Bus. Std: Portals of the Future

My column in today’s Business Standard looks at the opportunities in the Indian portal space:

Even as India changes, its internet portals remain almost frozen in time. Scan through the home pages of the leading Indian content sites and you will find that the formats remain almost unchanged from what they were many years ago. Even as new technologies are edging on to the mainstream, the legacy of many of our leading portals holds them back. Content creation and consumption needs to change if the internet is to become a utility in the lives of Indians.

For long, the growth of the internet in India has been hobbled by high telecom access charges. This is now beginning to change as fixed price narrowband bundles offer the promise of always-on connectivity. Broadband is also becoming selectively available, especially in cybercafes. This 24×7 connectivity will make the internet part of the daily routine of Indians those who have the access devices.

Affordable computing devices will be the second factor which will have an impact on the internet in India. Low-cost thin clients which outsource storage and processing to central servers over reliable, high-speed networks will lead to a dramatic increase in the availability of computing for employees at work and families at home.

The dramatic growth in cellphones will also alter the landscape. By the end of 2004, India is expected to have over 50 million cellphones (as compared to an installed base of computers of about 13 million). Many of these cellphones will have data connections. If the operators price data at flat rates rather than by the download quantum, the cellphone can become a possible alternate for accessing microcontent in some situations.

Thus the combination of always-on connectivity and affordable access devices will lay the foundation for a renaissance in the Indian portal business provided the service providers go beyond the legacy of HTML and start adopting new technologies.

The foundation for the next-generation information platform needs to be built on the two pillars that have driven the open-source software movement user customisability and distributed collaboration.

Users should be able to dictate what information they get and how it is delivered to them. This means they should be able to subscribe to content feeds which deliver new, incrementally updated content in real time rather than having to remember to visit websites periodically and scan multiple pages to find out what has changed. This is where RSS (rich site summary) comes in. RSS enables syndication and thus becomes the core of the next generation two-way web.

Just as RSS impacts content consumption, change is also afoot in the world of content creation. The ease of publishing showcased by the growth of weblogs (which are personal journals) is creating alternatives to traditional media. People at the grassroots can now be connected via the strength of weak ties in micro communities, as has been demonstrated in the US by the election campaign of Howard Dean.

By leveraging these emerging technologies such as RSS and weblogs, Indian portals can integrate themselves more closely with the lives of their readers who now can also help contribute to their evolution.

Three ideas can help launch the next generation of activity (and the first wave of profits) in the Indian internet space: NINE, PIN and STIM.

NINE (New Indian News Ecosystem) goes beyond the personalisation offered by MyYahoo by allowing the inclusion of content via RSS feeds from any website. By combining customisation, editorial recommendations and analytics from blog posts, the portals can facilitate interactive interactions among the participants in a way not possible in traditional media and discussion forums.

PIN (PIN-code-based India Network) brings neighbourhoods alive. The postal code is a natural unifier since we all know the codes of where we live and work. Yet we know very little about what is happening in our vicinity. Via PIN, merchants and service providers can produce RSS feeds of new events. Residents can subscribe to these feeds based on their interests and provide contributions to shape the online reputations of the shops. Thus PIN provides a platform to create a two-way flow of information and experience.

STIM (SME Trade Information Marketplace) bridges the information gap between buyers and sellers, thus providing a solution to the biggest problem for small and medium-sized enterprises generating new business. SMEs are their own biggest customers and yet find it hard to reach one another. STIM helps SMEs make business connections via the internet.

The first chapter in the Indian dotcom story ended up getting aborted as investors and advertisers cut off the oxygen of capital. The second chapter in this epic is waiting to be written. What portal entrepreneurs need to do is discard the legacy which holds them back and bring in innovative thinking combined with new technologies to craft a new and profitable future.

Apple’s Intelligent Pricing

The first reaction of most people to Apple’s decision to price its mini-iPod at USD 249 came as a suprise. For USD 50 more, one can get the regular iPod with 15 GB storage instead of the 4 GB in the mini. So, has Apple gone crazy? An assessment by WSJ (Tim Hanrahan and Jason Fry) points that it is as simple as market segmentation:

For every buyer of an MP3 player who cares about capacity, there’s another one who cares about size. Or style. Or both. While a wonderful device, the original iPod is still a substantial presence on one’s arm or waistband, particularly if you’re running with it. Not everybody was wowed by the original iPod’s choice of colors, which made Mr. Jobs Henry Ford in reverse. (“You can have any color you like, as long as it’s white.”) And for plenty of music fans there’s no real difference between 1,000 CDs and 3,750 — they’re both “enough.” As one Slashdotter who saw the light wrote, some people “can’t justify $299 just for space, but might justify $249 for style.”

By the way, if you haven’t thought of this a few paragraphs back: It’s smaller, light enough to jog with, and comes in pink. Anybody see a target audience there? We thought so — and we were relieved to see a few female Slashdotters stand up and demand to be counted. We also see a valuable lesson that a lot of MP3 geeks missed, ourselves included: Different strokes for different folks — particularly when their money’s equally green.

So, far all who think that maybe Steve Jobs had lost his mind, think again. After all, as others fight out in the 88-99 cents a tune market, Apple’s got the digital music player that everyone wants – they sold 2 million last year. And that is where the profits are.

Mobile Web Pages

Russell Beattie looks ahead to a coming future when more people access the Web from their web pages than from their PCs, and the impact this will have on web page design. [To an extent this is already happening in countries like Japan, and I have a feeling this will happen soon in India, too.]

