Round-the-Word Travel

Just got back from a round-the-world (RTW) 2 week trip covering 6 cities – started in Mumbai, and then went to Tokyo, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Atlanta, New York and Boston. Even as I was doing this RTW, I discovered that Richard Quest of CNN did much the same – albeit in economy class (I travelled business – the ticket cost Rs 180,000 or about USD 4,000).

The thing to remember about an RTW ticket is that you can pretty much make as many stops (there are some restrictions) as long as you keep flying in one direction. This allows me to get additional stops in Asia or Europe, and I love visiting new cities and meeting new people.

Travel like this also gives me a lot of time to think and that is one of the reasons I prefer business-class for international travel. The ticket also gets use of the lounges at airports which can be quite useful, along with other minor advantages like getting to board first (plenty of time to get the luggage in the overhead racks) and exit first (shorter immigration and custom queues).

The new city in this trip was Tokyo. Have always wanted to visit Japan. Even though I was there for only 2 days, it gave a good view of the city. I like to think of it as a “survey” – with an option to go back for a longer visit sometime later. Saw plenty of snow in both New York and Boston, which was nice, compared to a swelteringly hot Mumbai.

A friend asked me what was the most impressive thing I saw on this trip. It took me a little while to answer that question. I think it has to be the international attention on India. Rarely a day passed by without a mention of India and outsourcing in the US media. To think that a year ago India existed only as some farway place on the map, this is an amazing achievement. Of course, there is also a worry that now that the world’s attention is trained on India, we may not be able to live up to the expectations. But my feeling is that this time it is for real. The outsourcing decision is one based on business economics. India is now firmly part of the global value chain.

Back to the travel. I was on Star Alliance (Thai Airways from Mumbai to Tokyo, via Bangkok; United from Tokyo to San Francisco, and within the US, and finally Lufthansa from Boston to Mumbai). All flights were on time and very comfortable. Our bags missed the connection from Washington to New York (en route from Atlanta), but reached us the next day. As a postscript, it also turned out that I stopped by most of the world’s busiest airports – Bangkok, Tokyo, SF, Chicago, Atlanta, NY, Boston and Frankfurt.

So, the next time you have some time, try RTW and see some new cities. It is a wonderful experience waking up in a new place every couple days. Of course, one has to pack and unpack, and there’s a lot of time spent at airports, but given that there’s also plenty of “thought time”, the changes in contexts every so often are very helpful.

SAP focus on SMEs

TIME Europe highlights the growing importance of the small- and medium-sized enterprise segment in an article on market leader SAP’s strategy:

Having sold its wares to most of the world’s largest businesses, SAP now believes it has to tap into the small- and midsized-business market to keep growing.

The small-business software market is estimated to be worth $10 billion a year worldwide, but SAP won’t corner it without a fight from more consumer-oriented rivals like Microsoft and IBM. As if that competition weren’t fierce enough, upstart companies like Salesforce.com, Sage Group plc and UpShot (acquired last year by SAP rival Siebel Systems) are grabbing a piece of the small-business market with products they hope will squeeze SAP out.

SAP has other ideas. “Sooner or later the entire midsized company segment will be as important to our business as the Fortune 500,” says Leo Apotheker, the SAP board member in charge of global operations.

SAP expects software-license revenue to increase 10% this year to nearly 2.4 billion, largely driven by sales to small and medium-sized businesses. The strategy is simple: take SAP’s basic product, strip it down to small-business size, and sell it for a lot less to companies.

IBM on SOA

News.com has an interview with IBM’s Bob Sutor, or is it puts it, Mr. Web Services and service-oriented architectures (SOA). Excerpts:

When you look at enterprise software, it may have sounded exciting in 1999 to rip everything out, but everyone was a little crazy back then. Right now, people are very much saying, “Look, I want to make all the stuff I have–all the facilities and information–available to the right people. But I’ve got to keep my critical business processes going. I cannot bring them down, so you have to show me how to extend what I have already.”

When services are outsourced, there are basically two things that you want to do. You have to understand how you talk to (the service), so you have to understand the interface, how to tell it to do things. And then you have to understand the quality of that service.

