Microsoft’s Hindi Windows

WSJ writes that after Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Russia, India has become the fifth country to gets its low-cost Windows (XP Starter Editions) pilot programme which will last a year. In India, the first language chosen is Hindi.

The Starter Edition tests are part of a wide-reaching effort by Microsoft to gain better connections with governments around the world. Over the past few years, many governments have started to explore Linux and other alternatives to Microsoft products. Several developing nations also are considering programs to distribute Linux-based personal computers as a potentially cheaper alternative to PCs running Microsoft’s Windows.

The tests are a break from Microsoft’s policy of following a strategy of offering “global pricing” that dictates uniform pricing for its products world-wide. By making Starter Edition very focused on first-time users — and leaving out certain features that businesses would need — Microsoft executives say they can curtail the cheaper software seeping into other markets and eroding its prices.

“This is a product that we are trying to make more relevant to a segment of customers that are ready to purchase their first PC,” said Mike Wickstrand, manager of the Starter Edition program.

By seeding the markets with a version of Windows that is more affordable than today’s versions, Microsoft hopes the program will allow it to combat software piracy, which is rampant in Russia and other young PC markets.

While the price hasn’t been disclosed, it is likely to be around Rs 1,500-1,800 from indications from the other countries.

Microsoft is caught between piracy, non-consumption and Linux in the developing markets. Rather than low-cost, reduced functionality Windows, it should look at reducing cost of the desktop computers (think thin clients) and running Windows off centralised platforms, with a pricing of $1 per month. Not just the limited versions, but the full-featured versions. But this requires Microsoft to think not like a monopoly but like a utility company.

Digital Disruptions

Om Malik writes that “digital disruption is happening all around us. Music, Movies, Telephone, it all is being digitized, chopped, assembled and reassembled by us.”

Among the disruptions happening: MPEG/MP3s, PVRS, Internet, JPEG/Digital Cameras, Linux, Networked Computing, Wireless Networks, VoIP. These disruptions threaten incumbents and create opportunities for new players.

Clusty and Vivisimo

The New York Times writes about Clusty, a new search engine launched by Vivisimo based on clustering technology:

Vivisimo already offers a search service for corporate customers, which clusters results into categories to make them easier to sort through. Search “swift boat,” for example, and Vivisimo returns 149 results – listing them one by one, and also as a table of categories, like “Swift Boat Veterans,” “John Kerry” and “Patrol Craft Fast” on the left-hand side of the Web page.

The new Clusty service for consumers, which will be free and supported by advertising revenue, uses a similar organizational structure. But it also presents a series of tabs enabling the user to see results from sources besides the general Web, including shopping information, yellow pages, news, blogs, and images.

Vivisimo, which is privately held and is profitable, according to its executives, has been selling its clustering technology to corporations for research by their employees. Now Vivisimo is making an effort to compete more broadly by attracting consumers to its Web site, clusty.com.

The service is meant to address the confusion that can be created when search engines return huge lists. Clustering is also intended to help users find related material they may overlook when they employ services that utilize page ranking methods. Such methods employ a variety of software algorithms to rank Web pages by their perceived relevance to a query.

Many search experts say that clustering offers a better way of looking at information than Google’s page ranking system.

“As databases get larger, trying to pull the proverbial needle out of the haystack gets tougher and tougher,” said Gary Price, a librarian who is also the news editor at SearchEngineWatch, a Web site that covers the industry. “Here, you’re getting a bit of extra help.”

“Search will look more like the magazine business than the soda market,” said Oren Etzioni, a computer scientist at University of Washington and an advisory board member of Vivisimo. He predicts that users might select from a variety of services, rather than from a few dominant players.

“The competition has shifted from crawling the Web and returning an answer quickly,” Mr. Etzioni said, “to adding value to the information that has been retrieved.”

“Google is excellent at crawling as much of the Web as they can; we don’t do that,” said Mr. Valdes-Perez. Instead, Vivisimo tackles the question, “How do you solve the problem of information overload?”

Educating India’s 300 million Illiterates

Atanu Dey has a plan to make all of India literate in 3 years because “for India, the most important infrastructure project is the one that will build its human capital base.”

First, the government of India must credibly commit to paying every literate and numerate person Rs 5,000 (about US$100). Second, ensure that every person who wants to learn basic literacy and numeracy can do so without having to pay a single penny. Third, provide testing centers around the country (especially in rural areas) where a person can be certified to have achieved basic literacy and numeracy. Finally, sit back and let the free market grind out the outcome which is total literacy within three years.

The details of this proposal follow from elementary logic and basic common sense. First, the cost-benefit analysis. There is long term cost of having about 300 million illiterate citizens. Each year, a literate person must be at least 10 percent more productive than an illiterate person. Assuming a per capita annual product of the illiterate population to be $200 (which is about half the annual per capita GDP of India), a 10 percent increase in productivity would be an increase of $20 per year per capita. Over a working life of about 40 years, that is an $800 increase in productivity per capita. Assume that the average working life of the 300 million illiterates of India is a conservative 20 years. Then the increase in additional product due to the additional 300 million literates is a conservative $120 billion (300 million times $20 times 20 years) in net present value terms.

I am using very conservative estimates of the benefits to make the case that the cost of doing so is a very small compared to the benefits. Assume very liberal costs of delivering basic literacy, say, $100 per capita. I will argue elsewhere that this is a very liberal estimate. Add to it $100, the incentive amount paid to the person upon passing a standardized test, and you have a total cost of $200 per capita. For the total population, it is amounts to $60 billion. This is half the aggregate social benefit estimated above.

