4 Years Since the Deal

Today is 4 years since I sold IndiaWorld [1 2] to Sify. I don’t contemplate much about it, because I’d rather look ahead. But anniversaries are such things – they do make one think a little.

So, how have been the past 4 years? They can be divided into 3 phases: the first 18 months or so which I spent with Sify, the next year was spent thinking on what to do even as I managed Netcore, and the past 18 months or so have been spent trying to work towards realising the vision of making affordable computing solutions for the next billion users (with a specific focus on SMEs in emerging markets). To this, there is a second goal which I have added: how can we transform rural India.

It has been a struggle for the past year or so, as I have realised (slowly) that the transformations that we bring will need a much greater effort. For example, with SMEs, it is not good enough to just create low-cost software based on Linux. One has to think in terms of an affordable computing ecosystem, and co-ordinate the efforts of many to bring about the change. Rural India too is very similar. So, the paths that I have embarked upon are going to be long and challenging – with “mountains beyond mountains” (as Tracy Kidder puts in, in his book of the same name).

When I meet people, they still remember the deal and how it changed mindsets towards entrepreneurship in India. For me, it was perhaps the hardest decision of my life – to sell the company I had created. Sometimes, I imagine how life would have been had I decided not to sell. The Internet revolution in India has been slow and incremental, which has been disappointing. Hopefully, the computing revolution that I want to bring about can be faster.

I like to work on one or two things at a time – which are large and complex enough so that they occupy all my time. Entrepreneurship (as I have often written about in these columns) calls for total involvement. There are things I could have done a lot better in the past 18 months, but one learns. That is perhaps the best part of life – being able to reflect on one’s actions and course-correct. I am working with a compass, not a map.

If there is one change that has happened in the past four years, it is that I have learnt to accept success and failures as two sides of the same coin. So, both don’t sway me dramatically either way. I accept uncertainty as part of a day’s work, rather than becoming rattled. I have realised that to bring about change (the two problems I want to solve) will require long-term multi-year efforts. It will mean doing things I have never done before – building a bigger team, for example (IndiaWorld had all of 20 people, we are already double that size now).

The blog has perhaps been the best thing for me personally in the past four years – it has given me an outlet for my thoughts, and introduced me to some wonderful people. As I look ahead, I will continue to document my experiences in these columns. The journey has just begun.

Social Networking Impact

NYTimes writes about how social networking sites are portending a change in how relationships form:

Danah Boyd, a sociologist, says that the real world has a set of properties, which she calls architectures. With its deceptively simple set of features, her thinking goes, Friendster bends or replaces all of the real-world architectures.

For instance, when two people speak to each other, they assume their conversation is fleeting, but e-mail and instant messaging, by making that conversation persistent, offer a new architecture. When two people greet each other on the street, neither can see (nor hope to grasp) the range of the other’s social network. For that matter, no individual can see information about his or her own social network: who knows whom, and how.

Friendster offers a mix of architecture-changing tools and technologies: e-mail, a profile (which offers a persistent presentation of self) and a coarse representation of a social network. “Friendster is an architectural change,” Ms. Boyd said. “It’s not a mimicry of a change; it’s a total change.” Once the early users of Friendster discovered these new architectures, they began to play with them. That’s how Friendster evolved from a dating site into something else.

[P]eople’s social curiosity turned [Friendster] into a place where everyone becomes the center of an unfolding drama (or comedy) of connections.

This is [a] mistake that Friendster and other sites make, Ms. Boyd contends. The site is built on the premise that friendship is transitive; that is, that if A is a friend of B, and B a friend of C, then A can be a friend of C, too.

But friendship develops in social contexts, Ms. Boyd says; it doesn’t just flow through the pipes of a network. “Just because you’re friends with somebody doesn’t mean their friends are similar in the type of context you are with your friends,” she said. Unless the social networking sites adapt to how people need to use them, she said, the sites will not succeed.

Tech Innovation in Europe

WSJ has a report on innovative European companies:

Abmi is building a gadget to provide real-time monitoring of the tiny particles that clog brain arteries and trigger strokes. The Swiss company hopes ultimately to make a user-friendly device that might be easily carried in a pocket.

Raphael Bachmann was stunned by the limitations of an early handwriting-recognition device, so he decided to come up with his own software. Enter SpeedScript, a postage stamp-size product that aims to be a simple and fast way of writing on touchscreens.

Siemens seeks to make phones, computers and PDAs act as if they’re all parts of a common system. Business and private users eventually would be able to use these tools across private business networks and via the public phone networks.

A University of Fribourg team has developed a laser device that could lead to a radical change in heart diagnosis. The device, used to measure the heart’s magnetic field, is likely to be considerably cheaper than existing technology.

Prous Science’s voice-recognition system can distinguish between inflections and accents without training — a Holy Grail for the business. The technology eventually could allow for audio-visual searches of the Internet.

Most people know LEDs as indicator lights in mobile phones and digital video recorders rather than for their ability to light up a room. Lumileds is trying to change this notion.

PocketThis offers a way to let you store information from the Web on your mobile phone. This enables users to make information found on the Internet or stored on a PC portable.

Acaris thinks it has come up with a solution for asthma sufferers battling house dust mites. It’s a handheld device that measures levels of HDMs. After identifying “hot spots” of concentrated HDMs, Acaris then advises on how to rid the house of them.

Drugs are usually tested on animals first, before three phases of clinical trials in people. Xceleron cuts out the animal stage, instead putting a microscopic dose straight into people.

Cambridge InnoVision’s software turns photos generated by a digital camera into a detailed 3-D image. The technology has attracted interest from museums, which could use the camera to document and display artifacts.

The award winners:

Gold Winner: Abmi SA, Switzerland
Silver Winner: SpeedScript Ltd., Switzerland
Bronze Winner: Siemens IC Networks, Germany
Honorable Mention: University of Fribourg, Switzerland

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