Tim Bray’s Basic Resource Finder

Tim Bray (who is looking for something new to do) has a wishlist for what the next-generation search software should be as part of his Search Series. He calls it BRF and elaborates:
– is Open-Source
– is Web-Centric
– Interfaces to Everything
– is Part of Apache
– is Internationalized
– Comes with a Bunch of Document Readers
– Comes with a Robot
– Comes with a Filesystem Walker
– is Self-Managing
– Keeps Running
– is XML-Capable
– is Fast
– is Ready for PHP, JSP, and Friends
– Has Programmmable Ranking
– Does Booleans, Phrases, And So On

Tim would like to spend the next year building the BRF out…sounds like something good to be a part of. His ideas could be combined with Steve Gillmor’s Information Router built around RSS, and we could have the base for a new Information Platform.

What to Expect in 2004

Jeremy Wagstaff (WSJ) looks ahead to a year of Bluetooth (maybe), RSS, spam, viruses and smartphones:

I think Bluetooth will either thrive or die this year, as users punish manufacturers for not displaying sufficient commitment to getting something with a Bluetooth logo on it to talk to another Bluetooth gadget from a different manufacturer. If these standards don’t work they will die off.

Elsewhere, something called RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is going to take off in a big way…So how about if they just click on a little orange button on your Web site and then, hey presto, a program called a newsreader in their computer (which they’ve already downloaded, being hip to the whole thing) loads up recent updates to your journal and occasionally checks for more. You don’t have to do anything more, and neither does the subscriber.

That’s RSS — and it’s already becoming the way a lot of folk get their news, personal and professional information. Expect to see more corporates get aboard this year, and, inevitably, folk trying to make money out of it, either by trying to bend the standard to their own interests by “developing” it, or more reasonably by including advertising. Media organizations that don’t embrace this technology will regret it.

[RSS] doesn’t mean, sadly, that spam is going to go away. In fact, in 2004, it will get worse, as laws in Europe and the U.S. push spamming operations offshore. Spammers will rely on computers in the unregulated world to send out their junk. This will strengthen the ability of international ne’er-do-wells to harness technology and the Internet to make money, via fraud, blackmail and hacking. So expect more and more sophisticated, viruses, Trojans and worms.

On a happier note, expect to see camera phones and smart phones get better, easier to use, and for operators to improve services and offer more for less. Competition will partly do this, but also users will, through their own ingenuity and refusal to be hoodwinked, prod operators to keep bills low and interoperability high (i.e., sending a picture from one cellphone carrier to another, or from one make of cellphone to another). Users will come up with interesting ways to use this new technology, which will have very little to do with what the carriers or manufacturers envisaged. This will open up whole new ways for people to interact and share information. Which, in the end, is what having standards is all about.

More Lists on 2003-04:

Steve Gliimor on the Best and Worst of Messaging and Collaboration in 2003: “RSS has a chance to remake the desktop as its collaboration and messaging center. It’s the first killer app of the XML revolution, the DVR of the Web.”

Always On’s top 10 trends of 2003 has India at No. 3

Wi-Fi Networking News looks back at 2003: “What will 2004 bring? More security, higher cell data rates, and the final blossoming of hotspots in public spaces.”

Dan Gillmor looks ahead to 2004 in the form of a quiz. “The surprise consumer-technology hit of 2004 will be mobile phones that make Internet calls via WiFi hot spots, bypassing the carriers.”

San Jose Mercury News compiles its predictions for 2004. “The defining tech trend of 2004 probably will be related to the defining trend of 2003 — the laptop’s steady march to overtake the desktop as the face of the PC.”

India as Stuff Superpower

Atanu Dey clears some misconceptions on India as the IT Superpower:

You have to have production before you can use technology to increase the efficiency of production. IT is an efficiency enhancing technology. You have to have something going there before you can obtain gains from IT use.

