AOL’s USD 299 PC Deal

WSJ writes about AOL’s offer to provide a PC and printer for USD 299 to those who commit to its USD 23.90 service for a year. Comments John Robb: “It really does look like AOL is trying to change the model of the PC industry into something that looks closer to a combination of the game and telephone/cable businesses. Basically, give away at cost a loaded PC/printer configured to work optimally with AOL. Charge a monthly fee for services that include connectivity, communication tools, and content. Make it easier for customers to take advantage of existing premium features and content through preinstalled tool configuration. Create new upsale opportunities by extending itself into what is normally done in the PC world: anti-virus software services, firewall software services, PC repair services, and peripheral/software sales (that are optimized to work with the AOL PC).”

Am wondering what variation of the service can work in India. I think one has to look at PCs for sub-Rs 7K (USD 150), which means they need to be thin clients, which means they will need broadband connectivity (at least 256 Kbps).

RSS:2003::HTML:1994

Scott Rosenberg echoes what I feel about the potential of RSS.

The simple combination of blogs and RSS presages a whole new model for personal publishing and communication online that’s already taking shape.

The beauty of RSS is that it lets you build an ad hoc network of experts and friends whose postings you want to tune in to. Then you don’t have to think about it again. Along with blogs, RSS fulfills the Internet visionaries’ prediction that we’d all find a set of “human filters” to help us navigate the new information seas.

As the lines between “publisher” and “subscriber,” “producer” and “audience” get increasingly blurred and decreasingly useful, RSS will be at the center of the action — helping deliver on the Internet’s promise of personal publishing for all.

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Indian Railways

Trains are one of my delights, especially in India. I don’t get to make too many journeys nowadays, though. I was still especially interested to read this report in the Economist. The article looks at how the Indian Railways, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in April, needs to be reformed.

Because of its history, its scale and its usefulness to so many political interests, Indian Railways presents a special challenge to reformers. The roots of that challenge lie in an addiction to vote-catching subsidies, a fear of the power of organised labour, a deep suspicion of privatisation, and a reluctance to lose the power to dispense political patronage.

Much of the disagreement is between economists looking at the railways as a business, and dedicated civil servants looking at what they still see as a public utility and social service. As one senior railway official, who believes he works for a healthy, growing railway, puts it, if you moved to a business model, Indian Railways would collapse. As with so much of the Indian public sector, re-invention will be late in arriving.

One of the good things that has happened is the online booking of tickets set up by a subsidiary, IRCTC. That offshoot has become the largest e-business in India.

Business Software in the Future

CNET Asia writes about Gartner’s remarks on how web services will disrupt the IT workforce in the coming years:

Between now and 2008, software code will become more modular and reusable and allow businesses to react to change faster.

According to Ian Bertram, vice president with analyst firm Gartner Asia Pacific, the tight integration of IT to business processes within a Web services framework will become the norm for most companies.

“Software code will be generated for a Web services environment. I can get a new service, and suck that code into my environment, rather than re-coding or paying for a coder,” he said.

Given the changes, today’s software houses had better look into providing software as a service to stay competitive, said Bertram. By 2006, Gartner sees that over 80 percent of business application products sold worldwide will be service-oriented.

And to make things more dire for developers, by 2008, powerful data-modeling and code-creation tools, supervised by small, one- to three-person teams of business analysts, will generate three-quarters of business software. Large programming teams working to months-long schedules will fade away.

Coders today should not be too worried about their jobs in the short term, but as changes take hold, “pieces of their job will go away,” said Bertram. Taking on board business skills will be essential for IT workers who want to stay relevant, he said.

Internet in Rural India

As part of an article on extending the Internet via the road, The Economist writes on an innovative idea to take the Internet to the masses in India:

At The Future in Review, a wide-ranging technology conference held in San Diego earlier this year, Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think-tank, outlined a cunning scheme to provide e-mail access in rural India using buses. Each bus would be equipped with an e-mail server and a high-power Wi-Fi base-station, with a range of a mile or so. This communicates with nearby computers in homes, schools, offices or post offices, delivering and collecting e-mail wirelessly as the bus drives past, so that there are a handful of deliveries and collections each day. The buses connect to the internet when they reach the depot at the end of the line. Given the reach of the bus network, it is estimated that this approach could provide national e-mail coverage for a paltry $15m. E-mail by buswhy not?

