Elections and Technology

Elections are likely to be held in India in April – a formal announcement is expected in early February. I have been thinking about how technology can make a difference in the coming elections. How can RSS, Blogs, Wikis, Visualisation software, cellphones and the like make a difference? It could be for how citizens mobilise or how political parties leverage these technologies. I am planning to write a Tech Talk series in 2 weeks time looking at this topic. Your ideas are welcome.

Tech Outsourcing in India

AlwaysOn Network has an interview with Sumir Chadha of WestBridge Captial Partners. Some excerpts:

Now, India is rapidly moving up the value chain from outsourced services into product firms. Firms like July Systems, one of our portfolio companies, are developing wireless platforms and products in Bangalore. Another of our companies, Emagia, has developed its cash flow management product almost entirely in Hyderabad. Even multinational companies like Oracle have started doing high-end work in India, which is new.

We see explosive growth in telecom. Three years ago, India had the highest cost per minute in the world for wireless telecom. Now, its the cheapest30 percent cheaper than even China. And a year ago, there were 8 million wireless subscribers in India. Today there are 22 million, and were seeing growth of 2 million subscribers per month. This is a revolution in the making.

The United States now graduates about 25,000 software engineers per year. India has over 100,000 annually. Now, this is just bachelor’s degrees, not including vocational degrees with which Indias numbers are significantly higher.

In terms of quality, engineers on average are better in the United States, but when you look at it from a price-to-performance basis, theres really no comparison. An entry-level engineer in India makes about $3,000 per year. An entry-level engineer with equal qualifications in the United States is about $45,000.

While on average the quality is higher in the United States, the top 1020 percent of engineers in both countries are probably equal, and in India you get a better deal. There are obvious different levels of qualityas with any market in geographical pockets within both countries.

Three years ago, the [Silicon] Valley did low-end test and QA in India. Now, India is seen as the future. VCs and tech firms are integrating India into their portfolio and corporate strategies.

Desktops as Always-On Servers

Dana Blankenhorn has an interesting point on the future of desktops, which differs somewhat from what others are saying:

[The desktop] will become a server. In the office it will be a personal server, a docking station you can lock your laptop in for software updates, maintenance, and big file transfers. In the home, it will become a network server, the hub for both your wireless network and its 802.11 applications.

There are good reasons for this. Laptops aren’t expandable, and many Always-On applications will demand a lot more power than laptops can deliver. Desktops are cheaper to build than laptops, power-for-power, and if the computer doesn’t have a reason to go anywhere why not? And you’re not going to want your Always-On server going anywhere.

In the World of Always-On medical applications, inventory applications, GPS applications and home maintenance applications are always running. Clocks are going, tests are being done, data collected and analyzed. Most of this work will go on in the background. Results will be transmitted both within the house, over the wired Internet, and (sometimes) to wherever you are, via cellular links.

A related post by Dana elaborates on the idea of the home communications server:

This would be a Linux box that includes an 802.11 access point, a VPN gateway, with security and Voice Over IP, and lots of expandability.

You buy it for those last two things. Anyone who runs a home network without security is just waiting to have their ID stolen. Anyone who wants Voice over IP is going to want to go cordless. It’s a huge mass-market opportunity, especially if you can get it into the home for, say, $500. Connect it to your existing PC.

But that’s just a foot-in-the-door, because you also put slots in this thing. What kinds of slots? Could be board slots, could be PCMCIA slots, could be USB 2.0 plugs, could be Memory Card slots. Could be all these and more.

Why? Because the key point is that this box is Always-On ready.

What am I talking about? With the server providing a modular, scalable platform, you can quickly add home security — just run the program from the server, add cameras, sensors, a link to the cop house (or a third-party like ADT). Simple, cheap, highly effective. Tell that burglar to smile and say cheese.

We’re talking home inventory programs, medical monitoring for the aged (or the middle aged), programs that give you a database of what’s fresh in your refrigerator and available on the pantry shelves. We’re talking about office applications, personal schedulers you can hold in your hand (or access with voice commands, tiny speakers and microphones set-up in the corners of the room connected to the server).

Wikipedia

John Robb points to Wikipedia, a multilingual project to create a complete and accurate free content encyclopedia, saying “it is getting so good its scary. A true resource. Very cool to watch it go from 0 to light speed in 2 short years. Suggestion for Google: dump the dmoz open directory project (which has been rebranded the Google Web Directory) and replace it with Wikipedia.” Its an excellent example of what the community is capable of, given the right tool and leadership.

Here is the History of India page. Can be better, but a good, quick overview.

Fractal Blogosphere

Richard MacManus suggests an approach to “measure of scale in the weblogging world. The goal is to help bloggers, particularly new ones, easily fit into a suitable blogging pattern.” The 5 Fractal levels for bloggers identified (based on the number of visitors):

10 – Personal Blogger
100 – Social Blogger
1000 – Community Blogger
10,000 – Broadcast Blogger
100,000 – Celebrity Blogger

So, with my traffic of about 1,500-2,000 daily visitors, I am a Community Blogger, which seems about right.

TECH TALK: India.com 2.0: From 1997 to 2004

Recently, a friend asked me a seemingly simple question: if I had to recreate the likes of the sites I had created during 1995-7 (IndiaWorld, Khoj, Khel, Samachar and Bawarchi), how would I do them? Would I follow the same approach I did back then, or would I look at different formats?

It was a question that made me think, and I realised that much of the Indian portal and content space has remained almost unchanged in the past 5-6 years. The home pages of the popular portals are almost the same. If anything, there is less to read now because of the increasing number of ads. More importantly, the way content is packaged has not changed, even as newer technologies in the information and communications space are making their advent. In fact, if one starts looking at the world of tomorrow rather than using the technologies of yesterday, there is a need for Indian portals to evolve in the way they present their services and the way they interact with their users.

The world of 1997 is different from the world of 2004 in many ways. For example, there are 25 million new cellphone users now, even as the computer users have comparatively gone up by only a bitto about 10 million. Many of the newer generation cellphones also allow web browsing. Telecom costs have fallen and always-on connections (albeit narrowband in most cases) are no longer a pipe dream. Google has become the de facto way how we surf not just search the Web. New technologies like RSS are making content syndication possible and easy. Weblogs have made writing easy. Social networking websites are creating a buzz as they help connect people through the strength of weak ties.

And yet, little has changed. Email, search and chat remain the primary drivers for our Internet usage. The browser that has become our window to the world remains frozen in time. We still have to go to the web pages that we want to visit. The look-and-feel of most web pages has remained almost the same over the years. Personalisation is still talked about, and other than My Yahoo, is barely used. Even the favourite sites that we visit have remained just about constant, as investment in dotcoms and the web has slowed in the past few years. Advertisers are few and far between. Things seem to be in an equilibrium everyone waiting for something magical to happen.

Of course, we went through a tidal wave of innovation during 1999-2000 as websites on every conceivable topic were launched. Without a sustainable business model (consumers resisting paying for content, and advertisers still unwilling to join the party), most shut down or are operating at subsistence levels, waiting for a future boom. The Internet is there in front of us, but has not yet become the utility in India that it should have.

It is time for us to rethink the Indian content space. As telecom competition makes connectivity cheaper and available at higher speeds, as the cost of access devices goes down, there will be a need for innovative content and community services which can bring the fizz back. Ready for version 2.0 (or is it 3.0) of the Indian dotcoms or have we already gone to sleep?

Tomorrow: The Changing Digital Infrastructure