All this talk of India becoming an IT Superpower is a lot of nonsense because India cannot become an IT superpower without it first becoming a Stuff Superpower. India has to produce stuff that you can lay your hands on — does not matter what it is. It could be food, or it could be manufactured stuff or whatever. But it has to be stuff. The reason is that we exist on stuff — we eat stuff, we wear stuff, we get transported on stuff. We are made of stuff. We cannot exist on ‘knowledge’. We are not dream stuff even though dreams are made on us.

We are poor not because of lack of knowledge — there is tons of it in every conceivable place in the world. You can get all the knowledge of the world in a neat little package in a tiny 100 GB harddrive. It would do little to alter the fact that most of us don’t have enough to eat.

Let’s get back to basics. What is poverty? Poverty is lack of income. What is income? Income is that share of stuff produced that you get to take home for yourself. Let’s not confuse money with income. Income is often denominated in monetary units but in real terms, income is what you get to keep from what is produced overall. Per capita income is therefore a ratio: a ratio of what is produced (the numerator) to the total number of people (the denominator). You can increase income by either producing more or by reducing the number of people. If the rate of growth of production is lower than the rate of growth of the population, you will have a falling per capita income. In time, you would have deepening of poverty.

To repeat that point: we are poor because the amount of stuff we produce is low relative to the number of people we have to distribute the stuff to. IT can help increase the amount of stuff produced but IT can never be a substitute for stuff.

ITC’s eChoupals

NYTimes writes about ITC’s eChoupal project and how it is helping Indian farmers link globally:

E-choupal allows the farmers to check both futures prices across the globe and local prices before going to market. It gives them access to local weather conditions, soil-testing techniques and other expert knowledge that will increase their productivity.

Nonprofit organizations have tried similar initiatives but none have achieved anywhere near the scale that e-choupals have. There are now 1,700 in this state, Madhya Pradesh, and 3,000 total in India. They are serving 18,000 villages, reaching up to 1.8 million farmers.

As a result, say those who have studied the concept, the company behind e-choupals, ITC Ltd., has done as much as anyone to bridge India’s vast digital divide: most of its one billion people have no access to the technology developed by some of their fellow Indians, whether in Bangalore or Silicon Valley.

E-choupals may offer a model for all developing countries.

“It is a new form of liberation,” C. K. Prahalad, who led a case study on e-choupals for the University of Michigan Business School, said of the transparency and access to information they give farmers.

More than two-thirds of India’s people still depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. With little chance of the huge manufacturing boom that has employed many rural poor in China, the challenge is to increase farmers’ productivity.

Even more tantalizing, ITC now has the means to reach into some of India’s 600,000 villages, where 72 percent of the people live and where the greatest potential markets lie. Most businesses never venture to an area with fewer than 5,000 people, said ITC’s chairman, Y. C. Deveshwar.

Eventually the company expects to sell everything from microcredit to tractors via e-choupals and hopes to use them to become the Wal-Mart of India, Mr. Deveshwar told shareholders this year.

“We are laying infrastructure in a sense,” Mr. Deveshwar said. Sixty companies have already taken part in a pilot project to sell services and goods, from insurance to seeds to motorbikes to biscuits, through ITC.

E-choupals also provide information that will increase farmers’ productivity and income. An Indian soybean farmer is one-third as productive as an American one, said David Upton, co-author of a case study of e-choupals for Harvard Business School.

Raising farmer incomes was an important goal. S. Shivakumar, 43, the head of the company’s international business division and the originator of e-choupals, said he had long been frustrated by how a lack of opportunity limited the ambitions and achievements of Indian farmers.

“This has been a clear commercial initiative with social good in mind,” he said.

Reading about Scientists

I just started reading John Gribbin’s “The Scientists”. It features science through “the lives of its greatest inventors” over the past 500 years. Two initial thoughts strick me:

– In the Europe of the 16th century, books were the hyperlinks that connected ideas and scientists across countries. There were very few other alternatives. At times, language was a barrier. But just like the Internet of today, books wove a web around the ideas and scientists. The printing press’s importance in the advancement of scientific thought cannot be understated. The Web is doing just the same now. Bloggers are the scientists of this age, advancing thought and ideas through their writings. This is helping compress time and speed innovation even more.

