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  • Freidman: India needs More Reforms, not Less

    Thomas Friedman writes on the aftermath of the Indian elections, echoing some of the sentiment in my Tech Talk series this week:

    The broad globalization strategy that India opted for in the early 1990’s has succeeded in unlocking the country’s incredible brainpower and stimulating sustained growth, which is the best antipoverty program. I think many Indians understand that retreating from their globalizing strategy now would be a disaster and result in India’s neighborhood rival, China, leaving India in the dust. But the key to spreading the benefits of globalization across a big society is not about more Internet. It is about getting your fundamentals right: good governance, good education. India’s problem is not too much globalization, but too little good governance. Local government in India basic democracy is so unresponsive and so corrupted it can’t deliver services and education to rural Indians. As an Indian political journalist, Krishna Prasad, told me: “The average Indian voter is not saying, `No more reforms,’ as the left wants to believe, but, `More reforms, please’ genuine reforms, reforms that do not just impact the cities and towns, but ones which percolate down to the grass roots as well.”

    India needs a political reform revolution to go with its economic one. “With prosperity coming to a few, the great majority are simply spectators to this drama,” said Mr. George. “The country is governed poorly, with corruption and heavy bureaucracy at all levels. I am a great advocate of technology and globalization, but we must find a way to channel their benefits to the rural poor. What is happening today will not succeed because we are relying on a corrupt and socially unfair system.”

    Microsoft’s Malaysia Strategy

    WSJ writes about Microsoft’s affordability experiment in Malaysia:

    PCs were red-hot for two days last month when software giant Microsoft Corp. swept into town. It offered shiny new computers running Microsoft software at rock-bottom prices. The machines were packed with everything from Microsoft’s signature world-processing software to a “premium” digital-photography package. They even boasted a Windows interface with key commands translated into the local language.

    Microsoft and chip-maker Intel Corp., along with local partners, set up a colorful display of low-cost PCs on the ground floor of the Port Dickson mall, between a supermarket and a ginseng vendor. There were Microsoft balloons, posters and six new PCs for shoppers to try out as part of the government’s “PC Gemilang” program. That translates from the Malay as, roughly, “brilliant PC.” Machines running the Malaysian version of Windows XP started at roughly $302 [monitor included]; computers with Linux software cost even less, about $263. [Microsoft] its less robust — and less expensive — Works program in place of Office.

    The promotion, part of a PC-ownership initiative backed by the Malaysian government, offers a glimpse of a much broader strategy of price cuts and other initiatives Microsoft executives are readying for the developing world.

    Things like the Malaysian initiative could represent a break from the company’s years-old policy of “global pricing,” or charging roughly the same amount for most products world-wide. Microsoft is even considering a sort of “Windows Lite” operating system, which could offer fewer features, and a lower price, to people in less tech-savvy nations.

    It’s a risky strategy, but one the Redmond, Wash., company is pursuing to drum up more business in poorer nations and fight “open source” software like Linux, its chief competitor there. Much open-source software can be downloaded free from the Internet, making it attractive to Third World governments struggling to bring their populations online.

    While Microsoft’s sales in the developing world remain scant, less-developed nations, including China and India, represent a huge and critical emerging market for the company. Microsoft knows it will have to fight Linux and tap these markets to keep its vaunted growth machine humming.

    Still, selectively slashing prices for first-time PC buyers in places like Malaysia or Indonesia opens up the possibility of a dangerous domino effect, some analysts say. Core business customers could demand discounts, too. Cheap and scaled-down software, if written in English, could cross international borders, depressing the price for regular Microsoft products globally and breaking the company’s profitable lock on the market.

    The program could signal “the start of the collapse of the Microsoft pricing structure,” says Sam Jadallah, a venture capitalist at Mohr Davidow Ventures in Silicon Valley and a former top Microsoft executive. Indeed, the low-cost Malaysian PC program was sparked by a similar government initiative last year in Thailand. Indonesia recently announced a consumer computer program, and Vietnam and Laos are expected to launch initiatives soon.

    Microsoft’s Mr. Moore wouldn’t comment about a “Windows Lite” operating system. But he said Microsoft is evaluating whether its current products represent “the appropriate technology, packaging and pricing for the developing world.”

