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India’s Tech Renaissance

June 28th, 2005 · No Comments

News.com has a 3-part special report on India’s emergence as a tech powerhouse.

Once fairly anonymous organizations hired to run support desks and develop server applications for large multinational corporations, Indian companies are raising their profile as brand name suppliers in hardware design, software development, consulting services and virtually anything else in technology. Infused with new blood from a young tech-savvy work force, the new movement is a major advance toward economic independence that carries broad ramifications for a country whose past includes colonial rule, experiments in socialism and devastating poverty.

There are a few quotes by me in the report. Michael Kanellos had met with me about a month ago, thanks to an introduction by VIA’s Ravi Pradhan.

Not surprisingly, optimism is running high as younger generations come of age. The national exuberance has inspired many entrepreneurs, including Rajesh Jain, who sold an Indian-based Web portal, IndiaWorld, for around $100 million in 2000 and who is now incubating companies that he expects will bring computing to the masses in his country.

“For the first time,” he said, “there is confidence that tomorrow will be better than today.”

2005: Entrepreneur Rajesh Jain begins to promote thin clients costing $100 to $150 as computers for the mass population. “It’s not that we need just cheaper solutions. We need the newest technology, but at fundamentally lower price points,” Jain has said.

One of the critical ingredients for the $100 computer is probably in your garage.

In about three months, a little-known company called Novatium plans to offer a stripped-down home computer for about $70 or $75. That is about half the price of the standard “thin clients” of this kind now sold in India, made possible in part by some novel engineering choices. Adding a monitor doubles the price to $150, but the company will offer used displays to keep the cost down.

“If you want to reach the $100 to $120 price point, you need to use old monitors,” said Novatium founder and board member Rajesh Jain, a local entrepreneur who sold the IndiaWorld portal for $115 million in cash in 2000 and has started a host of companies since. “Monitors have a lifetime of seven to eight years.”

It is this kind of entrepreneurial thinking that has made Jain the latest visionary to seek out today’s Holy Grail of home computing: a desktop that will start to bring the Internet to the more than 5 billion people around the world who aren’t on it yet.

“Just because we are an emerging market doesn’t mean we want an inferior product,” said Jain of Novatium. The engineering behind his company’s base model illustrates his point.

Instead of a microprocessor, it will contain a digital signal processor that compresses and decompresses music and video files. In addition to lowering costs, the technology is designed to provide access to the full range of the Internet without bogging down the machine’s operations. (Novatium would not disclose which chip brand it would use, but one of its investors is also the chairman of digital signal processor designer Analog Devices.)

Using Linux applications and software from Jain’s Netcore Solutions, these machines will be tweaked so that multiple people can use them. This would reduce the cost of memory in the server that does the bulk of the computing work for the Novatium thin clients on its network.

Jain will also try to establish “operator grids,” local businesses that run the servers while acting as an Internet service provider. Eventually, instead of buying their machines, he said customers could have the option of paying a grid operator $15 to $20 a month for all hardware, software and storage needs.

While acknowledging the risks inherent in any start-up venture, Jain speaks eagerly of what he calls the phenomenon of the black swan–a rare, but not impossible, event.

“Google was a black swan,” he said. “No one expects the next Microsoft or Intel or Cisco to come out of India, but I believe it is entirely possible.”

Overall, the story is a big positive for India and reflects its coming of age. Now, if we can only get more Indian entrepreneurs to start thinking about building out tomorrow’s world, the renaissance will lead to domination. What is needed is a mix of entrepreneurial passion, cutting-edge innovation, and big thinking. We also need to leverage our domestic market — solving the needs of the consumers and SMEs in India can provide Indian companies the right platform to extend the solutions to other emerging markets also. And perhaps, ensure innovation blowback (as John Hagel says) to the developed markets.

Tags: Emerging Markets

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