Wireless Wonders

Business Week has a special report on new wireless technologies that “will soon reconfigure the Web using radio spectrum that doesn’t cost a dime.”

the unlicensed portion of the radio spectrum is turning into a hothouse of technological innovation. For years, these radio frequencies were neglected, the lonely domain of cordless phones and microwave ovens. In the past few years, however, engineers at institutions from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Dutch giant Royal Philips Electronics (PHG ) have been hard at work on a grander vision for the unlicensed radio frontier. That tinkering is what sparked the creation of Wi-Fi, the wildly popular wireless Net technology that took off last year with the support of chip giant Intel Corp. (INTC ).

Wi-Fi is just the first step, though. Hard on its heels are four equally innovative technologies — WiMax, Mobile-Fi, ZigBee, and Ultrawideband — that will push wireless networking into every facet of life, from cars and homes to office buildings and factories. These technologies have attracted $4.5 billion in venture investments over the past five years, according to estimates from San Francisco-based investment bank Rutberg & Co. Products based on them will start hitting the market this year and become widely available in 2005. As they do, they will expand the reach of the Internet for miles and create a mesh of Web technologies that will provide connections anywhere, anytime. “Now you have a toolbox full of wireless tools that can help with each problem, whether it’s reaching a couple of inches or a couple of miles,” says Ian McPherson, president of Wireless Data Research Group.

These technologies will usher in a new era for the wireless Web. They’ll work with each other and with traditional telephone networks to let people and machines communicate like never before. People in what have been isolated towns, be it in Ireland or Idaho, will find themselves with blazingly fast Net connections. Zooming down the highway, you’ll be able to use a laptop or PDA to check the weather or the traffic a few miles ahead. Back at home, couch potatoes will be able to dish up movies from their PC and transfer them to the flat screen in the living room — without any wires at all. And tiny wireless sensors will control the lights in skyscrapers, monitor utility meters in suburban neighborhoods, even track toxicity levels in wastewater. This will give rise to the Internet of Things, networks of smart machines that communicate with each other.

Knowledge Management

James Fallows writes in the New York Times:

A current race for a solution goes by the deceptively blah name of “knowledge management,” or K.M. It is an effort to bring Google-like clarity to the swamp of data on each person’s machine or network, and it is based on the underappreciated tension between a computer’s capacity and a person’s. Modern computers “scale” well, as the technologists say – that is, the amount of information they can receive, display and store goes up almost without limit. Human beings don’t scale. They have finite amounts of time, attention and, even when they’re younger than the doddering baby boomers, short-term memory. The more e-mail, Web links and attached files lodged in their computer systems, the harder it can be for people to find what they really want.

If anything, the challenge of helping people find their own information is harder than what Google has done. Search engines let you explore sites you haven’t seen before. Knowledge management systems should let you easily retrieve that Web page, that phone number, that interesting memo you saw last month and meant to do something with.

The current creative struggle is important because, when it yields a victor, it will leave everyone less frustrated about using a computer. What makes the struggle intriguing is that it involves two great axes of competition. On the business level, it is another installment of that ancient tale, Microsoft vs. the World. On the conceptual level, it raises basic questions about what knowledge is.

The underlying intellectual question about knowledge management is whether people actually think of knowledge as a big heap of laundry just out of the dryer, or as neatly folded pajamas, shirts and so on, all placed in the proper drawers. The “big heap” theory lies behind some of the programs: we don’t care where or how things are stored; we just want to find certain pairs of socks – or P.D.F. files – exactly when we need them. The “folded PJ’s” theory guides a variety of programs that let you mark information as it shows up – for instance, tagging an article you know you want to refer to later, when shopping for a new car. Brains work both ways, and the ideal K.M. software will, too.

Google’s success suggests that there is a huge potential for solving a problem that people didn’t realize they had until the right solution appeared.

Indian Agriculture: Going Beyond Livelihood

Suhit Anantula writes: “We need to convert Agriculture from a livelihood activity to a commercial activity. How can we provide more employment opportunity to the millions of people depended on Agriculture?” Suhit quotes from Alan Guebert was one of 10 international journalists to travel to India March 20-26. Through in-country visits and interviews set up by GMF and the Confederation of Indian Industry, the trip hoped to offer insight on the developing worlds struggle with key globalization issues such as poverty, trade and agriculture.

Gitaben Senma, 38 years old and the mother of four, earns 50 rupees per day, or about $1, for the seven hours she toils in two small plots of fodder and sorghum near Ganeshpura, a tiny farming village in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat.

Miniscule as it is, the pay is more than three times what she formerly earned, 15 rupees, working 11 hours each day as a laborer on a nearby bigger farm.

In simple terms, Gitaben and the policy makers face a question that is as easy to ask as it is impossible to answer: What will India do with its mostly poor, 600 million rural citizens and many of its 210 million farmers as biotechnology, mechanization and hoped-for international trade replace sweat, bent backs and water buffalo?

