Orkut as Trojan Horse?

Jeremy Zawodny has an interesting perspective on why Google needs Orkut, the social networking site that was recently launched:

What problems might Orkut solve that Google would otherwise find significantly more challenging?

Those that do seem to speculate about “applying your social network to search” and other exotic stuff, but I’m thinking of something far more basic than that: users.

That’s right, users.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Google has millions of users!” Of course they do. How much to they really know about those users? Do they really have a user database from which they can mine interesting data? If they have one, it must pale in comparison to what Yahoo, AOL, and MSN have.

Rather than try to convince users to start “registering” for Google, why not piggyback on one of the most viral fads going around: a social network application? And, for added effect, make it an invite only system so that you feel special once you’re invited.

Just think about it for a few minutes. If you’ve been thru the Orkut registration process, you know that it attempts to collect a ton of data about you. The kind of demographic data that marketing folks drool over. And right now there are lots of folks dying to get that special invite and begin the sign-up process.

Still with me? Good.

Let’s assume that Google internationalizes Orkut and lets it run to the point that it has millions of users registered and active. That’s not an unreasonable thing to expect. Then, one day down the road, they quietly decide to “better integrate” Orkut with Google and start redirecting all Orkut requests to orkut.google.com.

Bingo!

Suddenly they’re able to set a *.google.com cookie that contains a bit of identifying data (such as your Orkut id) and that would greatly enhance their ability to mine useful and profitable data from the combination of your profile and daily searches.

Of course, we know that the “big three” already do this sort of thing to some degree or another. But Google’s lack of intimate knowledge of their users is surely holding them back from doing some of the things they’d love to do. Many folks think it’s just a matter of time before they try to get “real” users signed up.

Adds Dave Winer: “[Orkut is Google’s] identity system. At some point they’ll add a web services interface so our comment systems can connect to their back-end to validate users. Now you can go to one place to see all your comments. Then it gets better. Give it your credit card info, and then when you go to an Orkut-enabled e-commerce site, you can have one-click ordering (modulo a certain patent). Think about all the relationships Google has with sites that run their ads. Even I run their ads on one of my sites, and it’s a pretty good deal, that one site pays for the bandwidth on all my sites. Anyway, that’s a ramble. The net-net — it’s Google’s identity system, and if you trust them, it can be yours too.”

Its a compelling explanation, considering that the registration process and user profiles are what’s missing from Google (as compared to Yahoo or MSN).

Indian IT companies go Global

AlwaysOn Network has an article by Rajit Gadh, professor at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Director of the Wireless Internet for the Mobile Enterprise Consortium, on the Indian IT companies and how they are changing: “First, the major Indian IT companies are now planning and executing like global players as opposed to India-centric companies. Second, they are changing their image from that of low-cost IT providers to value-added solution providers. Third, they are distinguishing themselves by adding core competencies in certain areas and becoming more competitive. Fourth, they are realizing the importance of branding. Finally, some of them are expanding beyond services to software products and even Business Process Outsourcing (BPO).”

Technology and Worker Efficiency

NYTimes writes:

The wise use of technology, researchers say, is one ingredient in the recipe for improving the productivity of information workers, who now represent up to 70 percent of the American labor force, or 100 million workers, from customer service people in call centers to scientists in research labs.

The main focus of recent study has been on what researchers call “organization capital.” This asset includes a company’s work practices and routines, its storehouse of corporate knowledge in computer databases and in people’s heads, and even culture and values as they guide how a company operates.

Much of organization capital is expressed in terms of work practices – how things are done in a company. When blended with technology investments, certain work practices yield the biggest gains, said Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The companies that perform best, he said, use teams more often than their rivals. They decentralize work that requires local knowledge and interpersonal skills like product design, sales and on-the-fly adjustments on the factory floor, and they centralize and computerize work that is easily quantified, like accounts payable systems and obtaining the lowest airline fares for routine travel.

What is striking, however, is how large the investments in organization capital – “computer-enabled assets” to Mr. Brynjolfsson – are compared with technology investments. For example, one popular kind of technology-related investment in recent years at major companies has been installing an enterprise resource planning system to streamline and automate operations. Mr. Brynjolfsson estimates that in a $20 million enterprise resource planning project, the new computer hardware required costs $1 million and the software $3 million. The remaining $16 million is in organization capital – redesigning work practices, retraining workers and other such investments.

John Seely Brown, former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, says he believes that recent changes in software technology could allow big gains in productivity and innovation. The opportunity, he says, is to move beyond the limitations of centralized systems for automating business operations, like enterprise resource systems.

