Bus. Std: Building Digital Infrastructure

My latest Business Standard column:

As I mentioned in my previous column, Future Tech celebrated its first anniversary recently. Here we take a look at some of the key ideas discussed over the past year. All columns are available online (www.emergic.org/futuretech).

The central theme in most of my columns has been leveraging emerging technologies to build a digital infrastructure in India. By focusing on the needs of users in India, start-ups and established companies can build the next generation commPuting platform, which integrates computing and communications.

In tomorrows world, what is inside todays desktop will move to the server and what is inside a cellphone will power the computer. Broadband networks will be internet protocol (IP)-based. Voice will become yet another service over these digital networks.

It will be a world that will converge at the back-end (data stored in the network cloud) but will diverge at the front-end (multiple devices). The mobile phone will be our constant companion and will be complemented by the availability of multimedia-enabled network computers with large screens. Services will occupy centrestage.

We have the opportunity to build the next technology platforms that will form the foundation of our digital lives. The communications platform needs to be built on IP and be always on.

The computing platform needs to focus on affordability so that a connected computer is accessible to every family in urban and rural India, and every employee in corporate India. The information platform needs to become real time, event driven and multimedia-oriented. This technology platform will be built on the new and next internet always on, ubiquitous, high speed, on demand, personalised and not free.

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 the computing, consumer electronics and entertainment industries to enter each others territories.

As we look ahead and seek to create the next platform, it is useful to look at the rear view mirror. Every 12 years or so, the world of computing sees major breakthroughs. Think of this as the computing equivalent of the Kumbh Mela.

The last major breakthrough was during 1992-1994 when the launch of Microsoft Windows 3.1, Intels Pentium processor, SAPs R/3 and the web browser Mosaic heralded an unprecedented period of all-round growth until the slowdown early this decade. The next computing Kumbh Mela should be just around the corner.

What will it be? My answer: the next big thing in computing will be about building a platform which makes the two most important creations of the past the computer and the internet available to users at a fraction of todays prices.

What emerging markets like India need is the equivalent of a tech utility which makes available commPuting as a utility to the masses.

A centralised platform that makes available computing as a service and accessible via thin clients over a high-speed broadband infrastructure, neighbourhood computing centres that provide access on a pay-per-use basis, a community-centric content platform which makes available local information and helps small businesses connect with one another, and investments in education and healthcare to make sure they reach rural people these are the tech utilitys elements.

India needs a Rs 5,000 network computer, Indian language desktop applications, industry information and process maps (for small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, to automate their business), fixed-price broadband bundles and locally relevant information and services.

There are two key ideas from the telecom industry that the computer industry needs to adopt. The first is the creation of a zero-management user device. The second is a subscription-based utility-like payment model.

The underlying enabler for both will be the broadband industry that is coming alive in India. India needs to leapfrog to next-generation networks that can deliver broadband over the air to users, creating a high-speed, ubiquitous and pervasive data network.

We can make tomorrows world a reality. India has an opportunity once again to do things right. What is needed is a generation of entrepreneurs who think outside the box to create technology platforms and solutions for tomorrows world.

The challenge for entrepreneurs is to think about creating solutions for the twin engines of future growth rural India and SMEs. Indian entrepreneurs have the opportunity to shape history but only if we begin to start looking at the market within.

Rather than trying to only focus on providing services to the rest of the world, we need to start producing hard and soft goods for Indians to use and leverage. Can the next black swan in the technology space come from India?

Cellphones for $40

WorldChanging writes:

The GSM Association, the industry organization for manufacturers of the most widely-used variety of mobile phones, wants to get mobile phones into the hands of the three billion or so people who live in areas covered by GSM networks, but who don’t have a phone of any kind. Cost is the main barrier — the cost of the service, local taxes, and cost of the unit itself. The GSMA intends to tackle all three, but their first initiative is the one over which they have the most control: the cost of the phone hardware.

The Emerging Markets Handset program asked 18 different phone vendors to submit designs for phones with an end-user cost of under $40, with a longer term goal of sub-$30 (this in comparison to typical cost at present of close to $100). The GSMA chose the Motorola C114 platform as its reference phone; Motorola will begin production this Spring. The initial production target is six million handsets in the first six months, ramping up from there as production efficiencies allow for even lower phone prices.

The $100 Computer

WorldChanging has a couple [1 2] posts on the announcement by Nicholas Negroponte to build $100 laptops for developing countries. James Cascio writes: “It’s most likely that a cheap, rugged information device for the developing world will evolve from mobile phones, not be a chopped-down desktop or laptop.”

The $100 PC is exactly what we are seeking to do in Novatium (a JV with IIT-Madras). But there are two key differences: we see the $100 PC as a network computer, and having a full-size keyboard, mouse and monitor.

The Guardian has more details on Negroponte’s plans:

“Laptops, as we know them, are a luxury,” agrees Negroponte. “Education is not. At $100, this is about learning and exploration, not giving kids costly tools and toys. Almost anything, from healthcare to food to birth control, can be addressed well, if not best, through education.

“The deeper divides are unequivocally proportional to education. Peace will never happen as long as there is poverty. Poverty can only be eliminated through education.”