“In India,” says Dr. Suman Sinha of the Gene Campaign in India, “agriculture is not a commercial activity; it’s a livelihood. If these people can’t farm, there’s nothing for them to do.” So too in the rest of the developing world. If these people cannot farm, theres nothing else for them to do. So its crucial for farmers to have rights to their seeds. This in not about charity; this is about equality and justice. She notes that the basic work of seed development was done by farmers. Of the 100 steps to develop seed, the first 70 to 80 steps were taken by farmers; the next 20 to 30 steps by geneticists. So who has the greater claim of ownership?

Sinha, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Heidelberg and has taught at the universities of Saskatchewan and Chicago, is not given to overstatement. Indian agriculture, as rife with challenges as with people, is nearly impossible to overstate.

For example, in India:

– 570 million people are directly employed in the food sector.
– 115 million farmers own land, 95 million farmers own no land but farm under sharecrop leases.
– 78 percent of all landholdings are less than 5 acres, 59 percent are less than 2.5 acres and only 1.6 percent are “large holdings” of more than 25 acres.
– Mechanization per farm averages one-third horsepower, a nearly invisible fraction of that on Western farms.
– One-third of the annual harvest, equivalent to the yearly production of Australia, is either wasted or rots because of the lack of refrigeration, integrated markets, all-season roads and other infrastructure shortfalls.
– Of the 650,000 cities, towns and villages in India, not one has water 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
– $8 billion per year, or about $12 per citizen, is doled out in ag subsidies, many tied to irrigation and food assistance.
– India’s farmers are monsoon-dependent, yet 47 percent of all rainfall evaporates, 31 percent runs off into rivers and streams and only 22 percent is captured for home or farm use.
– $43 billion, an impossibly rich sum for India, is needed to solve the nation’s chronic farm water woes.
– 261 million of India’s 1 billion people receive some type of federal or state food assistance.

In one way or another, Gitaben can be found in every one of those statistics. She’s poor, landless and uneducated. Her key tools are her hands, water and will. But she’s three times better off today than yesterday.

Tomorrow, however, will bring contract farming, tractors, biotech seed, international market pressure and global agribusiness, and neither Gitaben nor India is ready.

Residential Gateways

Dana Blankenhorn writes about gateways…

A gateway has an Internet connection on one side, and some sort of LAN connection on the other. (Usually it includes a wireless LAN.) It’s a modem, it’s a router, it’s a switch.

But what is it in terms of the market? How will you get it?

Is it a set-top box? Certainly the friends who got me curious about all this in the first place think so. A carrier defines their Internet services through the gateway. Phone companies are picking partners. They could point to Bell Canada’s tie-in with Siemens. All the carriers are picking partners. Get hitched now or miss out. Who do they play golf with?

Is it a modem? This was the surprising conclusion of ABI Research, in a report issued late last month. Standards are emerging, there will be little to tell between them, they said. This is how consumers like it, and it’s a great way for DSL to pick up market share against cable, since cable companies prefer wires to wireless.

Is it a cell phone? The DSLForum is voting on proposed standards right now, for what’s in the gateway, the server it connects to, and the way that server connects. But not every gateway will work on every DSL network. Maybe phone companies could put a range of gateways on offer, at a range of prices, ranging from free to a few hundred dollars, with different capabilities — some handling video, others focusing on punching through walls, still others basic units for home networking.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Rob Keenan of CommsDesign suggested that it could change. Basic units might go retail, the way Linksys routers do, but as video takes hold phone companies might give them away as part of the service. “I care about cheap, easy to install, and whether it works,” he said. “All this other stuff is meaningless.”

…and why they matter:

A residential gateway is probably going to define how you get your Internet service in coming years.

Why buy a modem, a router, a switch, and a Wi-Fi set-up when can get them all at once, probably free?

This makes gateways important. Since the Wi-Fi set-up is in there too, they’re also going to define your Local Area Network.

And the LAN is where your Always-On applications will live.

So, yeah, gateways matter. It’s a market worth studying.

It could be an interesting market opportunity in India as broadband starts picking up in the next 1-2 years.

Counterview on Gmail

Jeremy Zawodny has a counterpoint to Tim O’Reilly on Gmail:

For god’s sake, it’s web mail with a really big quota!

Now maybe I’m missing something here. And if I am, I hope a Gmail tester or two will set me straight (I have not had the time I’d like to play with it, but I have heard from a few of those who have). Let me recount the “innovations” from Google’s Gmail as I’ve heard them:

Giving users a lot of space. Okay, this isn’t rocket surgery. Disks have been getting cheaper for a long time now. Do you honestly expect to see other large (and even mid-tier) web mail providers not increasing their offerings to match or surpass those of Gmail? It seems like a no-brainer to me.
Proving virtual folders, conversations, search-based message lists, or whatever you want to call them. So we’ve got threading (not new) plus virtual folders (not new) in a single mail interface. Well, stop the presses! It’s amazing to think that no mail clients have offered this functionality in the last 5-7 years! Oh, wait. They have.
Adding context-sensitive ads to your mail. Yippie! I’m gonna switch right away so I can start seeing SPAM that I cannot filter even in my previously non-spam mail. Sign me up!
Yup. I’ve come up with three things. Did I miss something? I must have, because Tim’s convinced that this is very, very important but I’m just not seeing it.

