Killer Tsunami

As the days go by, the grim and tragic reality of what happened on Sunday morning across South and South-East Asia is becoming apparent. The death toll in the earthquake and the tsunamis which followed is already up to 60,000 and still rising. The relief effort is perhaps the largest the world has ever undertaken.

There is little we can do in the wake of natural disasters. But, as is being discussed, a real-time warning system which tracks exceptional events and indicators, could have made it possible to get the word across to people in the coastal areas. While natural disasters cannot be prevented, technology must be able to play a role in alleviating the human impact of such events.

As the magnitude of what had happened become clear, I was struck by one of the incidents in Michael Crichtons recent book, State of Fear, which I had just read. While that deals with global warming and eco-terrorism, one of the incidents discussed in the book is the efforts by a few to actually cause the equivalent of an underwater earthquake in South-East Asia and trigger a tsunami which would impact Los Angeles in the name of attracting attention to the cause to abrupt climate change. There is of course no correlation what happened on Sunday was a natural event, but I could not help thinking about the uncanny similarity with the Crichton event.

We all have to do our best to assist in the efforts. India has risen as one twice in the past five years during Kargil, and in the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake. We need to do so once again.

As I was sitting today morning in the balcony of my home in Mumbai looking out to the Arabian Sea, I wondered at the calmness of the early morning waters and couldnt help but think how little we know of the future. One moment people were going about their lives on Sunday morning, and the next they were hit by a wall of water. We know very little of whats going to happen next. But what we must attempt to do is to live our lives well so that we can make a positive difference in the time that we are on Earth.

Bus. Std: VoIP, Wi-FI and Network Computers

My latest Business Standard column:

In this series, we are discussing cold technologies which Pip Coburn, a managing director and global technology strategist in the technology group of UBS Investment Research, defined as those that have neutral revenue or even anti revenue attributes. Cold technologies are important in our context because even as they shrink the investment that users have to make, they help them catch-up or even leapfrog to a world that is faster, better, cheaper in terms of the digital infrastructure that we need to build out in India. In the previous column, we covered two such cold technologies: open-source software and software delivered as a service.

Voice-over-IP

Internet telephony is turning the world of telcos upside down. From being able to charge by distance and time (based on where the called party was and how long the conversation lasted), phone calls have become a fixed price commodity as they are shifting to the Internet. We have also seen this in India with phone calls to the US being advertised for under Rs 2 per minute as compared to nearly Rs 100 a few years ago. Software like Skype offers free person-to-person calling via computers.
The Wall Street Journal put the disruption in the US market in perspective: The Bells have lost some 28 million local phone lines since the end of 2000 — a drop of more than 18%. This is the first time since the Great Depression that phone companies have seen their lines decline. The Bells are now losing 4% of their residential lines a yearBehind the telephone earthquake is a giant force in business history: Just a few years after the Internet investment bubble spectacularly burst, the Web is now maturing and irrevocably transforming commerce. Today phone calls — just like music, photos, and video — can be turned into digital information and delivered much like e-mail over the Internet.

Wi-Fi

Mobile phone companies globally have paid tens of billions of dollars for licences for 3G. The world on offer: ubiquitous, high-speed Internet access. The problem: the future may arrive unscheduled! This is happening because of Wi-Fi (which uses unlicenced spectrum) and other next-generation data technologies.

Wi-Fi Networking News puts this in perspective: If users get hooked on Wi-Fi networks that are free to access, they may decide to go out of their way to find a free hotspot rather than pay for the cellular access which at least these days is far more expensive. However, its likely that a certain market segment will pay for the convenience of having the higher speed wireless data from the cellular operators in more locations.

Underlying this shift is what Kevin Werbach has called the radio revolution. The combination of unlicenced spectrum and adaptive mobile phones can dramatically change the way we think of spectrum and what we pay for it. Werbach wrote in the introduction of his report: The radio revolution is the single greatest communications policy issue of the coming decade, and perhaps the coming century. The economics of entire industries could be transformed. Every significant public policy challenge could be implicated: competition; innovation; investment; diversity of programming; job creation; equality of access; coverage for rural and underserved areas; and promotion of education, health care, local communities, public safety, and national security.

Network Computers

The twin challenges of affordability and manageability are making companies consider alternatives to Windows desktops. The use of thin clients in emerging markets can reduce upfront costs and also tackle the complexity challenge. From small- and medium-sized enterprises to education, network computers have the potential to tackle the issue of non-consumption that has hampered the buildout of the digital infrastructure in developing countries.

Even though the idea of thin clients and network computers has been around for a long time, it is only now that serious interest is emerging along with the first success stories. ZDNet wrote recently about Europcars shift: The car hire firm has saved on hardware and maintenance costs by migrating its 1,500 stations to thin clients running Linux, but Stefan Ostrowski, the CIO of Europcar, said that while migrating to Linux thin clients has saved them money, but it would not have been as cost effective for them to migrate fat clients to Linux. The effort to install or maintain Windows and Linux is the same, though you might save a bit on licence costs, said Ostrowski. You are not saving a lot by moving fat clients from Windows to Linux. But by converting fat clients to terminal servers we have reduced the total cost of ownership by 60 percent. The main advantage for Europcar in migrating to Linux terminals has been the ability to centrally manage the terminals in its 1,500 rental stations, which are spread across Europe. Ostrowski said this has dramatically reduced the cost of maintaining the systems and in particular the cost of implementing updates.

This series will continue in the next column.

Tracking Fast Moving stories

Robert Scoble offers some suggestions:

1) RSS search tools like Feedster and Pubsub. Pubsub is bringing back more results and better-formatted RSS results, but Feedster has a better Web experience.