    The company would like to offer a uniform package of low-cost software to countries below a certain per-capita income, Mr. Moore said. The packages likely would be distributed only through government-PC programs. And, most likely, the low-cost software would be translated into local languages, as it is in Malaysia and Thailand. If it offered the software in English, the products could move around the globe, and “in six months’ time, the U.S. price would be the same price as in Malaysia,” says Butt Wai Choon, managing director of Microsoft’s Malaysian subsidiary.

    BEA’s Plans

    News.com writes about BEA’s plans after a disappointing quarter:

    BEA, which last week announced lower-than-expected sales, is hoping to revive customer interest with several new products. The company plans to fill in the picture on Project Sierra, a set of educational programs and technical resources for designing a modern computing system called a services-oriented architecture. Also expected are details about an initiative to broaden the use of its WebLogic Workshop Java development tool, in part by submitting some of the code to open-source projects, according to people familiar with the company’s plans.

    And, BEA said, it will discuss products under development, including better management tools; a standards-based messaging product called an enterprise service bus; and the next version of its flagship WebLogic product line.

    Analysts generally agree that BEA’s technical vision has long been on target. But the company is finding that even cutting-edge technology does not guarantee growth in the highly competitive market for infrastructure software. Larger and better-heeled competitors, such as IBM and Microsoft, have broader product lines, which gives them more inroads to large corporate accounts, analysts said.

    BEA’s WebLogic Platform suite includes an application server–the software needed to run applications–as well as a portal, integration software and a Java development tool. The company has sought to reduce its dependency on the WebLogic application server, which fueled its rapid growth in the late 1990s, by selling the WebLogic Platform suite of products.

    When BEA launched WebLogic Platform 8.1 last summer, the company said its Workshop development tool would make Java programming easier and simplify the process of integrating multiple business applications–long a pain point with corporate customers.

    At its eWorld customer conference, BEA intends to describe how it will expand its product line and to articulate its overall technology vision. According to descriptions of conference sessions, BEA will discuss tools built around Web services protocols to ease the management of WebLogic applications. The company will also detail “Diablo,” the code name for the next version of the WebLogic application server, which is being designed to improve its clustering capabilities. Another product in the works is an enterprise service bus (ESB), code named QuickSilver, which is not expected to be completed until next year, according to a software executive who works at a BEA partner company.

    Another News.com report discusses Beehive:

    The goal of the initiative is to get more developers to use Java tools compatible with BEA server software. BEA also hopes to spur the creation of “controls,” or prewritten Java components, based on BEA’s component model.

    The Beehive code, which will be updated by BEA engineers, will be available this summer through a BSD-style open-source license. BEA has not yet decided which organization will host the open-source project.

    BEA’s WebLogic Workshop is a visual development tool designed to simplify Java programming and make it easier to integrate business applications. The tool has received praise from customers and industry analysts for its ability to mimic the visual programming style popularized by Microsoft’s Visual Basic.

    Although WebLogic Workshop has been a successful product for BEA, the company is facing growing competition for developer loyalty from other Java tools efforts, including Eclipse, an open-source project founded by IBM. In the past year, usage of Eclipse has shot up dramatically, with usage in North America rising 90 percent, according to Evans Data.

    The software being released to the open-source community is what BEA calls an “application framework,” or a set of utilities for deploying Java applications. For example, the Beehive software includes tools for managing a series of events during a multistep Web services application or designing the sequence of Web page views in a portal application. BEA executives said the company will not make any other “run time” software, such as its WebLogic application or portal software available to open-source developers.

    Right now, the Beehive application framework only works with BEA’s WebLogic Workshop development environment. That means that when a Java programmer writes an application with BEA’s Workshop, the application can only run on BEA’s Java server software. By making Beehive software open source, programmers will be able to use any Java development tool and potentially deploy it on other Java server software packages, BEA executives said.

    Telstra’s Sensis Youth Search Plans

    The Australian writes about how Sensis plans to fight back the global majors by creating a youth-focused search engine brand:

    Sensis general manager of search Greg Ellis says the new search brand, which will launch within two months, will target a primary audience of “net-savvy” 15 to 28-year-olds. It will co-exist with existing Sensis brands such as Yellow Pages and aims to take on Google and Yahoo by filling a gap in the market for search information that is locally relevant. “What we’re trying to do is to build a brand that we currently don’t have (to) appeal to a younger audience (of) 15 to 24-year-olds,” Ellis says.