Now one may ask, how will the government, which is totally inept as evidenced by the fact that 300 million Indians are illiterate despite lofty goals of making education univerally available and has not been able to make a dent even after over 57 years of spending huge amounts, be able to do this? The answer is simple: the government must not be in the business of providing the means and method of primary education. The only job of the government should be to finance the education. Let the private sector do the actual provisioning of education.

Amateur Revolution

[via Anish Sankhalia] Fast Company writes that “networks of amateurs are displacing the pros and spawning some of the greatest innovations.”

These far-flung developments have all been driven by Pro-Ams — committed, networked amateurs working to professional standards. Pro-Am workers, their networks and movements, will help reshape society in the next two decades.

The 20th century was marked by the rise of professionals in medicine, science, education, and politics. In one field after another, amateurs and their ramshackle organizations were driven out by people who knew what they were doing and had certificates to prove it. Now that historic shift seems to be reversing. Even as large corporations extend their reach, we’re witnessing the flowering of Pro-Am, bottom-up self-organization.

Rap, for one, started as do-it-yourself music among lower-income black men from distressed urban neighborhoods, recorded by artists on inexpensive equipment and distributed on handmade tapes by local labels. Yet within two decades, rap has become the dominant popular music across the world. In league with Pro-Am music distribution made possible by Napster and Kazaa, it has turned the entire record industry on its head.

Linux is the product of mass participatory innovation among thousands of Pro-Am technologists. Many of them program commercial software for a living but work on Linux in their spare time because the spirit of collaborative problem solving appeals so powerfully. Likewise, according to one estimate, 90% of the content in The Sims is created by a Pro-Am sector of The Sims ‘ playing community, a distributed, self-organizing group whose players are constantly training one another and innovating.

What the Bubble Got Right

Paul Graham writes in an essay:

The fact is, despite all the nonsense we heard during the Bubble about the “new economy,” there was a core of truth. You need that to get a really big bubble: you need to have something solid at the center, so that even smart people are sucked in. (Isaac Newton and Jonathan Swift both lost money in the South Sea Bubble of 1720.)

Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Now anything that became fashionable during the Bubble is ipso facto unfashionable. But that’s a mistake– an even bigger mistake than believing what everyone was saying in 1999. Over the long term, what the Bubble got right will be more important than what it got wrong.

The hard part, if you want to win by making the best stuff, is the beginning. Eventually everyone will learn by word of mouth that you’re the best, but how do you survive to that point? And it is in this crucial stage that the Internet has the most effect. First, the Internet lets anyone find you at almost zero cost. Second, it dramatically speeds up the rate at which reputation spreads by word of mouth. Together these mean that in many fields the rule will be: Build it, and they will come. Make something great and put it online. That is a big change from the recipe for winning in the past century.

TECH TALK: The Network Computer: Information Appliances

One of the reasons for the enduring appeal of network computers is the inherent importance and complexity in todays computers. We cant live with computers, and we cant live without them. We long for something better, something more humane. And the dream endures.

In a book entitled The Invisible Computer (published in 1998), Don Norman wrote:

Do you really want to use a computer? Do you want to use a word processor? Of course not. The fact that you think you do is the triumph of marketing and advertising over common sense. Now, maybe if you are a confirmed technology addict, or a computer programmer, sure you love using computers, but not the rest of us. We want to get on with our lives.

I don’t want to use a computer. I don’t want to do word processing: I want to write a letter, or find out what the weather will be, or pay a bill, or play a game. I don’t want to use a computer, I want to accomplish something. I want to do some activity, something meaningful to me. Not “applications,” not some bizarre complex computer program that does more than I ever want to know about and yet doesn’t really do exactly what I need. I want computing that fits my activities. I want the technology hidden away, out of sight. Like electric motors. Like the computers that control my car.

Computers ought to be like the embedded ones that tell you how far you can drive with the fuel remaining in the fuel tank. Invisible, automatic, and useful. It’s invisible, so you don’t have to do anything to it. It provides valuable information. Start driving more efficiently, and the remaining distance goes up. Start driving less efficiently and the distance goes down. It wouldn’t be difficult to add a time estimate: “Twenty minutes to empty.”

This is the way the fuel tank meter ought to be: get rid of the current gauge that tells what fraction of the fuel tank still has fuel in it and replace it with one that says how far or how long we can go. Notice too that this computer is very limited in its functionality: it tells the range of driving with the remaining fuel. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is the way computers ought to be, not just in the car, but in the home, at schools, and in the office. Useful for doing things, for getting answers, for having fun, presenting us with the information we need to know, information we can use directly without further thought. Under this model they will be far easier to use. They will be designed specifically to fit the task, to fit the needs of their users. This also means that they will be specialized, so we are apt to need many of them. No problem, because they will be like all our other appliances: we buy just the ones we want, just the versions that fit our lives. Their simplicity and utility make up for their specialization.

The major problem with today’s PC is that of complexity. The complexity of the PC is pretty fundamental: it is built into its foundation. There are three major reasons for the complexity: the attempt to make a single device do too many things; the need to have a single machine suffice for every person in the world; and the business model of the computer industry.

Don Normans solution was specialised devices what he termed as information appliances: Devices that fit the person, that fit the task. Devices that are easy to use, not only because they will be inherently simpler, but because they fit the task so well that to learn the task is to learn the appliance. While information appliances are not exactly the same as network computers, the thinking is identical to simplify computing as we know it.

A couple weeks ago, Jim Smith suggested we look at the toaster for inspiration.

Monday: Application-Specific Computing

Continue reading