I mean, it “turns everything on its head” right?

It feels very incremental to me, but this is supposed to be part of the big Internet OS In The Sky (the drum Tim’s been beating for a few years now), but I haven’t seen the API yet. Or the new services they’re offering. Or a version that works in the [modern] browser I use.

Can we please tone down the hype a few notches and get back to thinking about services that actually offer something remarkable and innovative? Something with an API. And if we’re going to beat the Internet OS drum some more, how about something that actually fits into what one might think of as an infrastructure service rather than an end-user application?

I think the reality lies somewhere in between. What Google’s Gmail has done is made people think about what can be – there’s still a long way to go for that world to become a reality. But it surely sets us all thinking about the world of tomorrow.

TECH TALK: As India Develops: Distribution Hubs (Part 7)

The last excerpt from the RISC paper by Atanu Dey and Vinod Khosla looks at the benefits of RISC:

Essentially the innovation that we present in this monograph arises from the recognition that there are a large number of very pressing problems that need to be urgently addressed. The solution to a comprehensive set of problems has to be equally comprehensive for it to be successful. We briefly outline a few of the problems that RISC solves.

Rural-urban Migration

RISC would slow down the rural-urban migration and could reverse it as well. People are forced to migrate in search of economic opportunities. It is often the most educated among rural populations that migrate to cities and thus are a drain to the rural economy. RISC would be a most attractive location for the educated rural people to look for employment. They will be able to facilitate and mediate the interactions between the services and the rural population.

Housing, Police, Health, Education, Real Estate and other Services

Over the next 15 years, India would need something like 50 billion sq ft of new housing and billions of sq ft of commercial construction. Much of this will have to be located in currently rural areas. The required investments will be astronomical. Therefore the need for coordination, allocation of capital, logistics etc. is critical. Since real estate requires inputs from various sectors of the economy, the features of RISC, such as economies of scale, scope and network are ideally suited to this end. Affordable housing will be a very big issue. RISC can help focus the efforts of providing affordable housing in rural India.

Multiple Use of Facilities

Because RISC would concentrate a lot of different services at the same location, it would be easy to share many common resources. For example, consider the computing facilities and internet facilities. They have multiple uses from education and training to conducting business and market access. Distance education classes on a wide range of topics could be delivered. At other times, the same computers connected to the internet could be used for business purposes.

Economies of Scale in Manpower Training

Training manpower is one of the most expensive activities in any enterprise. Fortunately, the average costs of this decrease the more people that need to be given some standardized training. Since every service will be provided over hundreds of locations, it will be possible to train people in large batches and thus reduce the cost of training. One can imagine private training firms such as NIIT providing these services. More training and education firms will become viable.

Retention of Manpower

Because a RISC concentrates a lot of different activities in one location, people would be more inclined to be located in the rural area. Thus a doctor serving in the health center of the RISC would find that he or she has access to most of the services that he would have expected in an urban area and so be more likely to be there. The same would go for school teachers, and bank employees, and so on.

Identifying and Encouraging Entrepreneurs

The fuel that powers any modern economy is the pool of entrepreneurs in it. Among the 700 million rural population of India, there must be hundreds of thousands of latent entrepreneurs. Not just that, there must be potentially world-class artists, doctors, scientists, engineers, economists, dramatists, film makers, philosophers, mathematicians, etc., in that huge population. It is an unimaginable loss to the nation and to the world at large that simply because we lack the resources to empower the proper tools and the training, they never achieve their potential.

RISC provides a simple cost-effective method of discovering this talent. Being just a bicycle commute away from every rural person, it draws those that are the most motivated to it and makes available the resources that they need to develop. It puts our limited resources in the hands of those best able to use them.

Market Access

The non-agricultural production of rural India is extremely diverse. The internet has lowered the barriers significantly for market access. Even small producers of handicrafts can reach consumers all the way across the world. Information about products and their characteristics that suit the market most will help in driving the rural economy to produce what is needed. This will generate employment and preserve traditional skills, while tuning them to national and global demand.

Just as piracy and non-consumption are not the solutions to making computing affordable, neither a one-track focus on outsourced services nor wishing away the challenges of rural India is not going to make for a developed nation. If we had unlimited resources in India, we could afford to provide every village in India with the best possible infrastructure and services. But we do not. And that is where RISC comes in. It is a start the first (and arguably, the most important) rapid step on a journey that needs to be completed in limited time. Because given Indias young population, we cannot afford to lose another generation.

Tomorrow: Putting It Together

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