SOA [is] the larger picture. It is distributed computing with characteristics around liability, security and manageability crossing enterprise boundaries.

The world has changed a lot, and we no longer have control of all the things we are running. It turns out that Web services is by and large the best way we are going to do this today, because it also involves things like Java. So therefore, Web services in terms of being adopted is early mainstream. Gartner thinks that slightly more than 50 percent of companies are showing signs of doing Web services today.

SOA has been around a long time, since the client server in the ’80s. As a subset of object-oriented programming and design, SOA was clearly in there. And there was a glimmer of this a few years ago, when Java was coming out. Certainly, everyone in the universe used Java. But it was the Internet and XML that made this fully possible, so today, it is characterized by saying it is distributed computing. It is loosely coupled, which means that you have very little knowledge about the actual construction of the services.

Search Visualisation

From Technology Review (via WSJ):

Looking for a book, CD, or movie recommendation? Type in the name of an author that you like at Gnooks.com and up pops a screen of other writers. But what makes the site different is that the authors don’t appear as a scrollable list. Instead, the name you provide sits in the middle of the browser window while the suggested names are sprinkled about, quivering and dancing as though trying to elbow each other out of the way to reach the center.

This is search visualization in action. The closer another writer is to your choice, the more likely the system thinks that you will also enjoy that author’s work. Gnooks and other systems are applying data visualization and relationship analysis techniques to help people get a different view of what’s on the Web. Rather than deliver search results as a long roster of links, graphical searches show how different categories and types of information relate to each other. The hard part is finding a way of presenting the information without requiring the user to get a degree in how to use the interface.

Graphics add a powerful capability to searching because of the way people perceive, says Phil H. Goddard, a director at Human Factors International, a Fairfield, Iowa, consulting firm. “Human beings are spatial processors,” he says. For example, most people find it easier to comprehend data in tabular form than in an unformatted list. Graphical front ends to search engines can organize and present information in ways that let users absorb and process it more efficiently. Such tools, Mr. Goddard says, are “capitalizing on the effect that we see patterns and learn patterns and parse patterns faster than we process text.”

“The biggest challenge with visualization is data overload,” says Greg Coyle, general manager of Ancubis, a Cambridge, U.K.-based developer of search visualization tools. “When the data sets get large, it’s a challenge to usefully visually represent that and not scare the hell out of the user.” Effective presentation requires understanding how to categorize it and relate one piece of information to another. So developers need descriptive information about the underlying data that people want to search.

Haier’s Global Struggle

The Economist writes about the challenges facing Haier, the leading Chinese white goods company, in its efforts to build a global brand:

Haier’s drive into markets abroad mirrors a push into new markets at home. In both, diversification is driven by opportunism and desperation, not good strategy. Predicting that profits in 2004 will be flat at 2 billion yuan for a third successive year, despite an expected 20-30% rise in sales, Mr Zhang admits that plunging returns in his core white goods business are driving him abroad. After China joined the World Trade Organisation, he says, every multinational set up in China. Margins are low here. If we don’t go outside, we cannot survive.

Outside China, Haier has so far concentrated on nichesmini-fridges (to which it adds a handy fold-down flap for a laptop) and wine coolers. But to continue to grow globally it will have to compete with the likes of Whirlpool in their main markets. Yet Haier lacks such firm’s R&D, their design skillsit employs just ten researchers in Americatheir distribution or their service networks. Mr Zhang says his biggest headache is hiring decent managers, since he cannot pay as well as rivals. Haier does not have their established brandsor the money to build one.

Nor is Haier being careful to keep costs low. Mr Zhang insists that Haier must produce outside China to be responsive to customers. Yet, at a stroke, that deprives Haier of its greatest advantage: China’s vast pool of low-cost labour. Meanwhile, Haier’s attempt to reward creativityallowing every engineer the freedom to design and build his own productshas worked too well, leaving it with a bewildering 96 categories of goods in 15,100 specifications, including a fridge that pickles Korean kimchee cabbage and a washing machine that also cleans sweet potatoes. Most of these variants add more to production costs and complexity than they will ever add to sales. Worse, the group has moved beyond white goods into computers, mobile phones (where sales have badly disappointed), and even interior design and pharmaceuticals. All with unlimited potential, insists Mr Zhang. This is a globalised era. No single industry can survive. There is a great future in these markets.

