Bus. Std: The Next Computing Kumbh Mela

My latest Business Standard column:

In the previous column, we looked at how every twelve years or so, the world of computing sees major breakthroughs which transform the landscape. Think of this as the computing equivalent of the Kumbh Mela. The last major breakthrough was during 1992-94 when the launch of Microsoft Windows 3.1, Intels Pentium processor, SAPs R/3, and the web browser Mosaic heralded an unprecedented period of all-round growth until the slowdown in the early part of this decade. The next computing Kumbh Mela should be just around the corner. What will it be?

Consider the present. The installed base of computers in the world stands at over 600 million, and is estimated to touch 1 billion by 2010. Cellphones already have over a billion users worldwide. More than 500 million new phones with an ever-increasing array of features are being sold every year. Broadband networks both wired and wireless are proliferating. Devices like Apples iPod are becoming status symbols in the US. There is even talk of Apple becoming the Microsoft of music.

Search engines are now the window to the Web, as evidenced by the black swan Google. Internet advertising has been reborn via the search engines and their ability to provide contextual links. eBay is working to make inefficient markets efficient globally and considers its market opportunity at about $2 trillion. Application Service Providers are making a comeback as software becomes a service, even as the enterprise software industry faces consolidation. Outsourcing to India and other countries continues growing. Bangalore will soon have a greater concentration of techies than the Silicon Valley. Telcos are shifting voice to IP networks. Radio Frequency IDs promise a world where machines will talk to other machines.

As we look ahead to the next computing Kumbh Mela, consider a couple of thoughts.

Following the announcement of Googles Gmail in April, Rich Skrenta wrote on his blog at Topix.net: Google is a company that has built a single very large, custom computer. It’s running their own cluster operating system. They make their big computer even bigger and faster each month, while lowering the cost of CPU cycles. It’s looking more like a general purpose platform than a cluster optimized for a single application. While competitors are targeting the individual applications Google has deployed, Google is building a massive, general purpose computing platform for web-scale programming. This computer is running the world’s top search engine, a social networking service, a shopping price comparison engine, a new email service, and a local search/yellow pages engine. What will they do next with the world’s biggest computer and most advanced operating system?

This prompted a post by Tim OReilly: In a brilliant Copernican stroke, gmail turns everything on its head, rejecting the personal computer as the center of the computing universe, instead recognizing that applications revolve around the network as the planets revolve around the Sun. But Google and gmail go even further, showing that once internet apps truly get to scale, they’ll make the network itself disappear into the universal virtual computer, the internet as operating system Pioneers like Google are remaking the computing industry before our eyes. Google of course isn’t one computer — it’s a hundred thousand computers, by report — but to the user, it appears as one. Our personal computers, our phones, and even our cars, increasingly need to be thought of as access and local storage devices. The services that matter are all going to run on the global virtual computer that the internet is becoming.

I believe that the future of computing will be driven not by the existing users but the new users. These are going to be from the worlds emerging markets. They need computing at the price of a cellphone. They need computing as a utility. The next big thing in computing will be about building a platform which makes the two most important creations of the past the computer and the Internet available to the next users at a fraction of todays prices. It will be about making hardware, software, broadband connectivity, content and support available for Rs 700 ($15) per user per month for the next billion users of computing. This is a global market of $180 billion per annum which does not exist today.

To address this market needs a reinvention of the computing ecosystem. Luckily, all the elements needed to make it happen exist. Whats needed is for entrepreneurs in countries like India to look within at homes in their neighbourhood, at the small- and medium-sized enterprises in their city, and the schools and colleges which educate the next generation. Look around, and imagine the future one in which computing is ubiquitous, and a platform which can touch and transform peoples lives.

What emerging markets like India need is the equivalent of a tech utility which makes available commPuting as a utility to the masses. A centralised platform that makes available computing as a service and accessible via thin clients over a high-speed broadband infrastructure, neighbourhood computing centres that provide access on a pay-per-use basis, a community-centric content platform which makes available local information and helps small businesses connect with each other, and investments in education and healthcare to make sure they reach rural people these are the elements of the tech utility.

The computing Kumbh Melas of the past created innovations which diffused computing and the Internet across the developed markets. This first phase of the technology revolution over the past few decades touched the lives of the top of the global pyramid of consumers and enterprises. The next breakthroughs will take information technology across the digital divide. As William Gibson said, The future is already here its just unevenly distributed.” The next computing Kumbh Mela is happening. Can we see it?

India and Technology

Om Malik points to a post by Abhijit who gives examples of how technology is making a difference in India and writes:

I’m talking about getting technology to the people, the people who really sweat, who really bleed, who really work. People who crave to do something better with their lives, not for their own sake, but for their children. People who see a better future in their kids than they can ever hope to have for themselves. People who know that the project they are involved in will never be complete in their lifetimes, who’s results will be judged by future generations, and despite all that, still put in more than the get out of it. That is what moves me.

Life building upon life. Innovation builing upon innovation. The future is not out there, it’s in here. In life, in hopes, in dreams.