From what I can understand, this is a project which began as part of Media Lab Asia, and is called DakNet. Here is more from an article recently in the Financial Express:

According to First Mile Solutions founder Amir Alexander Hasson, who helped initiate the two DakNet Wi-Fi pilot projects in Tikawali, a village near Faridabad, Haryana, and Dodabalapur district in Karnataka, We are using IEEE 802.11b equipment at 2.4 GHz. We dont use base stations, but rather our custom DakNet Mobile Access Point (MAP) that is mounted on and powered by a vehicle.

Giving the project details, Mr Hasson said, Essentially, a van roam roams around the Dodabalapur district in Karnataka, stopping at different villages long enough for the local computer to connect to it wirelessly and transfer the data stored in it. From the van to the central database is also a Wi-Fi hop, thus resulting in a wireless end-to-end transfer of information – which is what Wi-Fi is all about. The project involves creating an online database of land records.

Essentially, the DakNet-enabled vehicle drives past a kiosk where it picks up and drops off land record queries and responses. Each day, this is synchronised with a central database. Data is transported through the access point, which automatically and wirelessly collects and delivers data from each kiosk on the network. The transfer of data can take place up to a radius of 1.25 km around the kiosk.

Open-Source Desktop Software

Jim Gettys has a nice overview of all the components and how they inter-relate. Here is the section on thin clients:

The X Window System, arguably, invented thin client computing. In their heyday, there were a significant number of hardware companies offering what were called “X Terminals” (e.g. NCD). Most/all of these are defunct, as they became less economic than commodity PC hardware, but the concept still has serious validity to reduce system management costs. Some thin client hardware for sale today can be used with X and X based applications as well, particularly since they make machines interchangable, have lower CPU and memory requirements, and can easily eliminate the disk and fans of conventional desktop machines at a somewhat lower price point. The combination can result in a much lower TCO, particularly using Linux, since Microsoft’s pricing of its software licenses actively discriminates against this computing model.

Also note the availability of RDP clients for open source systems as mentioned above, which allow Windows applications to display on X desktops via Windows Terminal Server.

LTSP – Linux Terminal Server Project

The Linux Terminal Server Project is building “thin client” versions of Linux. Most applications are run remotely on servers (via X’s network transparency), but there are also provisions for locally run clients. This provides much better manageability of desktops and is very cost effective in many environments, making machines truly interchangable and obviating the need for “sneaker-net” system management. One view is that this is a reinvention of X terminals, but as there is provision for local clients it goes beyond that, and can take advantage of commodity PC hardware, thin client hardware, and old systems you thought were just junk. The K12LTSP makes a version specifically targeted toward use in schools.

LTSP is in widespread use, has been through four major releases, and has an active developer and user community, and supports multiple Linux distributions.

Athena Computing Environment

A similar style of not-quite-so thin computing is typified by the Athena computing environment at MIT (where both the X Window System and Kerberos have their roots). In this model, machines are also interchangable, but rely on distributed file systems and good authentication to keep any permanent data off the local machine. Local disks are used as caches for files and for swap, but never for long term data storage. As an integrated whole, this is not seen much outside of MIT, though X11 and Kerberos are reasonably widespread. As a interesting historical note, Athena’s “Zephyr” system was arguably the first instant message system.

Java

Java is available from Sun for Linux, and there are several static Java compilers (e.g. GCJ, part of the GCC compiler suite and Jikes from IBM), and may be preinstalled. The Blackdown project provides community source distributions of Sun’s Java for additional platforms that Sun may not. Java release 1.4.2 introduces Swing support based on GTK2 look and feel, which aids in the natural integration of GUI applications built with Java on the open source desktop. As this deploys widely over 2004, Java applications using Sun’s VM will share the look and feel of Gnome desktops.

VNC

VNC stands for Virtual Network Computing. It is remote control software which allows you to view and interact with one computer (the “server”) using a simple program (the “viewer”) on another computer anywhere on the Internet. The two computers don’t even have to be the same type, so for example you can use VNC to view an office Linux machine on your Windows PC at home. VNC is freely and publicly available and is in widespread active use by millions throughout industry, academia and privately.

