GenerationNext Must Get Online

My latest column in Business Standard:

375 million. That is the number of Indians in the 6-19 age group. As they grow up and enter the workforce, they are bound together by one need education. And by all accounts, they arent getting enough of it. In an article, Business Week (Jan 31, 2005) called India a nation of dropouts. The facts bear out the stark reality. While 96% of India’s children enroll in primary school, by the age of 10 about 40% have dropped out, says the education department. Just over a third of high school students graduate.

Educating Indias young is a problem that needs immediate attention. Every year, we are closing the window to a better life for tens of millions of Indians. At the same time, it is not an easy problem to solve. India has a million schools. Most of them are in rural areas and government-run. Teachers and teaching leave much to be desired across most of them. Unless we come up with innovative, radical solutions quickly, we will be squandering Indias greatest asset.

If India has to continue and build upon its recent growth success, an educated workforce is critical. Business Week put it: Without a much deeper reservoir of educated youth, India may see its gains in software and manufacturing evaporate.

Across the space, India will need an educated and trained youth. We are not talking a few million here. 25 million new Indians are ready to join the schooling system every year. The magnitude of Indias education challenge is huge. We are past the point where conventional solutions can work. What we need is out-of-the-box thinking which can educate Indias millions with speed, quality and at affordable price points. This is where technology can play a role.

The challenge of education can be split into two components: teaching (and learning), and testing. Teaching itself has two elements: content creation (typically the preparatory work done by a teacher, aided by textbooks), and then its communication to students in a classroom environment. So, the education value chain can be thought of as comprising three elements: content creation (and/or aggregation), distribution (or communication), and testing. Let us consider each of these elements independently, starting with the content.

Writing on his blog at, my colleague, Atanu Dey, advocates a shift from the teacher-centric model to a learning-centric model. The learning-centric model recognizes these two basic truths: that the universe is connected, and that every student is unique. The model makes available to the student a very rich, deep, and connected set of content which the student navigates through a process which can only be called discovery. Although the basic material is accessible to students is common, the path that a specific student takes is unique to the student. Conceptually, the content is a fully-connected network which can be traversed in a potentially infinite set of ways. One can start from any one of a very large set of nodes, and then move from one node to another till entire structure has been visited.

For all of us, our memories of school and college have a special place for that extraordinary teacher who made a complex subject simple and a joy to learn. If we think deeply about it, what that special teacher taught was not merely the subject but more importantly how to learn. In a dynamic world of rapid change, the most important thing is to learn how to learn. This is what we have to do with the content that needs to created and aggregated.

The Web has a vast array of incredibly good content which can make learning a delight. But this content needs to be identified from among the average and even poor quality stuff that is out there. In addition, there are amazing teachers who can simplify even the most difficult of concepts. We should be able to make videos of their teaching so their power and reach is multiplied many times over.

So, the underlying principle for content creation and aggregation is of identifying the best and re-using it across the spectrum of schools. This will not be a cheap process, but considering the fact that the cost can be amortised over tens of millions of students each year for the foreseeable future, it will be a very small cost per student.

The next challenge is content distribution. This is where we can look at multiple approaches. The interactive content can be made available on computers at the school for local access, without the need to rely on real-time connectivity. Teaching videos can be broadcast (or narrowcast) over television via cable, satellite or the Internet. In fact, broadband can make possible IP-TV, which can then enable the distribution of content on-demand from central servers to schools. The quality content created can also be distributed over other media printed and electronic.

Testing is the third leg of the education system. Through the education process, it provides feedback to students, teachers, parents and administrators about the areas that need improvement. As part of a certification process, it provides a quality of assurance to prospective employers at the end of the value chain. As such, instruction needs to be separated from testing to prevent conflict of interest.

Education is the best investment we can make in building our tomorrow. As Atanu puts it: Education is the lynchpin which holds the entire economic machinery together. It is so fundamental and basic that without an educated population, there is no conceivable way for an economy to prosper. Show me any economy that has ever done well, and I will show you that at its foundation is an educated population. I grant you that for short periods of time due to special circumstances, an economy may flourish without an educated workforce, such as an economy buoyed by a natural resource such as oil. But it is a hollow sort of an economy and cannot survive in the long run.

It is not just money that is needed. A mix of disruptive thinking and new technologies are needed to deliver quality education to an increasingly aspirational India. This must be our promise and commitment to Generation Next.

