India and Utility Computing

My colleague, Atanu Dey, writes:

Stand-alone computing a la PCs delivering “services” is fine for those who can afford that luxury, but is definitely a show-stopper for those who have very little disposable income and yet can make use of those services that PCs deliver. I remind myself repeatedly that people do not want a PC — what they actually want are the services that a PC delivers. As long as we focus on the fact that it is services — and not the hardware nor the software — that matter to people, we will not end up putting the cart before the horse. So if a firm were to deliver those set of services at an affordable price, it is immaterial to the consumer whether the consumer (of those services) uses a PC or some other device.

We know that low costs translate into low prices. How does one reduce costs? If there are economies of scale in production, then centralizing the production is the obvious answer. A pertinent example is that of electric power production. Each consumer could have a generator at home. But it is much cheaper if a centralized facility generated the power at a much lower cost per unit due to scale economies and distributed the power to the consumers on an as-needed basis.

Here is a thumbnail description of a utility computing platform. The central server forms the core where you have a very wide range of software applications, plus a massive collection of rich content (audio, video, text, and graphics) and storage. The server is accessed over a local area network (LAN) using access devices that are inexpensive and easy to manage. The access devices are sometimes refered to as “thin clients” — a device that hangs off the LAN and is connected to a display, keyboard, and a mouse. The TCs do not have local storage. Centralizing the production of computing services on the server has numerous advantages, most notably that of taking the management of the hardware/software resources required for the user services out of the hands of the users.

There is hardly anyone who has ever used a connected PC and not been frustrated by problems such as viruses, spam, spyware, the need to frequently upgrade hardware and software, and so on. Users have come to expect that these problems are a necessary part of using computers. It need not be so. It is a bit of a mystery why people put up with the bother and inconvenience of using computers. Imagine if you had to open up the hood every few days and tinker around the car’s innards trying to fix some problem or the other. You would quickly dump that sort of car for something that works without you getting your hands dirty.

If using computing services were to become more like the telecommunications services model, then more people would be able to use them. You sign up for the service, and you pay every month for your usage. You let the firm supplying your the service to fix things if things break.

You may ask, how is utility computing relevant to India’s development. I will tell you. The future of India depends on education. India will not develop unless we can educate the hundreds of millions that need it. Resources are limited and one of the best ways of leveraging limited resources is to use information and communications technology (ICT) tools. Schools and colleges which cannot afford the PC-centric solution need utility computing services.

Applied Web Services

Phil Wainewright test drives Grand Central’s Business Services Network: “The purpose of my test drive is to follow up my gut feel with a proof-of-concept, using the Grand Central Network as a test bed. It’s all very well talking breathlessly about the wonderful potential of these on-demand capabilities, but can you actually string them together to do something useful? And is it really so accessible that even a power business user like me can cobble simple processes together using the tools and capabilities that Grand Central offers?”

MyCampus

The Feature has an an article by Mark Frauenfelder:

The most advanced mobile-based Semantic Web project is taking place at Carnegie Mellon University. Called MyCampus, the project is headed up by professor Norman Sadeh, director of the Mobile Commerce Lab at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh. MyCampus was specifically set up to develop context-aware mobile services for the university’s community. The system runs on PDAs and across 700 WLAN access points located around the university, and it is used daily by 3,000 people to help them study, socialize, plan meals, attend events, shop, and engage in extracurricular activities.

MyCampus consists of several task-specific agents that automatically capture contextual information. Each MyCampus user has a database, called a “Semantic eWallet,” which is a repository for users’ personal information, such as class schedules, list of friends and classmates, and lifestyle and event preferences. Location data is generated using Pango’s WiFi access-point triangulation. All the data is marked with Semantic metadata so that MyCampus agents can make use of it. User’s can set access privileges to allow certain people to know where they are at any given moment, or what their schedule for the upcoming week is.

One of the most popular applications is the restaurant concierge agent, which recommends places based on a user’s dining tastes, schedule, location, and weather conditions. If there’s a storm brewing, the concierge will recommend a place that doesn’t require stepping outside, and if the user has a study group meeting in 30 minutes, it’ll suggest a fast food joint within a block or two.

Recently, a group of students at CMU developed an application for MyCampus called InfoBridge, which lets users post and read “virtual posters” about upcoming events. For example, say a user has indicated that she likes track and field events. Shell be notified about events as soon as another person makes a virtual poster about it, unless shes sitting in class. If thats the case, she wont be notified until class is over. If she wants to attend the event, she clicks on a link and, because the data has been tagged with Semantic Web metadata, itll be added it to her calendar. If theres a scheduling conflict, itll notify her and present her with options. All this data exchange is done with agents — no human screen scraping.

