BUS. Std: The Net Will Change

My latest column in Business Standard:

The Internet as we know it is about 10 years old. It has had its share of ups and downs during this period. As we look ahead, the Internet that we currently use is going to be fundamentally transformed by an assortment of new technologies and business models. These will have far-reaching implications for us in India in both our personal and professional lives.

The Internet’s impact has been rather limited in India in its first decade. Yes, we have about 8-10 million Internet connections and 20+ million users. But there are more who use cellphones. Applications and services on the Internet have also been surprisingly slow to develop, hobbled by lack of imagination, venture capital and business models. The connectivity situation (low speed, high cost, and intermittently reliable) has not helped.

As we look ahead, a number of developments offer promise of an Internet platform which could be as good as the best in the world. We have yet another opportunity to leapfrog. (Considering that we don’t normally do things when they should be done, attempting to leapfrog is always a good option!) A positive feedback cycle can be created by low-cost access devices, affordable broadband connections, relevant applications and value-enhancing services. There is a need for co-ordinated action across multiple industries to realise this future.

So, what does the New and Next Internet portend? What are its characteristics?

Always-on: We are moving in India from a pay-per-use pricing model to a flat rate subscription model (in some cases, with download limits). But the instant availability of the Internet connection will fundamentally change the way we use the Internet everything now becomes a few clicks and a few seconds away.

Ubiquitous: As data networks envelop us, the Internet will become pervasive. Already, the presence of cellular networks provides computer users the ability to connect from anywhere. In the coming years, technologies like WiMax and mesh wireless will blanket much of urban and semi-urban India.

High-speed: The narrowband speeds that we are used to will give away to higher speeds as real broadband makes its way to the mainstream. The world wide wait will be a thing of the past. What this will do is encourage the use of more media-rich content.

On-demand: As connectivity improves, there will be little difference between online and offline. If it is out there, it is instantly available. This will lead to the rise of centralised services especially for business applications. We will have control over when we want entertainment delivered.

Multi-format: The computer will no longer be the only device accessing the Internet. Smartphones with wireless data networks will provide equally viable alternatives. This means that there will be two screen footprints that content providers will need to cater to.

Two-way: The growth of weblogs is a harbinger of the publish-subscribe Internet. Readers and surfers will have the ability to participate in the content creation process. Cellphones with cameras can turn device owners into content producers.

Personalised: The Internet will also become more individualised as websites (especially search engines and portals) build up increasingly sophisticated profiles based on what we do. This will enable highly targeted advertising.

Not Free: This new Internet will not be built around the free access model that we have been used to. The eyeballs-centric business model is a thing of the past. As we find content and services of value, we are more likely to start to pay for them.

This New Internet will make possible path-breaking applications and services. From voice-over-IP which will allow phone calls anywhere in the country for a flat fee to video-on-demand which can provide education and entertainment to users when they want it, from software-as-a-service for businesses to automate all their processes to multi-player gaming platforms which will transform leisure time, the New Internet will create new opportunities as well as threaten conventional business models. It will force players in computing, entertainment, consumer electronics and entertainment to tread into each other’s territories.

We are already seeing early services which are building around these new attributes in the US and some other countries: Apples iTunes music store sells music and could as easily be extended to other DRM (digital rights management) content, Google has fundamentally changed the online advertising business, Starbucks complements its coffee blends with Wi-Fi hotspots, Chinas online games have transcended piracy, Salesforce.com has signalled the rebirth of the application service provider (ASP) business, TiVo timeshifts television and will soon offer movie downloads, Vonage offers flat-rate unlimited calling plans over IP networks, cable companies offer a bundled triple play service combining cable, telephony and Internet access.

India, too, will experience many of these disruptive innovations sooner than we can currently imagine. The New and Next Internet is the harbinger of change and turmoil. It creates opportunities and threats. It is time that we start thinking and building for tomorrow. Because someone somewhere might be doing just that.

Mobility in Enterprise Apps

[via Anand of Aeroprise] Network World writes:

Network executives increasingly are making mobility a part of their new data center architectures. Like at Bekins, they’re delivering applications to mobile workers, either pushing data out to them or collecting new data from them via WLAN or cellular data connections.

“Mobility is about bringing business applications out to the point of activity,” says Jeremy Platt, national mobility practice director for Dimension Data, a systems integrator in Reston, Va. The point of activity might be in a truck or a customer’s facility, or it might be within the company, such as wireless support for doctors at patient bedsides or for tech support staff servicing desktop PCs and network gear.