This attitude is widespread in China. Rather than focusing on a core business or dominating a few markets, as western, Japanese and South Korean managers have slowly learned to do, their Chinese counterparts quit any market where competition is rising, as so many other profitable opportunities beckon. Lack of accountabilitynot even Mr Zhang can say who really owns Haierand cheap loans from state banks encourage this trend. The result is firms that are broad but shallow, thinly-spread and managerially stretched. Sadly for Haier, that is the very opposite of a focused, global brand.

TECH TALK: As India Develops: Market Access (Part 5)

Here is how the SME Trade Information Marketplace (STIM) works.

An SME publishes a wiki and a weblog. What is different about both is the ease and immediacy of how they can be updated. Think of the wiki page as providing an outline of the SMEs business it is like an About Us page. It can provide links into the SMEs website.

Why need a separate page from the website? Because it is hard to update most websites! Even after nearly a decade of the Internet, the design elements which make up the website and permissions required make it difficult for an SME to update its website on its own. A wiki does away with traditional design and just focuses on the information. Its simplicity of updation and the addition of new pages makes it easily manageable, without the need for any intervention. Simplicity of design is what Google has pioneered, and what wikis can take further.

The weblog is akin to the Whats New page. This is where the SME can post new business developments, product releases, buying needs, links to relevant articles, commentaries on other developments (or blog posts). The weblog is like the SMEs periodic newsletter the difference is that it not emailed or distributed, only published. A weblog makes publishing very easy. Each post has a permalink and is therefore always accessible and can be linked without suffering from link rot.

Taken together with the wiki, the weblog now offers the SME a way to provide the necessary background as well as the recent updates about the business and perhaps the industry in general. What is disruptive, as we shall soon see, is the RSS feed produced by the blog and a ping sent out to a central server whenever the blog is updated.

In addition, an SMBmeta.xml file (as outlined by Dan Bricklin) offers meta information about the SME contact information, type of industry, and so on. It is a file that is machine readable and can be picked up and searched by special programs. Thus, it becomes possible to build up a searchable distributed directory of SMEs across multiple parameters with the information provided and kept updated by SMEs in their space.

Thus, the wiki, weblog and SMBmeta data provide the SME a self-publishing space. The SME is not required to post information on any central locations or directories. Write in your own space is the message to SMEs. And give them the tools to make the writing easy and instantaneous. And then let magic happen!

The RSS feed published by the SMEs contains the content in the blog posts. What is interesting about RSS is that it can be subscribed by anyone using an RSS aggregator. This means that whenever there is an update, the new item is made available to the subscriber without the publisher having to broadcast it. This publish-subscribe mechanism is at the heart of the STIM.

So, now the question is: how does an SME find out which feeds to subscribe to? There are multiple ways to do this: first are the strong ties – companies or people known whose feeds (or their company feeds) which can be subscribed to; second are the weak ties which emerge from the searches across the blog posts (and notifications based on these searches). For example, if I want to look for a knowledge management solution, then I can set up an alert for all new blog posts which have the phrase, or do a search on the older blog posts for relevant posts. Either way, the control is with the SME on which feeds are subscribed to. An additional way to find new SME feeds is via metablogs which can be created based on certain topics. For example, these blogs can be based on geography (within a certain area) or on a specific topic.

So, the solution is to get SMEs to start interacting via the STIM in an open, transparent way. By catering to their own self-interest, they can ensure that they all will be better off they have nothing to lose by participating. Over time, as the SMEs make money, they can now invest in technology. Hopefully, this cycle will help SMEs grow.

The interesting thing is that the STIM is not a trading market, it is only an information marketplace. There are no commissions payable on the business generated. What the STIM ensures is that SMEs get other SMEs in the value increases exponentially with every SME joining into the system. So, there is a viral marketing element embedded into this idea. The STIM is the intervention, a disruptive innovation, which can transform how SMEs buy and sell, and how they use technology.

Tomorrow: Information Access

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