a common mission was when we wanted Independence and answered the call of “Purna Swaraj”. It is time for a similar goal now. And this should focus on economic growth – how can India grow 10-15% a year and create 10-15 million new jobs a year.

Connecting Print and Web

I wonder why print publishers (newspapers and magazines) cannot make it easier for us to find the articles online. I subscribe to a lot of the hard copy editions of various publications, and many times when I read in article in print, I’d like to link to it from the blog and add a comment. But, it is so difficult to find the articles online at the respective sites.

Here’s an idea which can make it easier to do us, borrowing from the VCR-plus idea used in the US for TV listings. Each article should have a code at the end (a number like 345678). I should be able to enter this number on a search box on the website, and it should take me directly to the article. As simple as that. I am sure that their web traffic go up, with a multiplier effect coming from the blog posts. And yes, while we are at it, they should ensure that the links are “permalinks” – that is, they don’t disappear with time.

While we are at it, here are two more suggestions for the print industry:
– create a proper RSS feed – with a description which is at least 50-100 words, so one can get a good idea about the story.
– do a trackback equivalent, so that I can read comments about the story from others. Make the story as a hub for discussion.

TECH TALK: The Discovery of India: Rural India

600,00 villages. 700 million people. A per capita income of less than USD 1 (Rs 50) a day. This is Rural India. One in 10 people on earth live in rural India. Much of this population is isolated in terms of access to information, materials and markets. How can technology transform rural India and what is the role that the Indian IT industry can play in this?

Atanu Dey outlines the context for the consideration of the problems of rural India:

The problem of the economic development of large underdeveloped economies present unique challenges that require innovative solutions. In an age of increasing specialization, there is a critical need for integration to supplement the specialization. Economies are complex, nonlinear systems and just as they cannot be adequately described by partitioning them into subsystems and analyzing them piecemeal, so also their problems cannot be addressed by partial interventions. This is because the subsystems of complex non-linear systems interact strongly with one another, and even the most carefully thought through partial solution often fails to achieve its intended goal.

Revolutions in the information and communications technologies (ICT) have the potential to remove the barriers to information asymmetries that were impeding the working of markets that are critical for economic growth. The forces of globalization have created opportunities for the integration of rural populations in a larger marketplace than was ever available to them before.

Two mutually reinforcing applications where technology can serve as a harbinger of change in rural India are in education and access to markets. The former addresses an important component of non-income poverty, while the latter is concerned with income poverty.

Education: Primary education is widely recognised as one of the most significant factors that promote economic growth and social well-being. Lack of basic education is widely recognised as an impediment to the ability to participate in economic growth. Education needs to be in three areas: for schoolchildren, basic literacy for adults, and vocational training. By using technology to create content in local languages with innovative interfaces, and deliver it to the rural population, a digitally bridged Generation Next will be created.

Access to Markets: Access to markets directly affects the realised money incomes of populations. Expanding market access for agricultural and non-agricultural output of rural areas is important for releasing the income poverty constraint. Tools such as the Internet and the Web are ideally suited to achieve this goal. The Net can help the rural population source their agricultural inputs in the most cost-effective manner. In addition, it can help find buyers for their handcrafted goods beyond the immediate neighbourhood, and thus reduce the role of middlemen who take away much of their profits.

Both, education and access to markets, are necessary for economic growth and consequently for the elimination of poverty. Both depend on the use of knowledge goods and services to a large extent. Technology companies in India can play a powerful role in creating solutions for these two challenges, and thereby open up a significant but as-yet invisible chunk of the Indian market.

Last Word

Indian companies need to start looking inward for a change. Few industries in the world have achieved global scale without the benefit of a large domestic market. Indian IT companies have made a great beginning in both software engineering and business process outsourcing services for global organisations. The time has now come to look within and create the new, emerging, technologically-advanced India.

The use of new technology can make our industry more efficient. It can make our engineering colleges better producers of the human resource that is so critical for our continued long-term success. It can also enable our rural population to get out of the development trap that they find themselves in, and open up a huge new set of consumers. The time has come for a Discovery of India.

Continue reading