TECH TALK: Computing for the Next Billion: My Views

Right from using regular desktops in cybercafes to owning (or renting) cheaper desktops and network computers to using mobile phones to connect over wireless networks, the next billion users will have something they have never had before in computing: choice. Thats perhaps the best thing to have happened from the attention that is being lavished on the bottom of the pyramid. Having said that, not all solutions are equal. My bet is on two solutions to emerge winners over the coming years: mobiles and network computers. The common thread to both is the dependency on a network. The business model will be along the lines of an upfront payment of about $100 (Rs 5,000) for the device and about $10 (Rs 500) a month for connectivity, content, services and support.

To understand why I think these network devices will emerge as winners, it is important to understand that the problem with todays computing solutions is not just about affordability. It is also about manageability. Complexity in computing has increased, not decreased, over the years. Users have to become their own system administrators to ensure their computers stay clean and secure. The next users are not going to be as savvy as the first set of users in managing their computers.

Into this brave new world, the disruption to be leveraged is the world of communications. Both wired and wireless broadband networks are being deployed in emerging markets. Given the importance of Internet access and the coming era of software-as-a-service, the computers role is now more of a window to the world of information residing in the network.

In addition, almost every new user of computing in developing nations is likely to be already using a mobile phone. After voice, SMS, and not email, is the preferred form of communication. Buddy lists are not maintained in instant messaging clients on PCs but on the mobile. The mobile as the users first interactive personal device in emerging markets is a very different scenario from the developed markets, where it was the PC which came first.

Tomorrows world will, therefore, revolve around computing and information which happens in the network (the cloud), with the users having access to two devices: a small screen mobile phone which they carry with them all the time, and a bigger screen desktop-based terminal which connects over a broadband network to which they have intermittent access. Both devices have their strengths. The big screen is better for applications which are input-output-intensive and require multimedia. The mobile is with us all the time and can be used during lifes empty moments.

This is not to say that the OLPC and other initiatives will fail. I think they will succeed in specific areas but they will not become the mass-market successes that emerging markets need. For that, my bets are around the mobile for internet access and network computing.

PS: The full series is here.

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Mobile Media Startups Struggling

WSJ writes that media services have failed to catch up in the US market:

While the number of U.S. cellphone users has doubled over the past six years to 215 million, only around 1% of them regularly use cellphones to watch videos, for example. Cellphones also are facing competition from iPods, Blackberries and other multimedia devices.

Even if the wireless start-ups succeed in persuading consumers to pay a premium for their entertainment services, the larger carriers are likely to respond by bringing similar services to market, says John Simon, managing director of General Catalyst Partners, a venture-capital firm that has invested in wireless companies. “The challenge is that they can be imitated by the major carriers,” he notes.

The start-ups say they expect to gain more traction with consumers within a year or so as their aggressive advertising produces results.

Advertising in 2010

Hans-Peter Brndmo shares his thoughts:

Why should I listen to what you say about your product or service when I can just as easily seek the wisdom of a crowd? Whether you think the “mob” is smart, or gets it or not, is of little consequence. With consumers enabled by new technologies and pervasive connectivity, you can engage with them one way: facilitate and join clean, well-lighted virtual spaces where they can congregate and share with you, and each other, exactly what they think, what they like, and how they feel.

When every phone has a 5 megapixel camera that can scan barcodes for any product and instantly compare prices and pull up reviews, and when every phone has a built-in video camera that turns us all into sleuths and entertainers, and when every phone has a GPS chip that lets us leave virtual notes and reviews at any location with a couple of clicks, forget spin or trying to control messages. Openness is the only way, lest you be outed as a fraud.

Using Local Servers

Robert Cringely writes in the context of IPTV:

the supposed strengths of centralization aren’t really strengths at all when viewed in terms of the much more imposing issue of bandwidth costs, where all the advantages are local.

I explained this to a group of PBS station managers meeting last month in Orlando, Florida. Where these folks tended to fear IPTV portended the disintermediation of local television, I argued the exact opposite. My reasoning came down to the price differential between Internet bandwidth and intranet bandwidth, the latter being that bandwidth entirely within the ISPs local point of presence or data center. There is a lot more of this intranet bandwidth, for one thing. Depending on how their network is segmented, a local provider of cable Internet or DSL service may have gigabits of aggregate customer bandwidth attached to a much smaller Internet pipe. A 100-to-one ratio of internal to external bandwith is typical, meaning the effective cost of internal bandwidth is 100 times lower.

What I advised the station general managers to do was to serve their traditional audiences as much as possible over internal, rather than external, connections. This means colocating a server down at the telephone and cable TV companies.

The same idea can be used for having server-centric computing and thin clients.

TV Channels Growing

The New York Times writes about TV multicasting:

Multicasting, by the way, is the entertainment industry term for broadcasting several television channels in the space, or bandwidth, of a current analog broadcast signal.

There are technical issues related to this, but the upshot is that with new digital frequencies and equipment, a local station can now beam roughly four digital channels on its signal where a single analog channel once existed. Or it can broadcast the current signal and sublet the extra spectrum, or space, for other purposes, like Internet access, infomercials or pay-TV services.

Google’s Challenges

The Fool has a commentary by Seth Jayson discussing, among other thing, the impact of click fraud:

Whether or not you believe that the junk sites out there peddling AdSense ads are honest commerce or capitalizing on large-scale click fraud, there’s little doubt in my mind that we’ve got Google to thank for it. There’s simply no reason for people to set up these sites if they can’t skim dough via third-hand revenue sharing enabled by Google’s business model. With Yahoo! and others set to get in on the same gig, I don’t think we’ll see this trend abate.

I think that bodes for a return to the old days — that the blogosphere that’s being so rapidly diluted and co-opted by these AdSense shenanigans will become a lot less important. As a result, trusted information providers — and some will doubtlessly be blogs — will become more important. As they realize the power of their information, they’ll be a lot less willing to allow Google to skim dollars off the content and reputation they’ve worked to build.

Moreover, targeted, structured data behind the scenes will be the new source of high-worth information, which means that businesses will be a lot more interested in the user-generated recommendations that Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) offer their millions of customers. That’ll be a lot more useful than what Google knows about 5,000 boy-crazy girls on MySpace or Blogspot who’ve been trading reviews on Justin’s latest single.