2) Professional news sources. I watch Google News, Yahoo News, and MSN Newsbot. These sites sift through thousands of “professional” news sources like Associated Press, Reuters, BBC, and others.

3) Inbound links. I use a variety of engines to track who is linking into a specific site. Mostly I care about bloggers here, because those will be the fastest to react to news and I care about what they say.

Next-Gen TV

Wired writes:

We live in the age of the digital packet. Documents, images, music, phone calls – all get chopped up, propelled through networks, and reassembled at the other end according to Internet protocol. So why not TV?

That’s the question cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner and Baby Bells like SBC and Verizon have been asking. The concept has profound implications for television and the Internet. TV over Internet protocol – IPTV – will transform couch-cruising into an on-demand experience. For the Internet, it will mean broadband at speeds 10, 100, or even 1,000 times faster than today’s DSL or cable. Online games would be startlingly realistic; the idea of channels would seem hopelessly archaic. Why not indeed?

IPTV is not to be confused with television over the Internet. On the public Net, packets get delayed or lost entirely – that’s why Web video is so jerky and lo-res. But private networks like Comcast’s are engineered, obviously, for reliable video delivery – which means IPTV will look at least as good as TV coming from digital cable or satellite.

It will be accompanied by another, equally critical change. Instead of broadcasting every channel continuously, service providers plan to transmit them only to subscribers who request them. In effect, every channel will be streamed on demand. This will free up huge amounts of bandwidth for hi-def TV and high-speed broadband. Add IP and you get interactive services like caller ID on your TV. And the system will be able to track viewing habits as effectively as Amazon tracks its customers, so ads will be targeted with scary precision. Put it all together and you’ve got television that’s as intensely personalized as 20th-century broadcasting was generic.

Thin Clients Get Hot

WSJ writes:

Computers with bells, whistles and multiple-gigahertz processors landed under Christmas trees across the country this past weekend. But much of that computing firepower is increasingly irrelevant in a broadband, Web-enabled world.

Nowadays, consumers can do much of their computing without relying on their own PCs for a lot of processing or storage. Millions of Americans already use free Web-based e-mail and online photo services. Powerful servers and massive hard drives owned by the likes of Yahoo and Ofoto store the e-mails and photos and run the applications that consumers use to manage them. The user’s PC needs little more than a Web browser and a display.

What has changed from the 1990s is that tech thinkers are less focused on the thin-client device itself. Cheap PCs abound, and increasingly intelligent and data-networked cellphones and other hand-held devices can tap into Web-based services. Most TV sets will be able to connect to the Web in one way or another within a few years.

The turbocharged PC under the Christmas tree may be overkill for most consumers. But with a Web browser on it, it should be useful for a long while.

TECH TALK: Best of Tech Talk 2004: Rethinking Computing (Part 2)

Massputers, Redux (Oct 2004): Let us first look at the realities in emerging markets: the 10-90 Chasm, the 1-9-90 Split, Price(Intel+Microsoft) = Low Constant, the ADAM Challenges, Leveraging Broadband, Focus on the Middle of the Pyramid, Think SystemsA digital infrastructure can help [emerging markets] 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. Here is what emerging markets need to build their digital infrastructure: Network Computers, the Grid as Platform, Utility Pricing, tech 7-11s, Relevant Applications and ContentThe competition here is non-consumption, the constraint is our own imagination.

CommPuting Grid: The grid that I am thinking of to complement the network computers is a public computing grid which provides virtual desktops to network computers. It is not about aggregating a collection of existing resources from across the network. Instead, it is about creating a scalable and reliable platform to address the needs for potentially millions of users. It is a platform because it allows other independent software vendors to deploy their applications on this computing foundation. It offers the ability to bill users with varying levels of granularity based on quantum of computing power and storage used, and also the time of day. In that sense, it is probably more akin to the telecom system that exists around the worldt is this computing grid that will finally make computing a utility. Today’s monikers like application service providers (ASPs) and software-as-a-service will dissolve into the more general-purpose commPuting-as-a-utility. This grid will provide computing and communications, and make possible the availability of the benefits of computers to the next billion of users, and simultaneously addresses the total cost of ownership issues for the first billionThe first wave of computing adoption in the past two decades has addressed the needs of the top 10% of the world. The CommPuting Grid offers a potential to focus on the next 90%. The building blocks for grid computing low-cost network computers, broadband connections, commoditised software platforms are now becoming available. India and other emerging markets have an opportunity to leapfrog into the next-generation of computing just like they did with mobile telephony.

Tomorrows World (Nov 2004): There are five dimensions along which we can explore tomorrow’s world and build the right models which can be the foundation for creating (or growing) future businesses: devices, networks, infrastructure, services and paymentsOur five-dimensional world of tomorrows commPuting utility comprises: network computers as zero-management access devices, ubiquitous broadband wireless networks, server-based computing and storage grid as the underlying infrastructure, centrally accessible services built around hosted software and content, and utility-like subscription-based payment modelThis utility combines the best of multiple models that we see around us: i-modes platform, Salesforces hosted software, TiVos time-shifted content, Googles desktop ads and Yahoos personalizationThe next set of users in the emerging markets can be divided into five major segments: SMEs, Educational Institutions, Homes and Shops, Tech 7-11s and Rural AreasFive new opportunities which open up for entrepreneurs are: LAN Grids, Broadband Content Factory, Software Aggregator, Micro-eBays and Micropayments infrastructure.

Tomorrow: India and Bharat

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