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Bus. Std: The Next Computing Kumbh Mela

August 25th, 2004 · No Comments

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?

Tags: Bus. Std. (ICE World) Column

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