– Wouldn’t it be nice if in our schools they let us make discoveries the same way our scientists did? We should be able to make the observations and then reach our own conclusions. We can then compare this with the thinking process followed by the scientists who originated the ideas. This will make us think, and that will be of far greater value in our life than the learning by rote which trivialises scientific discovery and our past.

My First PC

There is a discussion underway at WSJ about memories of the 1982 PC, after a column looked back at the decision then by TIME to name it the “Machine of the Year.”

While I didn’t start using PCs in 1982, I remember using my first PC in 1983-4. I remember getting a ZX Sinclair home but didn’t use it much. At the same time, my father had also got a computer at work. It was very expensive (Rs 200,000 or so, when the dollar was Rs 8 per dollar). Since we couldn’t find a software programmer who would stay long enough (!), I decided to learn BASIC programming, and would go after college and write programs on it. Wrote many interactive games then: one that simulated a one-day cricket international (remember that was the time India had won the Cricket World Cup), Monopoly, and a game I called MinderMast (guessing a 4-digit number in upto 10 tries).

The computer was my life then – that was how my love affair with technology begin. Till then, I wanted to follow my father’s footsteps and become a civil engineer and build bridges and buildings. The computer in the office changed my life.

TECH TALK: 2003-04: India in 2004 (Part 2)

If I had to chart out a plan for India in 2004 on what we need to focus on, this is what it would be:

Enhance the Physical Infrastructure across the country: The government needs to spend money to ensure that the roads, airports and ports are friction-free. We are only as good as our weakest links. Building the expressways is a good start, but the roads leading to these 4- and 6-lane highways also needs to be adequately upgraded. The US did not build just a couple of freeways in the 1950s it built a whole network of them. Similarly, it is no good marketing the India brand and then getting visitors in to second-grade airports. If the government cannot do it, let the private companies be called in. It is the results which matter.

Provide Power, Education, Water, Food and Healthcare for all: Even after nearly six decades, we are not able to get the fundamentals of nation-building right. Why not look at solar energy or biomass as alternative sources of energy? Why cannot we ensure that every child gets into school and stays there? Why do we still have water problems even in good monsoon years? Why do our surplus foodgrains rot and people go hungry? Why are we not able to provide proper healthcare to our masses? Why do want to stay poor and underdeveloped given our dreams resources? India needs Missions to ensure we get the basics right. Without a strong foundation, we cannot build a stable structure for the future.

Construct the Digital Infrastructure: Three sets of actions need to be done simultaneously – the provisioning of high-speed wireless and broadband networks across the country (free from restrictions on what kind of traffic they can carry and where they can operate), the development of affordable access devices to bridge the gap between the phone which can do very little and the computer which is too expensive, and the creation of content and applications for homes, shops, businesses, governance, and education. Part of the challenge for entrepreneurs is outlined by Prof. Ramesh Jain as part of his vision of Folk Computing.

Focus on SMEs and Rural India: The two segments which need special attention are small- and medium-sized enterprises and the rural populace. Both are at the bottom of their respective pyramids and suffer from co-ordination failures. They need whole solutions so that they can leapfrog. India cannot develop if these twin engines of growth remain stalled. These markets are large. India has over 3 million SMEs employing about 50 million people. Rural India has 700 million residents in 600,000 villages. A combination of public-private partnerships are needed to ensure that the divides that these segments face not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of opportunities and incomes can be bridged.

Our generation needs to dedicate itself to building India right. We have the ability, resources, mindset, and the technologies to do it. The question is: do we have the Will and Vision? Can we work together as a team to put the collective benefits above personal gains? Can we stomach the sacrifices that will need to be made? On these answers individually and as a group hinges the fate of the Nation.

Wish you all a Very Happy and Prosperous 2004.

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