Beyond Yahoo and Google

Ramesh Jain writes about the quest for the next new leaps in search technologies:

The opportunity I am referring to is emergence of the next generation of portals or desktops or . Current desktops and portals are all oriented towards information gleaned from alphanumeric data and text. We have all become very used to a small slot where we can type in keywords to get pointers to a list of sources that could, hopefully, provide us information that we are looking for. We are all learning the game of thinking about the new keyword combination to express what we are looking for when our first try is not satisfactory. In fact, most of the time people say, I did not use right keywords. I find it very interesting that the same people who normally blame others for everything are willing to accept blame so easily.

Interestingly all popular search sites provide some variation of image search and music search. But this search is also based on the same keyword slot and results in a similar list of potential sources. What is more interesting is that some sites want to be Google (or Yahoo) of Multimedia and they also rely completely on the keyword slot. Moreover, their search is based on the meta data associated either with the names of the files, the sources from where they get the data or on transcribed speech component of the data. Their results for the applications they are addressing are not bad. Moreover, I believe that they can get some more mileage out of this approach, which is fundamentally clever extension of current techniques and current environments.

All the signs are that our society is progressing from information and communication technology, so called ICT, to insight and experience technology. We are seeing signs of multimedia everywhere starting from camera phones to home systems to link all your entertainment systems. Interestingly, computer as well as PDA manufacturers now try to sell their systems by emphasizing image, audio, and video based capabilities. Of course printer manufacturers have been hoping that everybody will start printing lots of pictures contributing to their profits.

So this is the case where hardware and infrastructure has progressed faster than the basic tools. This was the case in the early days of PCs as well as World Wide Web. In the first case Apple and Microsoft took the lead to provide tools that contributed to enormous growth of the industry. In the later, it has been Yahoo and Google who provided tools allowing WWW to become what it is today. In both these cases, if these tools were not provided, the technology will not progress very fast.

The question now is: Can one of the existing companies provide those tools? Or will a new company will bring their insight, innovation, and energy to help us gain insights and experience different things using all the infrastructure that is already getting in place?

Skype’s Year One

The New York Times has an article by James Fallows which has some good things to say about Skype:

Skype, for now at least, it is the easiest, fastest and cheapest way for individual customers to begin using VoIP.

Skype works best from a fully connected computer, which runs counter to the whole trend of ever more mobile communication. At the end of Skype’s first year in business, I spoke with its co-founder, Niklas Zennstrom – via SkypeOut, on his cellphone in London – about his ambitions for the second year. High on his list were partnerships with manufacturers of cellphones and personal digital assistants, to build in compatibility with Skype. The company will also sustain its push to sign up new users. Skype says it has about 10 million users in 212 countries, with an average of more than 600,000 logged on at any given time.

Skype illustrates network economics in the purest form: free connections within the network become more valuable to each user as more users sign up. Because of the system’s peer-to-peer design, loosely related to the Kazaa file-sharing program that Mr. Zennstrom and Skype’s other co-founder, Janus Friis, invented four years ago, the system scales well – that is, it doesn’t bog down as more users join. The peer-to-peer design also allows it to work behind most Internet firewalls.

Skype’s own economics, including its promise that it will never impose a charge for Skype-to-Skype connections, depend on maintaining its rock-bottom cost structure and slowly adding revenue, through services like SkypeOut and future voice-mail and video-call services. The drive to hold down costs is also what originally took Mr. Zennstrom, a Swede, and Mr. Friis, a Dane, to Estonia. As Mr. Zennstrom sees it, during the “bubble years” in Sweden, programmers lost some of the hungriness and hustle he could still find in the Baltics.

The risks make it hard to predict the company’s future. The world’s existing telecom companies, battered for more than a decade by technical, regulatory and marketing changes, will presumably want to answer this latest challenge. Mr. Zennstrom says the telecoms should view Skype as healthily “disruptive technology” and respond by reinventing their business – as I.B.M. has done since the rise of the personal computer – instead of pouting their way into decline.

3G Rollouts

The Economist compares the reality to the hype as the 3G networks are being rolled out:

Most observers agree that there has been a shift in expectations about how 3G networks will be used, away from video and other data services and towards traditional voice calling.

Three years ago, everyone was talking about video-telephony, says Mike Thelander of Signals Research Group, a consultancy. But while video-telephony sounds cool, the evidence from early 3G launches in Japan, South Korea, Britain and Italy is that hardly anybody uses it. Market research suggests that women are particularly reluctant to adopt it, says Mr Cole. Nokia’s first mainstream 3G handset, the 7600, does not even support video calling, but nobody seems to mind.

Nor have the high hopes for data services been fulfilledso far, at least. The idea was to encourage consumers to adopt data services on 2G phones, paving the way for fancier services on 3G phones. But while text-messaging is hugely popular, with over a billion messages sent daily worldwide, other forms of wireless data such as photo messaging, news updates, and music and game downloads have proved much less popular with consumers in most countriesJapan and South Korea are notable exceptions.