Note that VNC can be trivially replaced with a simple X application along with “ssh -X -C” in concert with the Damage extension.

Adds HP’s Martin Fink in a News.com interview: “Linux on the desktop is definitely an area where hype is ahead of reality by orders of magnitude. There’s a sexiness around the idea of taking on Microsoft. The reality is that (desktop Linux) is still less than 2 percent of the market, but at the same time, we certify and sell a number of Linux desktop solutions. There are two areas of interest: the engineering desktop with folks like DreamWorks and Disney, and the application developer. We are certifying our notebooks with Linux, and the target there is big-time application developers. In the developing countries that don’t have the Windows legacy–like India, China, Asia Pacific and the Eastern bloc–we see some pretty significant volume there.”

Idea Markets

HBS Working Knowledge (Anil Kambil) writes that by gathering collective wisdom, idea markets can improve your forecasting, knowledge management, and decision making. The three steps that managers need to take to put an idea market into organizational practice are:

Step 1: Tap into strategically important but difficult-to-measure customer behaviors – Take new product development, a process usually fraught with uncertainty. Will customers like the new idea? Will it be better than a competitor’s new product? Now, imagine that a firm could solve these problems using markets, which may be twice as effective at predicting customer preferences as traditional tools like the focus groups, surveys, and conjoint analysis.

Step 2: Unlock knowledge to tackle organization-wide challenges – As a real-time and dynamic polling system, idea markets can play a useful role in eliciting and aggregating the beliefs of individuals within an organization or a broader network. But these markets can also generate valuable signals to decision makers. When idea market prices move dramatically, decision makers should ask, Why is the price moving? What is changing in the beliefs of participants? Market makers can build message and discussion boards into systems to reveal trader beliefs and other key pieces of information.

Step 3: Exploit markets to gain buy-in from customers and managers – Survey methods often require hundreds of participants, but idea markets can work with as few as twenty to thirty participants. Managers who want to implement idea markets can therefore sell them as a cheaper and more nimble way to gauge customer preferences and employee insights than traditional approaches. Finally, markets are dynamic and allow participants to adjust their beliefs based on price and the trading actions of one another revealed in the markets.

TECH TALK: My Mental Model: The Outline

As we think about possible solutions, it helps to have some simple models in which one can fit things in. As Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathway said (Outstanding Investor Digest, December 29, 1997 my thanks to Chetan Parikh for pointing this out):

I’ve long believed that a certain system which almost any person can learn works way better than the systems that most people use. What you need is a latticework of mental models in your head. And you hang your actual experience and your vicarious experience (that you get from reading and so forth) on this latticework of powerful models. And with that system, things gradually get to fit together in a way that enhances cognition.

And you need the models not just from one or two disciplines, but from all the important disciplines. You need the best 100 or so models from microeconomics, physiology, psychology particularly, elementary mathematics, hard science and engineering [and so on].

You don’t have to be a huge expert in any of those worlds. All you’ve got to do is to take the really big ideas and learn them early and well.

It is very hard to do what Charlie Munger says. That is why there is only one Berkshire Hathway, only one Warren Buffet, and only one Charlie Munger.

What I’ve tried to do is to evolve a few basic principles for my work life (of which this writing is a key part of). These have evolved slowly over the past couple of years, and are probably evident in much of the Tech Talk writings. What I want to do in this series is to distill out the key elements of my thinking so that the context of what I write here and on my weblog becomes clearer. This also gives a framework on how to think about possible solutions on the two sets of problems of SME growth and rural transformation.

So, here is my thinking in one sentence: Creating disruptive innovations for the bottom of the pyramid requires ecosystems of integrated solutions with local distribution to bridge divides.

The words are not as complicated as they seem! Over the coming columns, I will explain each of the phrases I have used here in detail. Individually, they may mean a little. Taken together, they present I think a rich array of opportunities for envisioning and creating the future. They offer a platform for not incremental change, but a 10X revolution, which is what we need to make up for the lost time. Like the brave little hobbit, Frodo, in The Lord of the Rings, it is possible for a few to change the course of history. What is needed is a mix of vision and passion as we move into unchartered territory, equipped not with maps, but with a compass.

Next Week: My Mental Model (continued)

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