Bus. Std: A Tale of Three Platforms

My column in today’s Business Standard (ICE World) on the need to construct the next generation of platforms for the telephone network, the PC and the world wide web:

The three technology platforms that form the foundation of our digital life today are the telephone network, personal computer and the world wide web. While the legacy of the telephone goes back many decades, the PC and the web are recent creations. They have served us well today, over 500 million computers are in use across the world, billions of documents on every conceivable topic across the world are no more than a few clicks away and a global telecom network connects people, computers and information.

Yet these platforms are now beginning to show their age. The wire line telephone network which has carried voice so well gets stretched to its limits when it comes to data, the computers cost makes it unaffordable for much of the developing markets and the web has overloaded us with information, even as the time we have in our lives has remained constant.

The time has come to rethink and construct the next generation of platforms in each of the three areas communications, computing and information access. We need to consider the technological developments that are taking place, aggregate them and build platforms which will bring technology to the next billion users across much of the developing world.

Imagine a world where bandwidth for voice and data is not constrained and we are enveloped by a ubiquitous communications network. Imagine a world where computing is available for all at prices everyone can afford. Imagine a world where just the right information is delivered to us in real time. This is a world that is now at hand. The elements to construct this future are visible if only we are willing to see them. As we in India think about constructing a digital technology infrastructure, it is this tomorrow that we need to envision, and not one built and encumbered by the legacy of yesterday.

The communications platform needs to be built on IP (internet protocol) and be always on. Voice needs to become an application on IP networks. Wireless and broadband technologies need to be made available for homes, businesses and rural areas at affordable prices. Just as the Indian government is constructing a network of expressways, we need to enable the construction and deployment of high-speed IP-based networks across the country. Existing artificial telecom restraints and restrictions need to be done away with. For this, service providers need to be given the freedom to carry any traffic voice, data, video on their pipes. A reliable, world-class access infrastructure is the prerequisite for the new, shining India.

The computing platform needs to focus on affordability so that a connected computer is accessible to every family in urban and rural India, and every employee in corporate India. The requirement is access devices which are as easy to use and affordable as phones and have the functionality, versatility and footprint of computers. Think of these as PC terminals, designed for a networked world. The architecture of todays computer was created in the late 1970s and 1980s when networks were few and far between and, therefore, both storage and processing had to be done locally within the device. As we get high-speed networks, the access device can be simplified, and storage and processing can move back to central servers across a network. This re-architecting along with the use of open-source software can help cut the total cost of ownership of computers by 70-90 per cent.

The information platform needs to become real time, event driven and multimedia-oriented. The first web made publishing possible by the few, for many. The next web will enable mass publishing and narrowcast audiences many writing for the few. Information will not just be accessed through the browser or searched but will be delivered via RSS (Rich Site Summary; an XML-based syndication format) to news readers. Think of this as the publish-subscribe web. It bridges the gap between information producers and consumers by establishing an information stream between publishers and subscribers, ensuring real time delivery of news, information and events. The other shift is towards multimedia information, as the tools to create and distribute digital content proliferate in the form of devices like camera phones.

India has an opportunity once again to do things right. What is needed is a generation of entrepreneurs to think beyond the curve and outside the box to create technology platforms and solutions for tomorrows world. As Alan Kay said, The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Ideal Social Networking Site

Christopher makes his wish: “My ideal service would have the the multiple professional affiliation features of LinkedIn, but also allow me to show non-professional affilations. It would allow me to form intentional communities like Tribes.Net, but would also let me do a Wiki in addition to a message board. It would have meeting/party invite services like eVite, and blogging features like LiveJournal. It would have an endorsement system like LinkedIn integrated not only with professional endorsements, but personal endorsements as well, and you could even endorse intentional communities. It would let me better map and control my network, giving different friends different privileges. It would handle the release of my personal information like Ryse, but less clunky.”

Online News in 2003-4

Mark Glaser (OJR) looks back and forward:

2003 offered up much more than just an unhealthy fascination with blogs. We also obsessed over the proliferation of people with camera phones breaking spot news stories; the rise of Google and Google News; the soap opera at (AOL) Time Warner; the continued inroads of paid content; RSS feeds; massive online coverage of the war in Iraq; viruses, worms and spam overwhelming newsrooms; the struggle for independent news in Zimbabwe, China, Iran and Iraq; and political rhetoric and election coverage.