Microsoft’s $7B Question

Om Malik started off a discussion on what Microsoft does with its $7 billion R&D budget by writing: “Where are those brilliant ideas? Those brilliant products? Despite spending billions of dollars, I often find the company always reacting to market trends…Listen, I have no beef with imitation and other such ‘money making tricks.’ Imitation of hot-selling products is not such a bad idea, after all the only real scarce commodity on our planet is originality. The question is if you as a company are spending $7 billion on R&D, you must come-up with some original genre defining product.”

Make sure you also read the comments on the post on Om’s blog.

I-Neighbors for Local Communities

Slashdot links to an article in Globeandmail:

A new website aims to build a community among users who are not so far-flung. The site, called I-Neighbors, seeks to connect people with others nearby, enabling them to get to know people well enough to trade plant-sitting duties, perhaps, or feel comfortable dropping by for a chat.

By offering a one-stop shop where people can e-mail their neighbours, find information about them and be matched to those with similar interests through a social networking feature, the free site aims to initiate on-line interactions that will translate into more contact offline.

“The idea is that this breaks down some existing barriers to communication,” said Keith Hampton, the site’s founder and an assistant professor of technology, urban and community sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Imagine a site that integrates elements of PIN-News, Craigslist and i-Neighbors to provide news and events about the neighbourhood.

Better Computer Interfaces

ACM Ubiquity has an article by Benjamin Bederson, which “reviews the literature, and interprets the characteristics of flow within the context of interface design with the goal of understanding what kinds of interfaces are most conducive to supporting users being in the flow.”

Interfaces that are targeted at improving user’s ability to stay in the flow shouldn’t underestimate the importance of speed in supporting creativity, quality, and enjoyment. Every time there is an interruption, literal or conceptual that gets in the way of users concentrating on their tasks, flow is lost. Slow interfaces, which I define as any that get in the way of users acting on their work as quickly as they can think about it, are problematic.

Similarly, as has often been said before, users have extremely limited short-term memory. Any interface elements that strain a user’s memory are problematic because, again, the user’s flow will be interrupted.

Balanced with the many details of interface design is the constant need to consider the trade-offs between novice and expert users. Many interface designers find themselves feeling trapped with no opportunities to support expert users – but this is a trap that must be avoided, and can be. The new Mozilla Firebird web browser, for example, has a hidden “incremental search” feature that allows users to search within a page and follow links, all from the keyboard. This is an advanced and “scary” feature to some – but many of us that have put the energy into learning it have found that it has dramatically improved our web browsing efficiency.

My vision of computer interfaces is that they become tools in the best sense – that they become an invisible extension to our body, so we can apply them to our work with just barely being aware that we are doing so. Computers should be able to help us concentrate on our work, without concentrating on the computer.

TECH TALK: Creating Options: Personal Examples (Part 2)

In Netcore too, over the past few years, I have tried to create options for the future. Even as we have searched for the right set of ideas and framework to build out the vision of affordable computing, there are many small experiments (think of them as R&D activities) that we have done. While none of them may have been commercially successful yet, each of those has given us learnings which have been useful in putting together the plan to reinvent computing to make it more affordable, desirable, accessible and manageable for the worlds emerging markets. At times, just going down a certain path can help in opening up new horizons. It may not be immediately apparent how that could be useful, but one has to have an implicit faith that there will be some good which can be made to come out of these forays.

At a more micro level, even the way I write the Tech Talks has changed over the past few years. In the beginning, I would write it out every morning Mondays-to-Fridays on the day it was to be published. I realised then that the pressure of waking up every morning and having to come up with the ideas was becoming too much. I then shifted to writing it out on the Sunday prior to the week that it was to be published. Now, I do better. Not only do I write out Tech Talks a little more in advance, I also keep a list of 30-40 possible ideas on which I could write. This ensures that I do not have a shortage of options, and in this scenario of greater freedom, I am able to (hopefully!) do significantly better.

Some days ago, I posted this entry on my blog, entitled Lifes Little Clues.

Every day, Life leaves its little clues to us. Most of the times, we don’t see them. It requires a heightened sense of alertness to notice these clues and then connect them to what they are trying to see. I have felt this many times. We go through the better part of life not noticing these clues. If only we can start to figure out these coded messages…

I have felt this many times. Like today, I was driving for a meeting. I took a wrong turn because I had missed out a piece of information that had passed my way, and I had not registered it a couple days ago.

I am now trying to be careful – in noticing things around, in thinking and correlating incidents, and generally trying to see the connection. This has to be subconscious. It has to become part of our routine.

I now realise that Lifes Little Clues need to be combined with actions that we take to create options, else we will not be in a position to leverage the clues that come our way. Be it in our personal lives or in our entrepreneurial venture, intelligently creating options can make a big difference between success and failure.

Tomorrow: Blind Spots and Lock-ins

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