    Web and print publishers are keen to protect their classified advertising base from competition from Telstra’s Trading Post acquisition. Newspaper classifieds are worth an estimated $1.7 billion alone, representing more than half of all classified advertising.

    While Telstra has stated its aim of moving into new classified areas including recruitment and real estate advertising, its main media competitors suggest Sensis first needs to protect its 400,000 mainly small-to-medium enterprise advertisers, the main source of its massive Yellow Pages revenue stream.

    This revenue is under concerted attack from paid search advertising products from Google and Overture, which allow companies to sponsor key words on their search engines in order to generate online search results prioritised according to advertisers in each category. Overture’s service mixes relevant advertising and editorially generated links while Google’s paid links appear on one side of the screen. The benefits for advertisers are the low cost of entry and a known up-front cost per click, generating a measureable number of qualified leads.

    “(Sensis’s) business is going out the door very fast,” one competitor says. “People are going more naturally to the internet for things they need to know.”

    Effectively, Sensis’s directories will provide the local information for its new search service, the LookSmart acquisition will provide Australian web information, which Sensis will augment, and an alliance with Yahoo’s Inktomi will provide the global internet feed.

    Hitwise vice-president of search Gavin Appel says the Sensis launch could boost the demand for localised search information.

    “There is a gap in the (Australian) market,” Appel says. “Sensis has got all the features that are required for an effective local search product.”

    He says despite the heritage of the White Pages and Yellow Pages brands, the new site will effectively be starting from scratch and will need to be heavily promoted in order to attract traffic.

    Overture’s Mel Bohse says traffic is the main problem facing Sensis.

    “The search model works on volume of search or distribution,” Bohse says. “The absolute key (for advertisers) is how much traffic I can provide them.”

    This is a foretaste of the battle that will loom in all the markets between the search engines and the local yellow pages/classifieds media companies.

    Mobile Game Consoles

    Peter Lewis of Fortune takes a look at the new consoles from Sony and Nintendo:

    Sony unveiled its long-awaited PlayStation Portable (PSP), which won’t show up in the U.S. until next spring. Nokia revealed its N-Gage QD, a phone-and-games device that fixes many of the problems that doomed the original taco-shaped N-Gage. Microsoftcue the Darth Vader soundtrackbragged how its software could link all sorts of mobile devices to an Xbox console. But it was Nintendo, long the leader in handheld gaming, that stole the show.

    Nintendo’s mobile devicecode-named the DSis double the fun of the current Game Boy Advance. Due to hit stores this year, the DS is Nintendo’s answer both to Sony’s planned PSP attack on its handheld monopolymore than 150 million Game Boys have been soldand to the threat from games played over ubiquitous mobile phones. Although the DS and PSP aim at different marketsanalysts expect the PSP to cost between $300 and $500, vs. less than $200 for the DSthey will inevitably be compared.

    Let’s start with the PSP. It has nearly the same graphics-processing power as a PlayStation 2 console, packed into a sleek, black deck that’s about seven inches wide, three inches tall, and less than an inch thick. It weighs nine ounces. Most of the device’s face is taken up by a 4.3-inch LCD display in the widescreen ratio favored for watching DVD movies. That’s no mistake: Sony sees the PSP as much more than a game device. Its universal media disc, or UMDa new mini-CD that stores 1.8 gigabytes of audio, video, or datawill let Sony distribute feature films, music-concert videos, and other copy-protected entertainment for the PSP. Yet even if the PSP doesn’t instantly catch on as a handheld media center, it will be a force in gaming: Just about all of the world’s major videogame companies have signed up to produce games for the device. The PSP has built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi networking for surfing or multiplayer gaming, a USB 2.0 port for transferring files or adding peripherals like USB digital cameras and keyboards, and a Memory Stick Duo storage-card slot.

    The Nintendo DS prototype got the biggest cheers from the audience. Slightly larger than today’s Game Boy Advance SP, the DS has dual slots to accommodate GBA cartridges as well as new postage-stamp-sized DS cartridges. It has dual backlighted LCD color screens, one in the top part of a clamshell lid and the other in the base. The screen in the base is touch sensitiveopening the way for games that involve, say, drawing or manipulating objects with a stylus. Just stab at the villains instead of shooting them! There’s also a microphone, raising the tantalizing possibility of voice-activated games.

