Economist IT Survey

The Economist writes that “the next thing in technology is not just big but truly huge: the conquest of complexity.”

Steven Milunovich, an analyst at Merrill Lynch, another bank, offers a further reason why simplicity is only now becoming a big issue. He argues that the IT industry progresses in 15-year waves. In the first wave, during the 1970s and early 1980s, companies installed big mainframe computers; in the second wave, they put in PCs that were hooked up to server computers in the basement; and in the third wave, which is breaking now, they are beginning to connect every gadget that employees might use, from hand-held computers to mobile phones, to the internet.

The mainframe era, says Mr Milunovich, was dominated by proprietary technology (above all, IBM’s), used mostly to automate the back offices of companies, so the number of people actually working with it was small. In the PC era, de facto standards (ie, Microsoft’s) ruled, and technology was used for word processors and spreadsheets to make companies’ front offices more productive, so the number of people using technology multiplied tenfold. And in the internet era, Mr Milunovich says, de jure standards (those agreed on by industry consortia) are taking over, and every single employee will be expected to use technology, resulting in another tenfold increase in numbers.

Moreover, the boundaries between office, car and home will become increasingly blurred and will eventually disappear altogether. In rich countries, virtually the entire population will be expected to be permanently connected to the internet, both as employees and as consumers. This will at last make IT pervasive and ubiquitous, like electricity or telephones before it, so the emphasis will shift towards making gadgets and networks simple to use.

UBS’s Mr [Pip] Coburn adds a demographic observation. Today, he says, some 70% of the world’s population are analogues, who are terrified by technology, and for whom the pain of technology is not just the time it takes to figure out new gadgets but the pain of feeling stupid at each moment along the way. Another 15% are digital immigrants, typically thirty-somethings who adopted technology as young adults; and the other 15% are digital natives, teenagers and young adults who have never known and cannot imagine life without IM (instant messaging, in case you are an analogue). But a decade from now, Mr Coburn says, virtually the entire population will be digital natives or immigrants, as the ageing analogues convert to avoid social isolation. Once again, the needs of these converts point to a hugely increased demand for simplicity.

The question is whether this sort of technology can ever become simple, and if so, how. This survey will analyse the causes of technological complexity both for firms and for consumers, evaluate the main efforts toward simplification by IT and telecom vendors today, and consider what the growing demands for simplicity mean for these industries.

The Magic of RFID

ACM Queue has a special issue devoted to RFIDs. “A technology called RFID (radio frequency identification), which is relatively new to the mass market, has exactly this characteristic and for many people seems a lot like magic. RFID is an electronic tagging technology that allows an object, place, or person to be automatically identified at a distance without a direct line-of-sight, using an electromagnetic challenge/response exchange. Typical applications include labeling products for rapid checkout at a point-of-sale terminal, inventory tracking, animal tagging, timing marathon runners, secure automobile keys, and access control for secure facilities.”

Blogs and Market Research

McGee writes:

In the marketing research context, blogs are a disruptive technology. Instead of having to generate data by way of surveys or focus groups with whatever artifacts the process introduces, blogs provide direct visibility into customers. Instead of having to connect potentially artificial samples back to the actual market, now you have to filter real market behavior, interpret it, and make sense of it. That presents two challenges to market research functions. First, market research staff have to develop new skills. For that, they would do well to pay attention to Dina. Second, management of market research needs to spend some quality thinking time about what to do with access to this new kind of market data.

The opportunity that blogs introduce into the marketing research equation is to create the opportunity to identify and run multiple micro-experiments in the market. Those that succeed get the resources to scale, those that fail generate some useful data and are quickly shut down. There are challenges, of course, especially given how quickly ideas spread in a connected world, but that should be offset by the speed with which experiments can be identified and run. Worth thinking about.

Dreaming of a Single-Chip Mobile Phone

The Feature has an article by Mark Frauenfelder, which states that “two mobile phone components — antennas and frequency oscillators — have stubbornly refused the join the rest of the circuitry that has moved onto wireless transceiver chips. But research at the University of Michigan could lead the way to a single-chip solution.”