Greater emphasis is being placed instead on 3G’s ability to deliver cheap voice callsfor as well as being able to support faster data downloads than 2G networks, 3G networks provide vast amounts of voice capacity (typically three times as much as a 2G network) at a lower price (typically a quarter of the cost per minute). As a result, says Bob House, an analyst at Adventis, operators’ sights are now much more firmly trained on displacing voice from fixed networks.

Mark Cuban Interview

Excerpts from an interview with Mark Cuban, the founder of Broadcast.com, and who most recently has launched HDNet, the first national network to broadcast all of its programming in 1080i resolution, the highest-quality format of high-definition:

[On future technologies:] There’s ultrawideband and there’s some fiber-to-the-home things that I think are interesting. Right now, we’re kind of in an application lull. We’re at a point of diminishing returns with processor speed, so the PC industry and the technology industry have made audio/video in the home their holy grail for the next few years–whether it’s faster wireless inside the home, whether it’s a different distribution mechanism, whether it’s HD in the PC, the media center stuff, so that’s kind of the sweet spot right now.

But I think longer term, the biggest upside is going to come from mega-bandwidth to the home. When you start getting over 100 megabits [per second], it changes things; 5, 10, 20, even 30 [megabits per second] just lets you do traditional applications faster–it doesn’t really open the door to new applications. But when you start getting past 100 megabits, then you can start doing things like take a consumer high-def camera or just a regular digital video camera for that matter, plug it into to a PC, and at 100 megabits you’re going to get a crystal-clear resolution sending it back to your doctor.

For the elderly, I could see insurance companies investing in buying a video setup, which would enable the whole house or an apartment with cameras to keep an eye on the elderly or to set up a checkup PC where you just have a high-resolution Web cam and you have the person fill out a questionnaire online and have a doctor on the other side doing two-way video with them. If you can’t get out of your house, that’s the next best thing to being there.

Craig Newmark Interview

Excerpts from an interview with the creator of Craigslist in Wired:

We’ve created a culture of trust and fairness. The site makes it easier for people to get everyday stuff done, like selling things and finding an apartment. Then there’s another aspect – it has helped people who have a hard time meeting other people. They’re using the site and becoming friends, lovers, and every possible twist on those two situations.

[My corporate mantra is] Give people a break. A break from how difficult our lives are. It’s like, if you’re walking out of your apartment building and somebody is coming the other way with an armful of groceries, you hold the door. It feels good – it’s the neighborly thing to do. And our species survives by cooperating.

The New York Times adds:

In all, 57 cities have Craigslist sites, including 3 in Britain and 3 in Canada. Together, the sites attracted more than five million individual visitors in July, who registered more than a billion page views.

Craigslist does not charge for most postings and transactions on the site. It does charge $75 for employers to post job listings on the San Francisco/Bay Area site, and it charges $25 for employers to post listings in New York and Los Angeles.

Revenues of $10 million might seem to make Craigslist highly lucrative, given that the whole enterprise is operated by a paid staff of 14.

TECH TALK: Creating Options: Personal Examples

I was in the twelfth standard (junior college). Even as I was preparing for the IIT entrance examination, my father insisted that I apply to the best universities abroad. His viewpoint was that there should be no compromise in getting the best education, and if I did not get into IIT, it would at least give me options to consider. As it turns out, I did get admission into both IIT and Carnegie-Mellon. I chose IIT because I get the discipline of my choice (Electrical Engineering) and the location of my choice (Mumbai). As I think about this, I realise that what my father did was to create an option for me for a decision that would be critical in shaping my career.

Many years later, as I looked for a partner for IndiaWorld, this same lesson of creating options hit home again. I had a choice between selling to Sify, and doing a joint venture with an international company in the Internet business, with the possibility of listing the JV on Nasdaq at a future point of time. The availability options helped me (and my investment bankers) negotiate from a position of strength, and get the best possible valuation for IndiaWorld. If there is just one company with whom we are talking, there would have little question of significant discussion on the terms. We would have ended up accepting what they put on the table. But because there was a choice that we had, we could do much better. It is something I tell other entrepreneurs also always have options available when it comes to raising capital, else there is no point discussing since you only have to decide if you want to take the offer that is there on the table or not.

In fact, we ended up in the situation where we could consider various offers for IndiaWorld because of some choices we had made right at the beginning. Portals were what we wanted to do, but we also had to ensure that we created revenues to ensure that we lived through long enough till the portals future took off. So, we started developing websites for various organisations in India, even as we created a suite of portals for Indians on the Internet abroad and in India. The websites ensured a steady revenue flow which kept us profitable, and allowed us to wait till the best offer came along. Since we were not losing money and had no external investors, we could take our time in making the decision there was no pressure on meeting payroll at the end of the month which would force us into decisions which may not have been the smartest ones. Creating options is about ensuring that we can manage both the short-term and the long-term.

Tomorrow: Personal Examples (continued)

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