Esther Dyson on Google

Esther Dyson calls Google’s IPO clumsy and courageous, and ponder its future: “I don’t think that Microsoft or Yahoo will beat it at its own game, but I do think that the search game (like operating systems, browsers and other things) will turn into a commodity battle. Google needs to keep on pioneering. If you look at where things stand now, it has acquired Picasa (photos) and Blogger (guess what?). And it has built Orkut and Gmail. Clearly, more user content–from shared photos and blogging to personalized search–is in order.”

Broadband for Rural Areas

[via Wi-Fi Networking News] InfoWorld writes about why the local rural utility company has used Vivato’s technology to provide broadband wireless in rural Washington:

An electric power cooperative in southeastern Washington deployed access points and other equipment from Vivato Inc. to spread 2.4GHz Wi-Fi service across a 3,700-square-mile (9,582-square-kilometer) region, Vivato announced Monday. The area, bigger than Delaware, encompasses three counties and has a population of about 60,000.

The Columbia Energy initiative is large as unlicensed wireless deployments go. There are more than 8,000 wireless ISPs in the U.S. using license-exempt frequencies such as 2.4GHz, most of them in rural areas, according to Part-15.org, a support group for wireless ISPs. About half of U.S. wireless ISPs have fewer than 100 customers, according to materials from the group, based in North Aurora, Illinois.

Vivato’s technology works with standard Wi-Fi clients but achieves a long reach with large “phased array” antennas that can form multiple directional beams to reach individual customers, said Kevin Ryan, vice president of marketing and business development at San Francisco-based Vivato. About 1,500 customers can be assigned to one antenna, though the number of users who can access it simultaneously varies depending on their bandwidth needs, Ryan said.

The rural setting was ideal for achieving a long range with Vivato’s IEEE 802.11b technology, which uses the unlicensed 2.4GHz radio band, Husted said. Columbia’s network is designed to provide several megabits per second at a range of 20 miles in some places, he said.

“That’s one of the benefits of being able to deploy a system like this in a rural area. You don’t have a lot of competition and you don’t have a lot of interference with other companies utilizing other technologies,” Husted said.

In areas where there are obstructions or interference, Vivato installed shorter range access points, called picocells and microcells. The picocells are standard Wi-Fi access points in hardened outdoor enclosures, with a reach of 300 to 500 feet (91 meters to 152 meters), and the microcells are access points with directional antennas designed to reach 1,500 to 2,000 feet to reach particular buildings in built-up areas, said Vivato’s Ryan.

The low cost of the Wi-Fi clients was a key factor in Columbia’s decision, according to Husted. The utility ran a small trial of another wireless broadband technology and found that it worked but represented three to six times the equipment cost to customers, he said.

The service is available now, with Columbia REA already up and running as a customer, Husted said. Service plans, all offering best-effort service and equal bandwidth upstream and downstream, will range from 256K bps (bits per second) for $39.95 per month to 1.5M bps for $259.95 per month. Multiple clients in the same enterprise will be able to share a single account.

TECH TALK: From Employee to Entrepreneur: The Roadmap (Part 2)

As we blog, we start developing the mental models, a unique vision for the road ahead. It is now time to start writing the first of what will be many drafts of what we see happening in the future, and the opportunities that will open up. Whether it is a one-pager or a longer essay or just a set of mindmaps, it is very important to build this vision document. It is needed both for consolidating our thinking and for getting feedback from others. It is not a question of being right or wrong at this time it is more important to have one’s own beliefs and perspectives on what one believes will happen, and the white spaces that are there.

It is now time to share these ideas with people. These could be friends, or they could be experts in the industry. While friends will most certainly agree to meet and provide inputs, it may be harder to get to the experts. But we should give it a try. This is where the credibility built up by the blog can be very useful. Another good way to make connections is to visit a trade show or conference. While there may be limited time for long conversations, we can use the occasion to make introductions and follow-up by email or phone. The point is that we need to schedule 1:1 interactions with people outside.

Typical meetings will be about an hour. It gives us sufficient time to present our ideas, get feedback, and debate the points raised. Like chess games, every meeting can take its own unique path. The point is that we need to ensure that we address each of the points raised by the person we are meeting. In some ways, the person on the other side is a reflector bouncing some of our ideas back at us. As we talk to others, our own thinking becomes sharper. After the meeting, spend some time going through the meeting again to make sure we addressed each of the points in the best way possible, and noting new ideas which came up in the process. This is the iterative path that will work in enriching our mental models and vision for tomorrow.

Another way to build on our starting thinking is to travel. I have found travelling internationally to be one of the best tonics for thinking and ideation. As we separate ourself from the regular environment and put ourselves into new scenarios even new countries we get opportunities not just to use a telescope to get the wide-angle view, but also a microscope to dig deeper. A couple of weeks of travel combined with meeting people in different lands can be one of the best tonics for thinking and imagining tomorrow.

There are two recently published books which can be helpful in the process of building mental models and seeing what’s next. We’ll discuss these next.

Tomorrow: Two Good Books