PS: This is likely to be my last column for ICE World, since the section is undergoing a redesign.

Bus. Std: Content, 3G, VoIP are Hot

My latest column in Business Standard:

I attended CommunicAsia in Singapore in mid-June. There was an excellent conference and a huge exhibition area. The focus of the conference was around the twin themes of mobility and broadband. What follows are some of my impressions about the emerging communications landscape and the implications for India.

The conference sessions were focused around the telecom scenario in Asia. They provided a fascinating glimpse of the region with different countries at different stages in the evolution of their communications and services infrastructure. The leaders are undoubtedly Japan and South Korea, while the two biggest opportunities are China and India. Taiwan and Singapore are racing ahead to deploy broadband, 3G and wireless LANs. Hong Kong has the best IP-TV service. An interesting fact: last year, nearly a million new mobile users were added every day. The world now has 1.8 billion mobile users.

Two words that were heard a lot at the conference were convergence and ecosystem. Convergence is finally becoming a reality as the next-generation networks with all-IP cores are making it possible to have triple play services (voice, data and video) flow over the same network. Convergence is also happening in terms of the fixed line and wireless worlds in both the networks and handsets. Convergence technology drivers include SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and IMS (IP Multimedia System). There will be a time soon when our handsets will support WiFi and GSM/CDMA, such that in hotspots they would use WiFi to make and receive calls, while at other locations they would use the cellular networks.

Ecosystem is about the realization that there is no single company which has all the answers, and there is a web of relationships to deliver valuable services to consumers and enterprises. Operators control the networks (and the customer relationships), but they need a combination of cheaper access devices and compelling services to drive traffic and revenues. An ecosystem approach is about creating win-win scenarios for the entire value chain.

The three panel discussions identified the hot issues: content, 3G and VoIP. The biggest success stories in mobile value added services have been unexpected SMS, ringtones and increasingly, ringback tones. But there are still plenty of opportunities in the content space to deliver useful services to consumers on their always-on, always-available, always-connected, personal devices, and over broadband networks. Operators have begun 3G rollouts across the region but there is no clear business plan on how money will be made! WiMax looms as a possible threat or opportunity. VoIP is hot and happening it is clear that voice will just be another application on the IP network.

The vision for the future is simple, seamless and personal communications from wireline and wireless networks. Tomorrows world will be one where users will be able to communicate anytime, anywhere from the device of their choice. Users will be able to define their own experiences, and the network will become more intelligent to bring highly personalised services to users. All of this will bring about a significant lifestyle change for consumers and also enable the real-time enterprise.

The dream of this world of seamless mobility has been there for many years. But the work that has been happening in the background is now making it all possible. Parallel trends in digitisation are making a huge array of content available to us on any of the screens TV, PC or the mobile. The focal point is now shifting from the network to the user. What people really want is to be connected, informed, entertained and do so in their own way. Whether one is at home or work, commuting or in public places, the networks will connect us to friends, family, colleagues at work, and our business information.

As Peter Vesterbacka, founder of HP Mobile E-Services Bazaar, puts it: All people are mobile, even when they work. They have needs all the time, either private or professional. They need access to services and information all the time, wherever they are. The devices they will use to access these services can be wired or wireless the people are mobileMobility is a natural state of being, not a niche market. The Internet is a subset of the mobile market.

For us in India, we have a very good mobile infrastructure. What is needed is for the operators to alter their mindsets and open up their walled gardens to third-party content and applications developers much like the way NTT Docomo did with i-mode in Japan when they launched in 1999. More than voice and person-to-person SMS, future growth will come from an array of lifestyle and business services and for that the need is to build an ecosystem.

The broadband situation in India is nothing short of a disaster. Whereas countries like South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong talk of multi-megabit connectivity, we are stuck in the kilobit world. India needs cheap, reliable, high-speed, ubiquitous broadband access for homes and businesses. (Anyone who thinks 256 Kbps at Rs 350 per month with download caps is broadband should visit to one of our Asian counterparts.)

This will spur our content and software developers to innovate and build services for the domestic market and potentially extend them to others globally. South Korea did that very well and the result is not just companies like LG and Samsung, but also online gaming innovators like NCSoft. India has the creative talents in both story-telling (Bollywood) and software. The combination is what can help build out the next-generation killer services.

