Whole Solution for PC Threats

Walter Mossberg argues that “we consumers need is a simple, unified protection plan to counter all of these threats. And the computer, software and Internet industries have badly failed us in this regard. They would rather dump the security mess in the laps of users than solve it at the level where a solution really belongs: in the operating system, or the hardware, or the online provider’s servers.”

I’m talking about a truly unified, seamless service, controlled and maintained over the Internet, that would take on the whole problem.

Microsoft has made untold billions from the court-certified monopoly it holds in operating systems, and its poor security designs have contributed hugely to the problem. Plus, the company fought for, and won, the right to keep adding new functions to Windows, in the slap-on-the-wrist antitrust settlement it was granted by the Bush administration. So, it owes its customers a solution to the security mess.

If Microsoft won’t step up, there are opportunities for others in the industry to deploy the same kind of unified security service for consumers. I think many people would be willing to pay a reasonable annual fee to anyone who would take responsibility for securing their PCs.

If Dell or Hewlett-Packard built such a service into their consumer PCs, they would distinguish themselves from competitors and earn huge customer loyalty. The same goes for AOL or EarthLink, or the various purveyors of cable modem and DSL service. Ditto for the two big makers of security software, Symantec and McAfee.

All of these companies now offer fragmentary products and services, but none offers to shoulder the whole burden. It’s time somebody did.

Business Ecosystem Creation

HBS Working Knowledge has excerpts from a forthcoming book by Marco Iansiti and Roy Levien:

Keystone organizations play a crucial role in business ecosystems.

Fundamentally, they aim to improve the overall health of their ecosystems by providing a stable and predictable set of common assetsthink of Wal-Mart’s procurement system and Microsoft’s Windows operating system and toolsthat other organizations use to build their own offerings.

Keystones can increase ecosystem productivity by simplifying the complex task of connecting network participants to one another or by making the creation of new products by third parties more efficient. They can enhance ecosystem robustness by consistently incorporating technological innovations and by providing a reliable point of reference that helps participants respond to new and uncertain conditions. And they can encourage ecosystem niche creation by offering innovative technologies to a variety of third-party organizations.

Broadly speaking, an effective keystone strategy has two parts. The first is to create value within the ecosystem. Unless a keystone finds a way of doing this efficiently, it will fail to attract or retain members. The second part, as we have noted, is to share the value with other participants in the ecosystem. The keystone that fails to do this will find itself perhaps temporarily enriched but ultimately abandoned.

The concept seems similar to that of “platform leadership” which has been dealt with in the past.

Emerging Robots

News.com writes that “the surge in robot activity is at least partly the result of steady improvements in performance and steadily dropping costs for processors, sensors, navigation software and the other technologies required to put a mobile robot together.”

Mobile, intelligent robots that can perform tasks usually reserved for humans are starting to creep into mainstream society and could become a multibillion-dollar market in a few years.

iRobot says it has sold hundreds of thousands of units of the Roomba, a self-guided, self-propelled vacuum cleaner that sells for around $200, in just one year.

Other inventors are eyeing the health care market. Joe Engelberger, widely known as the father of robotics, is trying to get funding to build robots that will dress, cook for and generally take care of senior citizens. Home health care robots are being tested in Japan, while U.S. hospitals are already using machines to deliver charts, carry medicines or even assist in surgery.

“Nursing homes or live-in help is expensive, and you have personality conflicts,” Engelberger said. “The technology is available. It takes very good engineering, but it does not take invention.”

Another potentially large market exists in creating machines that can operate in hazardous or extreme environments.

Tech Journalism

Om Malik refers to Alexa traffic rankings of News.com and Slashdot.org and attributes it to the rise of blogs. I guess the online technology media is the first to get hit because of the tech community being an early adopter of blogs.
So could it be that we are tending towards focused expert-blogs and moving away from traditional journalism? It is interesting to compare this with the growth of focused blogs like Gizmodo and WiFiNetNews which are maintained by bloggers who are experts in their domains.

Entrepreneurship Analogy

I was traveling through Tokyo recently. It was my first visit there. As I walked around the streets wherein I could not understand the language (spoken or written), I could not help thinking about how similar it was to entrepreneurship. In both cases, one is in strange lands. Every turn brings with it a new vista. Each experience is different and to be savoured. There are maps but they cannot be read since they are in a language that one cannot understand. In all this, the only guide is ones sense of intuition (an internal compass) which guides one along to the destination. When one gets lost, one has to ask for help, but describing what one wants is not easy almost the state of the small entrepreneur. This is the part which one has to accept and be happy with. Entrepreneurship is like waking up in a new city every day.

TECH TALK: As India Develops: Microfinance

Small businesses and the poor face a common challenge when it comes to getting out of the vicious cycle of stagnation and poverty: access to credit. While a business can turn to a bank for funding, the poor have very few options. They have little collateral or credit history which can convince a bank to give them a small loan. More over, their needs are fairly small, which makes it uneconomical for a bank to process the transaction. As much, for many, the only option is the local moneylender who exploits the situation by charging usurious interest rates.

Vinod Khosla outlined the problem in a recent interview with the Financial Express: Finance is still the biggest problem for development of rural economy despite it being innovative. People in the rural areas have no money and often tend to go for high-cost borrowings. No venture capitalists or funders have ever come forward to help those community with social obligations in mind. Who lends the money to those poor people without collateral securities despite having the entrepreneurial capabilities, innovativeness, creativeness and hard working abilities? It is a pity to say that in few districts where I visited, villagers happened to be bonded labourers to big money launderers due to high cost borrowings which has never been a easy task to repay.

The obvious solution for the credit problem in rural areas is microfinance (also called microcredit). Institutions like Bangladeshs Grameen Bank have done this successfully and profitably. India too needs its microfinance institutions. While there are many small ones operating at local levels in various Indian states, a concerted effort needs to be made to scale up the offerings and reach. There are indications that this is now beginning to happen.

Wrote Keya Sarkar in Business Standard:

If all goes well, ICICI Bank will close its accounts this fiscal with a microfinance book of close to Rs 400 crore. This will be up from last years close at Rs 150 crore. A big leap for the bank. But a far bigger one for microfinance. Considering annual disbursement last year to the microfinance sector by the banking sector as a whole totalled about Rs 1000 crore, ICICI Banks increased lending to this sector gains significance.

While its size puts ICICI Bank at one end of the spectrum, foreign bank ABN Amros efforts in this sector defines the other. The latter is likely to close this fiscal with a disbursement to this sector of close to Rs 6 crore. HDFC Bank, UTI Bank and a few other private sector banks are in the middle. These are a group of banks which have done their numbers and are looking at microfinance as more than what it has always been, merely a priority sector target.

So a combination of investment into child health, elementary education and microfinance (in loans of Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000) might create a franchise for ICICI Bank in a hitherto untapped constituency. And as yet ICICI Bank is only talking rural microfinance. Urban microfinance can only see the potential balloon.

So at one level, more microfinance companies are being brought into the net for intermediation. But the route which is really likely to change the face of rural microfinance lending is what banks are terming partnerships. Similar to the concept of direct sales agents through which banks have been dispensing consumer loans and car loans for over a decade now, these partnerships will allow banks to lend in the rural areas without the money actually passing on to the books of these intermediaries. They would really be agents to identify borrowers and therefore be extended arms of the banks. ICICI Bank is already talking of over one lakh such agents and ensuring loan quality checks through different levels of loan loss guarantees by these agents.

Tomorrow: Microfinance (continued)

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