My thinking this summer was very similar to what I had been thinking in 1994, when I wanted a new way to reach Indians worldwide. Then, I used the Internet as a distribution platform. Now, I needed to do the same. Then, I focused on delivering news and information to an audience with their own computers and connectivity. Now, I was seeking to deliver the basic utility of computing to an audience which had no computers and no connectivity.
What struck me was how similar and yet so different the two worlds were. Go back to 1994 and the pre-Internet era. We communicated largely by phone and fax. Phone calls were still quite expensive I remember paying $2-3 per minute to call India from the US during peak hours. It was an era of writing long letters home every Sunday. With friends at universities, talk meant a Unix program which would split the screen into two and each of us could then see what the other was typing. Computers in India were limited to the real upper end. India software service companies had just started to make their mark somewhat in the US. Cellphones were the privilege of a few in the US.
The world of 2004 is awash in computers globally. More than the computer, it is the cellphone which has become the device we hold dearest to us. Even as 180 million computers will be bought this year, nearly 600 million cellphones will be purchased globally. Voice-over-IP threatens the very existence of the telecom companies in the US. Call rates between India and the US have dropped to single digit rupees per minute. Letter-writing has been replaced by IM and video chatting almost every day between families separated by distance. The Internet has made available information on our fingertips. At least some parts of India in 2004 is shining and rising. Finally, the buying power of the 200+ million Indian middle class market is there to be seen.
And yet, the device that has been at the heart of the productivity revolution the digital hand, as James Cortada puts it is barely visible across India. With an installed base of 10 million (albeit growing now at 3-4 million per annum), computers are still the preserve of a few. Even where there are used, their full potential is not exploited. Computers, instead of being windows to different worlds, have become just keyholes to a static view. This is because the deep back-ends that computers need have yet to be developed in India. A mix of high dollar-based costs, lack of connectivity, missing applications and disappearing margins have minimised the impact that computing has had.
1994 needs to be bridged with 2004. Computing and the Internet need to be married to create a new platform which can make the power of a connected computer accessible to every family, student and employee. Starting in 1994, the Internet helped bridge the information gap between Indians abroad and India. Beginning in 2004, we need to bridge the digital divide that pervades India. Ten years may have elapsed between the two summers, but the building blocks for the next revolution are very similar.
Tomorrow: A Personal View
TECH TALK Tale of Two Summers+T