The scale of Indias developmental challenge needs big, bold decisions. Technology can play a small but critical part in this process. State-of-the-art mobile and broadband networks can help India address the challenges of education, health and governance. Removing obstacles to their buildout should be a national priority.

Bus. Std: Coming Soon — Video Games, in a Big Way

My latest column in Business Standard:

May saw plenty of action on the gaming console front with announcements by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo about their new products due for launch in the coming months. Chinese online gaming leader Shanda also disclosed plans for its interactive entertainment box. The net result: video gaming is set to go mainstream, and the broader battle for control of the living room is well underway.

An article in the Wall Street Journal summarised the key selling points of each of the three new game consoles: Sony PlayStation 3: Ultrafast, powerful chips for movie-quality graphics and complex videogame environments. Will also be able to stream and download music and movies. Microsoft Xbox 360: Aims to be a hub for all kinds of digital media — movies, music and online content as well as games. Nintendo Revolution: Emphasis on innovative, networked game play and simpler, cheaper game development rather than power and graphics.

Another story in the Wall Street Journal captured the importance of the new generation of consoles: While the PlayStation 3 is seen as more powerful than the Xbox 360, both will have the speed to render complicated computer environments and permit complex game play, game company executives and experts said. As developers become familiar with the new machines, video games should make a dramatic transformation. You’re going to see a much bigger emphasis on physics giving games a much more responsive and interactive world, says Peter Hirschmann, vice president of product development at LucasArts. It’s about creating an authentic kind of world. The last transition to new consoles, about five years ago, brought the gaming world three-dimensional graphics. Experts say photo realism might be the best term to describe the change this time. But it is about more than just advanced graphics, says David Zucker, chief executive of Midway Games Inc. To me, it’s really about artificial intelligence creating environments that react the way they would in real life.

Over the years, the power available on the consoles and the ambitions of the console makers has grown dramatically. Both Sony and Microsoft look at their products as the entry point into the living room with hopes of becoming the multimedia hub and gateway for all entertainment delivery, creating significantly large revenue opportunities.

TIME magazine wrote in a cover story (May 23, 2005) about the Xbox: D.E.L digital entertainment lifestyle is shorthand for the notion that all media movies, music, games, cameras, phones, TVs are becoming digital media, and thats changing how we relate to them and how they relate to one another. Theyre merging into a single integrated, portable, customizable media gestaltAs music and movies become more and more digital, the entertainment business is transforming into a software business, and somebody has to build a master platform on which all the software runs, and the hardware through which it flows. In short, the Xbox 360 is Microsofts Trojan horse to get into peoples homes and be the hub for the emerging digital ecosystem.

This is also what Shanda in China hopes to capitalise on to become an interactive Disney. Forbes wrote recently in a cover story (May 23, 2005): Only 94 million of China’s 1.3 billion people were Internet users at the end of last year, but 330 million have TV sets. A huge chunk of Shanda users are nomads, logging in from Internet cafes.Later this year [Shanda] will unveil a new interactive entertainment box, dubbed the Shanda Station, that will allow TV viewers to go online, play Shanda’s games and buy music and, eventually, films. Developed in part with Intel, the product uses Microsoft software and connects to the Internet over high-speed DSLphone lines. Shanda is considering putting voice and video calling features inside the Shanda Station, which will be sold through electronics chain stores, plus Shanda’s own sales channelsA home audience will also give Shanda a better claim on China’s torrid advertising market.

The video games we are familiar with in India are the ones we play in entertainment arcades or on PCs. Game consoles have traditionally been absent from the Indian market for a simple reason: console companies lose money with every console they sell, and make money as the consumers buy the games. In piracy-ridden markets, the opportunity to sell games disappears leaving only losses from console sales.

Broadband and mobiles offer new models for gaming. Broadband makes possible online gaming, where players can buy pre-paid gaming cards and connect to servers on the Internet to play either by themselves or against others. (There are also many free Internet game sites.) Mobile gaming is also growing rapidly and has emerged as one of the sweet spots for operators and gaming companies for generating additional revenues. Coming soon: networked mobile gaming, where mobile phone users can play against each other.