    The DS incorporates two forms of Wi-Fi wireless networking, one the standard 802.11b (hello, Internet), the other proprietary to Nintendo. The latter system can allow as many as 16 DS-toting friends to play one another or, thanks to the touch-sensitive screen, to exchange handwritten notes or drawings. It could be the biggest advance in classroom cheating since the PDA.

    An article based on a conference organised by Stanford Business School looks at the challenges facing the gaming industry:

    Obstacle 1: Rising costs, short life cycle. A video game is typically made for seven different platforms (computer, console, etc.) and distributed in three major North American markets, said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. Yet its life cycle on the market may be only six weeks. That’s one shot at success, with a very expensive bullet. How expensive? Making a next-generation immersive role-playing game might cost $20 million to $30 million, said Moore. The figure is lower for sports games, “where you can keep the engine going a few years,” he said.

    Obstacle 2: Piracy. The industry is essentially shut out of 90 percent of the world-regions like China, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, where the black market predominates. Opening up these markets with effective international laws and firm enforcement is “a big, long-term challenge,” said Lowenstein. “But it offers hope of building more volume for more titles in far more markets than we’re able to compete in now.”

    Obstacle 3: Talent pipeline. “Our biggest problem right now is [finding] talentin particular, executive producers who have background in both engineering and art and all the other things you need to do to make video games,” said Brown. “That is a very, very scarce commodity, and I do not see the pipeline to fill it.”

    Obstacle 4: Cultural backlash. “We have some extraordinarily violent content today,” acknowledged Lowenstein, who has successfully negotiated regulatory challenges in the past. “In five to 10 years, it will be almost indistinguishable from reality. If you get to a point where the people you’re killing in these games look like your friends, we may face a renewed threat to our medium.”

    TECH TALK: An Agenda for the Next Government: Marvels of Indian Democracy

    Even as the new government takes over and there is a sense of uncertainty as to what policies it will adopt, there are some things to be happy and proud of. For one, the graceful manner in which Vajpayee bowed out of power, with his statement, A party may have lost, but a nation has won. There was no horse-trading to try and stay in power the people had given their vote for change, and in the true spirit of democracy, the verdict was accepted without a murmur by the BJP and its partners.

    Second, the use of the million electronic voting machines (EVMs) which short-circuited rigging and the counting process. Developed by Bharat Electronics, the EVMs performed remarkably well across the country. Even aside from the cost savings, they have ensured speed when it comes to delivery of the results. As recently as a few years ago, the counting process in India was something which extended for a few days. This time around, it was all over in a few hours. There may still be some questions on how rigging-free the EVMs were (are there Trojan Horses in the software) these must be addressed by Bharat Electronics by having the software analysed by experts. But for now, Indian can bask in the glory of having conducted a truly electronic election!

    Third, the presence of youth among the winning candidates. In politics, youth may mean inexperience, but it also means energy. Even though most of the younger winners are relatives of older politicians, they belong to a different era. Hopefully, this will bring about fresh thinking in governance. India’s youthful population has high hopes from its generation next of politicians. Over time, hopefully, there will be more professionals who will enter politics. This is the radical transformation that is needed.

    Fourth, the media coverage and the exit polls. The competition among the TV channels ensured that there was ample variety and some levity in what one saw. The exit polls, even though they were all proved wrong, added to the drama. If there is one thing to learn from the exit polls, it is that they tend to capture the direction but not the magnitude of the swing. Now that the elections are over, we can all get on with life.

    For me, after three elections (1996, 1998, 1999) which I helped cover live on the Internet on our IndiaWorld portals, I sat back and watched the results unfold on TV and the Internet. It was a very different experience. TV did a good job in presenting the overall results and the opinions. The Internet websites provided more depth. But it was still hard to find out what has happening in a specific constituency. Hopefully, the next elections will correct this, and also see a greater debate also at local levels. If we can build out India’s social, physical and digital infrastructure in the next five years, that dream may actually be more closer to reality that we can now imagine.

    So, we, the people of India, have made our decision. Irrespective of what party or candidate we voted for, it is for us to ensure that we get the governance we need to take India forward faster. Bharat and India are but two sides of the same coin. Without one, there is no other. The hopes of many now rest with a few. Will they deliver?