Mr. Brown also points to the rapid development of what he calls “social software” like instant messaging, Weblogs, wikis (multi-user Weblogs) and peer-to-peer tools – all of which make it easier for workers to communicate and collaborate online, almost instantaneously.

The combined result, Mr. Brown said, is information technology that can amplify social interaction and enhance workers’ understanding of what is happening around them. The benefit, he added, could be to increase their ability to “collectively improvise and innovate.”

I’ll be discussing this a little in my next column for Business Standard in the context of SMEs, and how technology can help them make their operations more efficient and create new opportunities in the marketplace.

Dana’s Always-On World

Dana Blankenhorn, the guru of Always-On, points to my Business Standard article and writes:

Good stuff. Some of his applications are a little silly — cricket scores sent to your cellphone. His business model, which he calls PubSubWeb (Publish, Subscribe, Web delivery) is too-much about delivering existing content rather than creating your own, organically, from within your life for my taste.

But he has the basics down. The basics are these:

– Ubiquitous wireless broadband
– Computing standards for applications
– Internet standards for transport

And there’s another important point here. If a Mumbai entrepreneur can come up with “Always-On,” (OK, he doesn’t capitalize it like I just did) then it’s not just Dana talking through his hat. It’s real.

This is the future. Get with it.

He adds in an email: “My work in ‘Always-On’ focuses on specific applications we can create with wireless broadband as the platform — medical applications, security applications, personal inventory applications, personal service applications. But the platform is the key. Once we have a modular, scalable platform, based on standards like IP and Linux, then we can build whatever we want on it…That could be cricket scores. I’m sure that’s important. But that could also be the monitoring of your heart, your blood, your blood sugar, analysis done on your home network, and the result being an alert to your doctor, your hospital or an ambulance before you have a heart attack, stroke or diabetic coma.”

Our contexts may be different but the end vision is the same. Considering the lack of legacy in India (and other emerging markets), I’d venture to say that we’ll get there first!

TECH TALK: Technology and the Indian Elections: The New Indian Voter

I have a vested interest in the future, because I plan on living there. – Neil Gershenfeld

This quote sums up why Indias coming elections are so important. Previously, elections didnt matter much in India because we had a resigned air about the future a what will we, will be kind-of despairing mood. But of late, there is an air of optimism sweeping India that tomorrow can actually be better than today. Its a feeling that has not been seen before perhaps the last time Indians would have experienced it would have been at the time of Independence. Or perhaps, when Rajiv Gandhi came to power in 1984 with an unprecedented majority.

The reforms started by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991 and built upon by the Vajpayee government over the past four-and-a-half years have helped create an India shining feeling. The government can play the role of inhibitor or accelerator going ahead. For all that we say about them, Indias politicians do genuinely have the ability to make or mar Indias future. And that is why the elections of 2004 are so important. For the first time in many decades, there is hope about the future. What India needs to do is build on this.

That is where, it is important for Indias people to participate in deciding the path that the country takes going forward. Democracy is about the choice of the people and Indias people now have to make their choices. More than at any time, Indias youthful population needs to get engaged about building the platform for decades of growth. Elections are a way to get the populace engaged. Indias hidden strength lies in its democracy, and as the recent Assembly elections demonstrated, developmental issues, rather than some petty issues, seem to be the driver for the voters. Finally, people are beginning to ask: So, what have you have done for me, lately?

Wrote Shekhar Gupta in the Indian Express after the Assembly elections: [The elections] arrival of a new India, awash with a feel-good mood not seen since Rajivs first year in power, and powered by a new voter who asks real questions on his quality of life, rather than succumb to old slogans, mantras and the pull of any dynasty. You send tacky, free school-bags to children who have seen better bags on their TV screens. You insult them. What this voter is telling you is, dont throw me a freebie. Promise me a much better tomorrow its my rightNearly five crore (50 million) voters in the 2004 elections would have actually been born after Indira Gandhis assassination and that they will vote on a promise of a better future than on the prejudices or loyalties of the pastIf there is one thing the New Indian Voter is not ready to compromise with, it is the future. Irrespective of what your ancestors did for his in the past.

Indians go to the polls in a rare moment of optimism in its history. It is also time for the 20-somethings and 30-somethings who will be voting to do more than just cast a vote. Technology affords India a platform to collectively brainstorm and participate in building a better nation. History has not witnessed such an event since the only other country our size is not a democracy.

Tomorrow: Rising Democracy

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