With a youthful population, gaming has the potential to be a killer app for broadband in India. The low installed base of PCs and the non-availability of consoles in India creates an opportunity for an IP set-top-box, which provides not just a gateway to gaming, but also computing (and Internet access), telecom and television the triple play that the consumer electronics has been talking about for some time. The set-top-box should be able to connect to both a TV and a computer monitor. Such a box will probably need to sell for about Rs 5,000 ($110) and should leverage the Internet for offloading computing and storage. Services would be offered on a subscription basis to home users.

The game is afoot! Are we ready to hunt?

Bus. Std: The A, B, C of Blogs

My latest column in Business Standard:

What are blogs and why are they becoming hot now? Why should you consider reading blogs or even doing your own? [This story is organised as a blog. So start reading the last entry first because blogs are published in reverse chronological fashion, with the newest entries at the top.]

Friday, May 13: Here are some blogging tips.

  • Blog daily. A good starting point is the BlogStreet list of the top 100 Indian blogs at Blogging has to become part of the day’s routine. Things have to become habits – for both readers and writers.

  • Read widely. One may not understand everything, but over time, one gets the lay of the land. Maps start forming. Stories acquire a context. And over time, the linkages between developments start becoming apparent.

  • Think aloud. The one thing I decided when I started blogging is that I would write what I thought.

  • Start. Even when I feel I may not something to say, sitting in front of the computer changes everything. The words just come.

    Thursday, May 12: How do you start blogging?

    To get started, you can use any of the free blogging platforms available via Google (, Rediff, Sify or IndiaTimes. Once you are sure you want to do it, you could try a more advanced blogging platforms like TypePad (costs $5-15 per month). If you have your own server to host the blogging software, you could use WordPress (open-source) or MovableType (free for non-commercial use).

    An RSS Aggregator would be a good tool to complement the blogging platform. It offers an alternative to going to various blogs. Instead, it aggregates the output of various blogs (keeping track of when the blogs are updated) and shows you all the fresh items in a browser or a special client. Bloglines and Rojo are web-based aggregators. NewsGator is an Outlook-based aggregator.

    There are plenty of services becoming available for bloggers and readers. Our Blogstreet ranks top blogs along with their neighbours (other related blogs), and has a set of useful RSS utilities. Three other RSS-based search and notification services that you may find useful are Feedster, Technorati and PubSub.

    Wednesday, May 11: Why blog?

    Let me talk about my experience. Recently, I completed three years of blogging at, which mainly discusses emerging technologies, enterprises and markets (though I do have the occasional personal post). I take items that I think are interesting, abstract a part of the text from the original story and link to it from the blog. This has a dual purpose: it helps me find interesting items easily later, and I serve as a human filter (or aggregator) for a small part of the content web. At times, I will add a small commentary to the post, adding my unique perspective on what Ive read.

    For me, the blog has become an ideas refinery. I learn a lot from reading what others write. Much like the open-source software community shares and gives back, the blog is my way of contributing back into the ideas community in my own small way by not just taking the time (a precious resource for all of us) to link and write, but also by discussing the ideas that I am thinking about. The blog is a mirror of my mind. The comments I receive from many of the readers (and other bloggers) helps in real-time refining and getting the best out from a community smarter than any single individual.

    One of the by-products of blogging has been the new friends that Ive made and people Ive met. The blog is a non-linear way to make connections we can only meet so many people you can meet in person, but via the blog we can build an exponentially increasing network. For me, the blog and its readers are the social network.

    Tuesday, May 10: What are blogs?

    Blogs (also called web logs) are journals, personal diaries. They have postings at varying intervals, usually by a single individual, in the form of text, images, and other data forms, arranged in reverse chronological order and accessible with a Web browser.

    In the early days of the Internet, setting up individual home pages was seen as a big deal. But these pages were hard to update once created. Blogs are all about updates. Publishing for individuals on the web has become easy and one of the by-products of that is the emergence of millions of personal pages talking about everything from what their authors did during the day or running commentaries on specialised topics. Blogs are the opposite of mainstream media. If media as we know it is about a few publishing for many, blogs are about many publishing for few.

    Monday, May 9: Blogs are hot.