4G and OFDM

[via Om Malik] John Yunker writes:

[Qualcomm’s] MediaFLO is a $800 million bet on consumer demand for TV content. According to the press release, Qualcomm “intends to offer the network as a shared resource for U.S. CDMA2000 and WCDMA (UMTS) cellular operators, enabling them to deliver mobile interactive multimedia to their wireless subscribers without the cost of network deployment and operation.” Sounds awfully altruistic, doesn’t it?

Basically, Qualcomm wants to prime the pump for significant broadband delivery/demand. Carriers have not exactly been tripping over themselves to deploy EV-DO networks. And even when Verizon Wireless and Sprint do get those networks up nationally there’s no guarantee the networks will be able to provide the type of high-speed A/V feeds that consumers will likely want. By dedicating a separate network specifically to broadcasting content (FLO stands for forward-link only) Qualcomm creates a nice wholesale content delivery business. All carriers need to do is start upgrading their subscribers to the new handsets that include the brand new FLO-ready chips.

I’ve read a few articles that point to MediaFLO as a yet another example of how WiMAX will ultimately fail. After all, the thinking goes, if all these networks are live and pumping huge amounts of data by the time WiMAX goes live, why would carriers even bother with WiMAX?

Yet despite the real or perceived conflicts, WiMAX and FLO have one thing in common: OFDM. OFDM stands for orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (sometimes acronyms are better left untranslated). All you need to know is that OFDM is the cornerstone technology for 4G. Even Flarion, the technology that Nextel is currently testing for its next broadband wireless network, is using OFDM.

Building a Medical Data Network

The New York Times writes about a conference last week at Rockefeller University:

The panel spent more time on the need to bring patient records and prescriptions out of the ink-and-paper era and into the computer age. “The problem I see is that we have so much information and we need to be able to translate that information into care,” said Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean of the Johns Hopkins University medical school.

Last week’s dialogue was a brief chat in a larger national discussion about how to make the transition to electronic health records and the implications of such a move. To date, the impetus for bringing information technology to health care has centered somewhat narrowly on reducing administrative costs and medical errors – both of which are huge problems.

An estimated 31 percent of this year’s total national health care bill of $1.79 trillion is spent on administration. Electronic record-keeping would eliminate enormous amounts of paper-shuffling, which could save hundreds of billions of dollars and many lives. An estimated 45,000 to 98,000 people die each year from medical errors, including those attributable to misunderstood handwritten prescriptions and hospital charts, or lost laboratory test results.

But digital patient records are merely a first step toward a broader vision. Those records could become building blocks in a nationwide biomedical computer network for assembling and distributing up-to-the-minute epidemiological studies. The network could show researchers and physicians what treatments work for people with similar characteristics, ailments and, eventually, gene markers. To protect privacy, personal identifiers would be stripped out of the national network.

TECH TALK: Tomorrow’s World: India’s Recent Revolutions

As we look ahead, the perspective I will take is that of emerging markets and in many cases, specifically India. It is a market that I am most familiar with even as much of my reading comes from what’s happening across many other markets.

So far, India has been a tale of missed opportunities. Even though we have seen four important revolutions in the past 15 years, there is so much more that could have been. Let us see what these four revolutions have been, and then we will look ahead to what can be.

India’s first revolution started with Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda, and their telephone booths across the country. For people who had to wait years for a telephone line, there was now an opportunity to get access to telecom without ownership of the device by using a shared resource in the neighbourhood. A million or so of these public call offices (PCOs) now dot the Indian landscape. Even though their livelihood is now threatened by the emergence of the mobile phone, their role in connecting India cannot be overestimated.

India’s second revolution was the bottom-up deployment of cable television infrastructure across the country. This has transformed entertainment across India in the past decade. With no government regulation, entrepreneurs sprung up all over India, set up satellite dishes, strung cables across roads and trees and into homes, and brought variety into a country long fed with a staple diet of a handful of government TV channels. Today, a hundred TV channels are available for no more than a few hundred rupees a month across most of India. More than anything, it is cable television which has created a positive, aspirational attitude across India.

The third revolution built on the first by making mobile phones available to individuals on-demand, again for a few hundred rupees a month. Inspite of some short-sighted government policies, cellular telephony has thrived in India, and with a base of 45 million users growing at about 2 million a month, it has amplified the communications revolution within India. Family and friends are now just a few digits away.

The fourth revolution which is in its early stages is in the IT-enabled services realm. India is rapidly becoming the back-office to the world. Even though this sector employs only about a couple million people, the growth rates and positive feedback loop has now started. It is this services revolution which has to a certain extent helped engineer the retail revolution as there are now plenty of young people with money to spend.

The two revolutions which did not happen in India were in computing and the Internet. Both showed promise, but stumbled due to a variety of reasons with lack of demonstrable utility being one of them. This is where our story begins.

Tomorrow: Independent Thinking

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