So what will the children get for $100, considering a half-decent laptop can cost 10 times that much? The goal is to provide a laptop that does everything a conventional laptop can. It will have a 12in colour screen and run Linux and other open source software. It will be Wi-Fi and 3G-enabled, with many USB ports. The laptops will not have lots of storage space, and will not be hooked up via a conventional local area networks, but will rely on mesh networks, where one child’s laptop will act as the print server, one the DVD player, and another the mass storage device.

The most expensive part of any laptop is the screen, so instead of using expensive LCD displays, the MIT team is developing a flat rear-projection screen. The other alternative is based on electronic ink, invented by Joseph Jacobson, also from MIT. Screens are expected to cost less than $30.

Netflix Story

The New York Times has a story on how Netflix came to be – focusing on foudner and CEO Reed Hastings. It also discusses the challenges going ahead:

Ultimately, video on demand poses the greatest threat to Netflix – a fact Mr. Hastings is inclined to acknowledge. “Our competitors are a bigger threat next year,” he said. “But in 10 years, digital distribution is a bigger threat.”

The good news for Mr. Hastings – and for executives at Blockbuster, given that the ability to download any DVD via the Internet or cable could inflict even more damage on video stores – is that video on demand is a long way off, despite more than a decade of promises.

“It’ll be at least four or five years away, if not 10 years, before we reach the tipping point on video on demand,” said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a research and consulting firm in Bethesda, Md. One major hurdle, Mr. Arlen and others said, has been Hollywood studios’ reluctance to accept a new delivery system as long as DVD’s are still proving so lucrative.

Mr. Hastings anticipates that it will be 2010, if not 2015, before a lot of the movie-watching public is downloading films over the Internet. Mr. Hastings is convinced that the same features that draw people to his DVD rental service will induce them to use his service to download digitally delivered movies. Netflix has devoted millions of dollars to building an easily navigated Web site while it refines a complex software system that recommends movies based on customer ratings.

“If we differentiate the Web site well enough, with rating histories and other features consumers want, that’s our strategic leverage” once people start receiving movies via the Internet, Mr. Hastings said.

Email is MyDatabase

BBC News writes:

Web-based e-mail services like Hotmail, Yahoo!, Gmail and AOL Mail on the Web are becoming databases by default as a growing number of people use them, to store data and photos so they can retrieve them from anywhere.

“E-mail is a way of interacting not just with others, but also with yourself, ” says Mr Harik, who is director of Googlettes (new Google services). “You want to remember something, so you send it to your mailbox.”

For all but the very organised, old e-mails will contain phone numbers that haven’t been entered into a diary, names and addresses of contacts, meeting or customer information, useful statistics or competitor information and photos of products and people.

TECH TALK: Best of Future Tech: Part 3

The June 16, 2004 column took the discussion to what was needed to transform rural India not between two generations, but between two elections. It discussed a paper by Atanu Dey and Vinod Khosla on Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons (RISC). Instead of trying to solve the problem at a scale of 600,000 villages, the RISC model advocates the creation of 5,000 hubs in rural India each catering to about 100 villages with a population of 100,000 people in a radius of about 15 kilometres, a distance commutable by bus or bicycle. These hubs are about 10,000 square foot in size, built at a cost of about Rs 2 crore each. They have state-of-the-art infrastructure including 24×7 electricity, broadband connectivity, security and sanitationThis standardised infrastructure reduces the costs of operation for service providers in rural India. From the point of view of the rural populace, there is one place in which they can get multiple services services which were hitherto not available or too expensive.

The June 30 column talked about the ADAM problems of computing and the need for EVE: One of the primary challenges that we face is making computing a utility, by bringing down the cost of usage to that of a cellphone. We need to provide access to a connected computer accessible to every family, employee and student in India. How can we do it? To start thinking about possible solutions, there are four challenges that need to be addressed simultaneously. Think of them as the ADAM of computing affordability, desirability, accessibility and manageability We need EVE to tackle ADAM a combination of Entrepreneurship, Venture capital and E(i)nnovation.

Broadband has been the buzzword for the past year or so. The July 14 column discussed a blueprint for India. What India needs is a complete unshackling of all regulation to ensure that every Indian household and enterprise has access to affordable broadband by 2010To make that happen, we need to think disruptively. India needs to become a hotbed for next-generation wireless and other technologies which can deliver broadband to homes and enterprises rapidly. It does not matter if others have done it or not. We need to lead the way. Just like South Korea did a few years ago Let us set a goal of providing a whole solution of hardware (access device), software, broadband connectivity and tech support for Rs 700 per user per month. Of this, broadband access (512 Kbps or higher) should cost no more than Rs 250 per month. Now, let us work backwards and figure out what we need to make this happen. If we can imagine 100 million users in five years, this is a market of Rs 30,000 crore per annum for broadband service providers to fight over.

The July 28 column was about Black Swans, which are outliers, events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations. Google is one such example, having built an alternate computing platform and created tens of billions of dollars in wealth in a short span of time for its promoters, investors, employees and shareholders. A Google happens once in many, many years. It is almost impossible to predict before hand that such a company will at some point of time in the future occupy a position of great power and influence over not just across its vertical but across the industry. Because, if we knew, we would do something about it. Competitors would seek to put roadblocks and hurdles, or failing that, try and possibly acquire it. Even otherwise helpful partners may think carefully if they realise they are going to help in building the next big behemoth. In other words, events and circumstances which lead to the creation of the once-in-a-lifetime companies are rare and almost unpredictable Can the next black swan in the technology space come from India?

Tomorrow: Part 4

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