Imagine someday soon where your PC browser is secondary. It’ll all be XHTML, but the primary focus and use of the website will be the phone. Isn’t this how things are in Japan right now where iMode is so insanely popular? It seems an obvious thing – websites focused only on mobile browsing.

Mobile Web Pages will be the norm when you can create a complete mobile website from your phone without help from a computer. It’s like the web equivalent of a OS bootstrapping. Until you can do everything from creation to consuming from your mobile, there’ll always be a PC in the way, and thus the mindset won’t change (at least for me).

Creating and consuming via mobiles… but I’m suddenly realizing that it’s more than just for media or photos, it’s really an alternate web that’s going to be developed, one focused on mobile devices where PC access is definitely secondary.

Most webloggers already sees their web server as an extension of their identity. It holds all the public data associated with that person, thoughts, pictures, resumes, and more. I think we’re going to see that even more with mobile phones.

I wonder when the first mobile phones will be launched with server space already allocated? There’s no reason that can’t be happening now with SyncML, etc. If I were a carrier in this portable number world we now live in, I would make phones just an extension of an online data repository, and make it as seamless as possible for that person to create data and store it online, some for public consumption and other for private data. When someone gets their phone, they should first be thinking “Ooh, I better set up the web page that goes along with this…”

From Writer to Editor

[via Roland Tanglao] Ken Smith thinks aloud: “If, however, the dailies could usefully accumulate into something more fixed, and if the ideas would benefit from a conceptual rather than chronological order, then someone has to create that conceptual order and shape that fixed display. It is easy to imagine, though, a program linking the chronology of the weblog to the conceptual shape of a more fixed web site, perhaps a wiki. The program might save steps for the editor. If you could, for example, drag an icon representing today’s weblog post into a concept map of the site, and if you could highlight three or four key words in the new post for the program to use as links to other posts in the map, then you would have something rather amazing. A reader could click on the section of the map representing the new post, and the keywords would appear nearby, with lines heading out to other recent posts using those words.”

Open-Source Software Legalese

Groklaw has an article by Mark Webbink, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Red Hat, Inc. From the introduction: “He wrote this article for corporate attorneys, explaining free and open source software and comparing various open source licenses, detailing how the GPL really works, explaining US copyright law, and listing some corporate law office best practices for software, from the standpoint of what policies are prudent for the corporate environment. He also explains how derivative works are defined, touches on the indemnification issue and the difference between open source and shared source, and highlights some of the main myths and misconceptions about the GPL and open source.”

Tiny Hard Drives

BBC News writes about Toshiba’s small hard disk (less than an inch across) which can store 2-4 GB. The market: consumer electronics.

The hard drive has emerged as one of the key components in the push to bring computing technologies to the home.

Some video cameras and music players such as Apple’s iPod have taken advantage of the shrinking size of hard drives.

“Our new miniature drive is a significant technological breakthrough,” said Nick Spittle of Toshiba Storage Device Division Europe.

“It is set to bring explosive growth in smaller and more mobile digital devices, with a host of hot new portable gadgets for the consumer.”

Toshiba said it expects the new drive to inspire others to think about incorporating hard drives into their products, such as mobile phones and digital camcorders.

TECH TALK: Good Books: Why Things Break

Things break all the time. I havent worried much about breaking things so far in life, though there are times when it has a direct impact. The bag which comes apart at the wrong time, the cassette/CD case which rarely seems to last for too long, the toys which break all too quickly, the glass which develops cracks, the spectacles frame that seems to give way all of a sudden, software programs which crash these are all breakages which have passed by my life. So, my attention was grabbed by the book entitled Why Things Break with the byline Understanding the world by the way it comes apart.

The author is Mark Eberhart, who received his doctorate from MIT in materials science, and is now a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. From the book introduction: In [the book], Eberhart leads us on a remarkable and entertaining exploration of all the cracks, clefts, fissures, and faults examined in the field of materials science and the many astonishing discoveries that have been made about everything from the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger to the crashing of your hard drive. Understanding why things break is crucial to modern life on every level, from personal safety to macroeconomics, but as Eberhart reveals here, it is also an area of cutting-edge science that is as provocative as it is illuminating.

The book deals primarily with materials science. It is a topic I know we will have to look at closely as we build out our pilot RISC (Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons) centre in rural India. We have often discussed on the need to focus on creating a breakthrough design we can afford to do so because we are starting from scratch. We want to not only build a centre which is aesthetically good-looking, but one which can weather the wear and tear that the elements and usage will bring forth. So, the right choice of materials is going to be important. Ensuring that things dont break will be even more critical as we seek to do a design which we can roll out across the rural areas in India and then the rest of the world.

The book gives a framework to think about materials. As the author writes:

The fun becomes when I say, I study why things break, not when.

It is a common misunderstanding, confusing when with why. What people really understand is when things break. Fracture, as with almost every other phenomenon, is composed of two parts, cause and effect. The question of when deals with the cause, while that of why deals with the effect. An engineer can control the phenomenon with an answer to either question. For example, knowing that a drinking glass will break when it is dropped, an engineer could carpet the floor and avoid a cause of the fracture. Similarly, the engineer can change why the glass breaks by changing the material from which it is made. A tin cup will not break when dropped.

What intrigues me is that so much of mankinds development in history, art, science and economy is intimately intertwined with the fact that some things break while others bend. Despite the fact that throughout history we have worked to develop a nearly complete answer to the question of when things break and bend, we have only the most rudimentary understanding of why they do so.

The book is an interesting tour through the world of materials that shape our lives. Read it, ponder the effect on the breakages that affect our lives and think about what can be done to solve the problems.

Tomorrow: The Gifts of Athena

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