RISC to transform Rural India

Atanu Dey has a detailed note on RISC (Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons). Atanu will be returning to India soon, and we will be working together to build on the model, and create a few prototype centres in the coming year. This is a great opportunity to do good and do well.

Without rural economic development, India has little chance of achieving growth rates required to become a developed nation. Furthermore, economic development is both a cause and a consequence of urbanization. Clearly, in the Indian context, urbanization through further rural to urban migration is both unsustainable and socially disruptive. Therefore urbanization of the rural population will have to be achieved in the rural areas.

Rural India is caught in what is called a development trap. Because of lack of economic opportunities, incomes are low. Therefore they are unable to pay for goods and services that would enable them to increase their incomes. This leads to low demand for goods and services. Consequently, firms don’t find it profitable to do business in rural India. This leads to the inadequate provision of infrastructure, which in turn leads to lack of economic opportunities, and so on.

The model called Rural Infrastructure & Services Commons (RISC) has the potential for achieving the multi-faceted goals of sustainable development. It uses limited resources efficiently by focusing them in specific locations that are accessible to a sufficiently large rural population, such as that of 100 villages.

RISC provides the benefits of urbanization by making available to rural populations the full set of services and amenities that are normally available in urban areas. It brings the benefits of ICT and the increased access to global markets that globalization promises. The model recognizes that rural populations face a number of inter-related gaps, not just the celebrated digital divide. Bridging them simultaneously with a holistic solution is more likely to succeed than any partial intervention can.

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Interview in Express Computer

An Express Computer special issue on Linux has an interview with me, done by Venkatesh Hariharan (Venky). An extract from what I have said:

Our belief is that if you can make things available at an affordable price, there will be a dramatic growth in the usage of computing. It will create a domestic market which we sorely lack. While we have a successful exports business in software, we definitely need to have a domestic market. If Indian industry is to be competitive, we need to be big users of technology. We need to make complete solutions available at an affordable price and with no compromise on the applications front.

Just because we cannot afford things, we dont want to tell people to compromise on applications and performance. This is where Linux provides a very strong platformespecially Linux which is running on the server so that your desktops can be of much lower cost. Instead of three new desktops, you can now give computers to 10 more people in your company for the same investment.

The penetration of technology in Indian companies is so low5-10 percent is what we are at. The installed base is just seven to eight million. Basic applications like messaging, etc, will not be effective if only a small number of people use it.

The idea iswhat does it take to get a computer on every desktop and accessible to every family in the country? This is where a combination of three things is key. This is what I call the 5K PC ecosystem. This consists of the thin-client, server-centric computing and open source software.

What this does is bring down the input costs for computing. You cant sell at a low cost if input costs are high. At the same time, we do not want a nation of pirates. People can pirate a few applications but most applications they cannot pirate. Therefore they cannot use them and are doing things inefficiently. So they are caught in a technology trap.

Our competition is not proprietary software, it is non-consumption. We need to take what Bill Gates said in the American contextA computer on every desk and in every pocketand translate that into an Indian contextA computer on every desk and accessible to every Indian family. We cannot afford dollar-denominated technology, so we should leverage Moores law on the server and leverage our strengths in the software industry through open source.

The issue also has an article by Prakash Advani on comparison of the total cost of ownership between Linux and Windows.

Future of Software

Always On has a three-part interview with Sun’s Jonathan Schwartz (Parts 2 3). I like his interview because he elucidates his points very well. Some of his comments on the future of software:

I think [the software industry of the future] will look more like Hollywood than like Microsoft. Because the single biggest content driver is games. Across the planet, Java-enabled data services are, for consumers, primarily an entertainment outlet. So you should expect Electronic Arts and Lucas Films and Disney to be major players in the consumer network outlets. Sony as well.

[A mining company] CEO figured he could have his seepage application, which is a very simple forms-based application, show up on a mobile device. He could use Nextel’s network or Verizon’s network and reduce the number of devices his people carry down to one. That was an opportunity for him to gain efficiency. He was using Linux on his handset to do it, and he was running Java and our infrastructure on the back end to manage the analytical capability. That to me is representative of the enterprise side of this, which is improving the business infrastructure within the next two to three years.

TECH TALK: The Death and Rebirth of Email: Small World

The past week, as various variations of viruses and worms made their way across computers on the Internet, there has been a resounding cry among many whose Inboxes have been flooded: email is dead, email publishing is dead. Well, as it turns out, we Indians believe in reincarnation, so this column is about what can be done about email in its next life.

Our digital life built around the Internet has been coming under threat from various quarters of late. Most users were already reeling from a huge increase in spam in the past year. And just last week, we had the MSBlast work making its way through unpatched Windows 2000 and XP computers on the Internet. If all this wasnt enough, we had 50 million people without electricity and their connected lives in parts of the US and Canada. Just a couple days ago, eBay the worlds largest auctions site and the focus of recent stories in Fortune and Business Week had a power-related outage which forced it to be unavailable for three hours.

All these problems apart, what pushed many over the tipping point in recent days has been the rapid spread of the Sobig virus. It has been called the fastest spreading virus ever. It exploits vulnerabilities in Microsofts Outlook and Outlook Express to send itself to many more from an infected computer. Many people found themselves receiving hundreds of mails which their mail servers and clients found it difficult to cope with. A few ISPs even shut down their mail servers in order to limit the spread. In effect, email, the lifeline for many on the Internet, was cut.

As we seek to understand the chaos that our digital lives are going through, it is important to understand that we lived in a small, connected world. Networks are ubiquitous around us. Whether we refer to the global village, our friend circle, the Internet, the highways, the electrical grid or even trade, connectedness is pervasive. Wrote Seth Schiesel in The New York Times (August 21):

Taken together, the blackout and the worm underscore a far-reaching challenge in managing modern technological societies: the difficulty of reaping the benefits of networks – railroad networks, airline networks, telephone networks, power networks and computer networks, among others – while minimizing their vulnerabilities.

As Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute, a unit of George Washington University, puts it: “The plus of a network is that everything is connected. The minus of a network is that everything is connected.”

So, whether we like it or not, isolation is out, and integration is in. This is what the Sobig virus exploited on its deadly march across the Internet. It picked up email addresses from locally cached web pages and address books on the infected computers and sent emails with attachments to spread itself. As it turns out, there are still millions among us who have not learnt to ignore attachments unless absolutely certain. All it takes in a connected world is the actions of a few to impact many. This is how the discussion on the death of email has begun.

Tomorrow: Email Tales