[In 2004], I’d say we will see an acceleration of many of these trends as online publications start to gain more solid financial footing. The watchwords for the industry are “cautious optimism.”

With the U.S. presidential election front and center for so much of 2004, and the Olympics, expect the three-ring circus that is online media to get more raucous and rowdy — but perhaps it will mature as well.

Among some of the things to expect in 2004:
– A continued explosion in blogging
– Net influences politics
– Participatory journalism
– Real Simple Syndication feeds
– Better content — at a price

Thin Clients for Security

News.com recently had a commentary by Philip Brittan of Droplets, who argues for server-centric computing:

Some experts say the roots of our current security plague lie in the fact that are we living in a Microsoft monoculture. Yet there is a more fundamental problem: There is simply too much to attack.

The desktop computing model is just asking for infection, and trying to inoculate each PC with patches is like trying to cure a flu outbreak by offering individual doses of medicine after it’s too late.

Servers, on the other hand, operate in highly managed environments and are much easier to protect than desktop PCs. If a server is infected, it can simply be taken offline, blocking a virus’s ability to replicate without affecting the operation of the enterprise.

All this points to a need to reverse the conditions that have turned desktop PCs into veritable breeding grounds for computer viruses and worms. The nutrients are program code on the client machines. All applications should be executed on secure servers and merely have their user interfaces displayed on the desktops. That would leave nothing for viruses to attack on the desktop, which makes them less destructive to users and far less able to propagate.

Mozilla as Platform

Linux News writes:

With user clients like e-mailers, HTML composers, calenders, debuggers, chat applications and address books, Mozilla must be far more than just a Web browser. And it is. The Mozilla Browser is built on top of the Mozilla Platform.

The Mozilla Platform itself is a set of programmable objects and XML processors bound together into a single program. Applications that exploit this platform consist of images, XML and text files that are interpreted at runtime when the platform starts.

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TECH TALK: 2003-04: The World in 2004

Besides the ongoing trends that we have discussed, there are a few additional themes which will be seen in 2004:

Smart Mobs: Two of the worlds largest democracies go to the polls in 2004, and in both elections, technology is likely to play an important role. In the US, Howard Dean has already shown how the Internet can be used to garner political and financial support from the grassroots. In India, the media is coming of age in reporting news and events. The rapid cellphone boom is also likely to impact how electioneering is done. This is part of a trend that Howard Rheingold has termed as smart mobs think of them as individuals empowered with technology can start harnessing the power of the collective.

Tech IPOs: After a hiatus of three years, the technology companies are getting ready to hit the market. Salesforce has just filed its prospectus, while Google is presumed to be getting ready to do so soon. Three years of a holding pattern among entrepreneurs and venture capitalists after the boom and boost of the dotcom era is now giving way to optimism that tech is ready to take-off again on the markets. The IPOs will be followed by predatory activity as the companies flush with cash seek to consolidate, and that will once again fuel investment in start-ups. Hopefully, the lessons of the past will not be forgotten.

SME Solutions: As most of the worlds larger companies have invested in technology over the past decade, the small- and medium-sized enterprises have lagged behind. For one, they found the solutions quite expensive. For another, they are less easier to reach and in a world where the big companies had been liberal with their IT spend, the smaller brethren were all but ignored. In addition, enterprises are realising that their real-time information systems are only as good as the weakest link in the chain. So, now, the race is on to target SMEs with affordable technology solutions. From Microsoft to SAP to IBM, the focus is now on making SMEs intelligent, real-time and event-driven.

Visualisation Software: Even as the information we need to process has multiplied manifold in the past few years, the screen real estate, our attention span and our faculties have not changed significantly. 2004 will see an increasing focus on software which can help us envision and interact better with information. The start of the year sees Grokker, a solution from Groxis, becoming available to provide better insights into the search results from Google. Expect more such innovations as companies seek to add an additional dimension to the data that we see and process.

Two other related technology areas which will continue to garner attention are biotechnology and nanotechnology. 2004 will see a closer integration between those with mainstream information technology. The sciences of life and the small will merge with that of bits and bytes to create even greater insights and innovations. If there is one defining trend for tomorrows innovations, it is that one needs to look at the whitespaces and intersections between technologies. Digitisation is breaking down barriers between industries, competition and countries. The world of Networks is at hand.

Tomorrow: India in 2004

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