The next step, says Michael Flynn, who heads the wireless research group at UM, is to put both the slot antenna and the RF MEMS oscillator onto a single wireless transceiver chip. Besides making traditional mobile phones more useful, a single-chip transceiver could foster the development of smaller smart dust motes and tinier non-traditional mobile devices as well. Obviously, the idea of a phone small enough to fit inside your ear canal is repugnant to most people, but a single-chip transceiver will certainly lead to innovations no one has thought of yet.

Three Mark Cuban Ideas

News.com writes about the Broadcast.com founder:

Cuban’s ideas–like others that have materialized on his Web log–center around the emerging industry for personal video recorders (PVRs), such as TiVo, and video on demand (VOD). VOD is not as widely available as PVRs are, but the idea has shown some recent signs of life with a movies-on-demand deal between TiVo and Netflix, and with the VOD service–offering mostly obscure programming–of Akimbo.

Cuban’s first idea is a software program that takes advantage of the time TiVo subscribers spend watching their commercials fast-forward. Where subscribers now sit glued to the blur of fast-forwarding frames, Cuban suggests displaying a static advertisement.

A successful implementation of technology along those lines would come as a balm to broadcast advertisers frightened by the prospect that PVRs are eroding their audience. Already, TiVo has proposed interactive advertising features that would help compensate for the fast-forwarding phenomenon.

Cuban’s second idea is for software that would let people use the Internet and VOD services to piece together their own TV schedules and share them with friends.

The third idea, following the second, would let people emulate existing cable TV programming.

“Here is the one app that I think could really mess things up,” Cuban wrote. “It could really toss a wrench into things…Where the real trouble starts is as more TV shows and movies are available via VOD and the Net, then the programs will also be able to do a cost comparison. Is it cheaper to buy programs on your own and emulate your favorite network or buy the network?”

Comcast CEO on VOD

Knowledge@Wharton writes:

In his talk at Wharton, Brian Roberts made it clear that he believes his company’s future hinges on video-on-demand. That, he argues, is why the Disney bid made sense. On-demand allows customers to choose not only what they want to watch but also when. It also lets them control their viewing via functions such as pause and replay. Satellite TV, cable’s biggest competitor, offers abundant programming but not two-way communication.

For video-on-demand to beat satellite, it has to provide lots of programming, whether it’s Disney cartoons or, as Comcast has begun offering lately, the NFL Network. The NFL channel provides 10- to 15-minute replays of the highlights of all the prior weekend’s football games. Comcast also recently announced a partnership with Sony and MGM to offer their libraries of movies and TV shows via on-demand video.

Comcast has turned to trying to deliver the best services possible through that infrastructure. “We think that with this new platform, we have to reinvent television,” Roberts noted. “Television today is a one-way experience. It seems totally clear to me that the personalization of television is the future. Everybody wants to do what they want, when they want. And we happen to have a platform for that, where our competitor, satellite, doesn’t. So all of our energy is to give our customers, on demand, the ability to get as much content as possible.”

“With on-demand, we have servers with virtually unlimited content. We don’t care what you want to do, we just want you to do it a lot. And you can’t do any of that on satellite or broadcast.”

TECH TALK: Massputers, Redux: Emerging Market Solutions

There is no doubting the need for computers in emerging markets. A digital infrastructure can help these nations address the pain points that plague personal life and business interactions better. For example, if India needs to ensure education for the 200 million youth of the country, computers can complement teachers to help students learn better. Computers can make businesses into real-time enterprises and thus make supply chains more efficient. Computing can help governments interact better with citizens. Even entertainment can be transformed with the availability of Massputers.

I dont think Massputers will be a reality in the quantities that are needed with either AMDs $249 device, Steve Ballmers $100 PC talk, or Microsofts cheaper (and limited) versions of Windows XP. To me, these solutions dont go far enough. All they do is protect the legacy businesses of these companies even as they experiment with ideas for the emerging markets. What they should really be doing is leveraging the lack of legacy in the emerging markets by reinventing the complete computing ecosystem and thinking of not computing but CommPuting. Here is what emerging markets need to build their digital infrastructure:

Network Computers: Yes, it is the old Larry Ellison idea. Where the Oracle chief went wrong was that he focused on replacing desktops in the developed markets and not on new users in the emerging markets. He also ignored the fact that rich client applications exist in large numbers and these will not all work in a browser. The Network Computers that I am talking about [see my recent Tech Talk series] are multimedia-capable thin clients which display virtual desktops from a centralised computing platform. It is possible to make these computers for about $50-60. Add in a refurbished monitor and you get Steve Ballmers $100 PC (or my Rs 5,000 PC). This can potentially run every application already written without modification and support client-side multimedia to do voice and video. Besides, it needs zero maintenance and so can be bundled by telcos and ISPs as part of a CommPuting bundle.

The Grid as Platform: Network computers need a centralised computing platform this is where the Grid comes in. The Grid is a collection of commodity hardware running Windows or Linux in Terminal Services mode. Think of it as Google, but also offering complete computing and storage (and not just search and mail). It is possible to start thinking of the Grid for massively large public computing because the broadband networks exist the world is awash in fibre, and wireless technologies are improving rapidly in terms of available bandwidth. The problem in most emerging markets is that the content is not available at the other end of the pipes. That doesnt need to change what is needed at the other end is the computing and storage part of the computer that we have on our desktop. The Grid also becomes the platform for software vendors and content providers to make available their offerings.

Utility Pricing: What is needed is not computers on installments (people are smart enough to look at the total cost of ownership), but subscriptions which can be started and stopped on demand. In addition, the mix of small payments via pre-paid cards is what has dramatically boosted mobile phone usage in India and online gaming in China. A similar model needs to be thought of for computing. This is the equivalent of computing in sachets. To a certain extent, as Ballmer pointed out, it is already happening via Internet cafes.

Tech 7-11s: The utility pricing argument also offers a corollary: think access, not users (as Sam Pitroda did when he launched the public call offices STD/ISD booths). Just like the 7-11 grocery stores that dot neighbourhoods across many cities, the need is for neighbourbood community computing centres. These need to go beyond the Internet cafes of today which only offer a computing device and Internet access. The Tech 7-11s would serve multiple purposes: offer a microGrid for computing, a distribution point for local broadband connections, and a training area for the next users so they can make the best use of computers.

Relevant Applications and Content: Even as the network computers and the grid address the affordability, and Tech 7-11s offer accessibility, there is a need to address the desirability issue. This has to come from locally relevant content and software applications. Think of information marketplaces to bridge information asymmetries among users, think of a library of business processes for enterprises, think of broadband content offering edutainment, think of a school-in-a-box or library-in-a-box for educational institutions. Aggregating what is already out there and making it available on the Grid is a good starting point.

By putting all of these point solutions together, it should be possible to make CommPuting available for Rs 700 ($15) per user per month including the computer (at home or work), the grid usage with gigabytes of storage space, broadband connectivity, basic set of software applications from the open-source world, and support. For educational institutions, the Rs 700 price point could be split across a few students, thus not only making it more affordable and but also ensuring that each student gets plenty of computing time.

It is this wholistic approach to reinventing computing which can transform emerging markets in the next five years, and bring in the next billion users. The competition here is non-consumption, the constraint is our own imagination. This is the big thing the industry has been waiting for — computings next Kumbh Mela.

Postscript: What should Microsoft and AMD do?

Microsoft should consider making Windows XP available for $1 (Rs 45) per computer per month on the Grid. Over three years, it makes half of what it otherwise charges for Windows XP. This is $36 more than what it makes today from users in the emerging markets! This will help strengthen the developer base and give independent software vendors and content developers who already have Windows-based applications and content an opportunity to generate revenues and expand further. It can also neutralise the potential impact that open-source software can have for users.

As for AMD, I think it will find a market for its PIC but it is likely to be not among the masses in the emerging markets, but possibly in selected niches in the developed markets (the second or third computer at home, libraries, internet kiosks, schools) where the simpler $249 device will finally fulfill Larry Ellisons network computing vision. Talk of unintended consequences!