    Business Week had this to say in its cover story entitled Blogs will change your Business in the May 2 issue: [Blogs] represent power. Look at it this way: In the age of mass media, publications like ours print the news. Sources try to get quoted, but the decision is ours. Ditto with letters to the editor. Now instead of just speaking through us, they can blog. And if they master the ins and outs of this new art — like how to get other bloggers to link to them — they reach a huge audience. This is just the beginning. Many of the same folks who developed blogs are busy adding features so that bloggers can start up music and video channels and team up on editorial projects. The divide between the publishers and the public is collapsing. This turns mass media upside down. It creates media of the masses.

  • Bus. Std: The Return of ASPs

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    Application Service Providers (ASPs) are set to make a comeback in an avatar that is also being termed on-demand software or software-as-a-service (SaaS). Business Week wrote recently: Companies like, NetSuite, and newly public RightNow Technologies are reinventing the way customers buy software. They’re all making basic corporate software to manage finances or a sales team, run a business or run a call center — not new stuff, and in many cases, with fewer features than existing products. But the innovation is in the business model. These companies deliver software over the Internet – a Web service, if you will — and companies pay as they go with monthly fees. That means less costly integration, no hiring an in-house administrator, and no big up-front contracts. It’s a considerably cheaper and easier approach that gives these software-as-a-service companies an entre into the last wide-open sector of software customers: Small and midsize companies.

    KB Chandrasekhar of Jamcracker wrote recently on about what is different this time around: Today, with improved on-demand delivery and management solutions, software providers have gained significant efficiencies-of-scale in delivering SaaS, which in turn helps make for some very attractive price points. On the demand side, companies have faced severe economic challenges over the last five years, forcing CIOs to do more with less, and to focus on bringing more discernable value to their companies.

    SMEEMs ((small- and medium-sized enterprises in emerging markets) are the last frontier for technology companies. They have only used IT sparingly so far. They are also the engines of growth for their countries. As emerging markets develop, these enterprises will grow and need to leverage IT and best practices to ensure they are not the weak links in the real-time value chains of the large enterprises. Technology companies seeking growth will do well to look at SMEEMs and use the service model to deliver software to these enterprises.

    The opportunity for both SMEEMs and the ASPs is thus significant. This is because of the lack of legacy infrastructure enterprises have simply not invested adequately in IT over the past decade because of issues like affordability (dollar-denominated pricing), desirability (lack of relevant applications) and manageability (not enough skills to manage technology). Now, with the ASP model, all of this can change. As businesses realise that they have to automate for growth, software vendors have an opportunity to fulfill this market need. A number of factors will enable this shift.

    First, there is a growing recognition in the IT companies that the next untapped frontier for growth is in the emerging markets. As these countries develop and build their physical infrastructure, the digital infrastructure and information pipelines also need to be put in place. This is where time needs to be compressed and scale needs to achieved rapidly. Making business process portals which cater to the next enterprises is the fastest way to reach out in an environment where the alternate distribution channels are not fully formed.

    Second, the growing availability of reliable and affordable broadband connections in emerging markets means that the Internet is now becoming an extension of the local network. People have become comfortable with using the Internet in their lives as consumers. Even in India, broadband connectivity is becoming available across the country through the phone companies and cable operators.

    Third, the dramatic growth in mobile phones has shown people the value of instant and always-available connectivity. Mobiles have hastened the pace of business people can call or SMS each other. In many ways, mobiles are becoming the computers of the East. But the mobiles have limitations and need to be complemented by desktop computers along with applications and services. The need for multi-device access will drive the shift from desktop-based and LAN-based computing to centralised computing platforms.

    Fourth, in the avatar as consumers, people have already started trusting their data to centralised services. Email service providers like Yahoo and Microsofts Hotmail are used by hundreds of millions of users. Various ecommerce providers have our credit card information. ASPs like have also demonstrated that even businesses are willing to host sensitive customer data on central servers outside the firewall.

    Finally, there are a number of technologies like web services and Ajax (Asynchronous Javascript and XML, also called remote scripting) which can serve as the foundation to create applications that are modular and integrated at the backend, and have rich user interface not traditionally associated with web-based programs. These may be old technologies, but they are being applied in new and innovative ways by companies who dont have a legacy to protect and sustain.

    By providing the right set of integrated, hosted solutions with a utility-like pricing model, the ASPs can provide three clear benefits to SMEEMs. First, since software is delivered over the Web, there is no need for anything more than a computer connected to the Internet within the enterprise complemented by the mobile phone. Second, a wide variety of integrated applications can ensure that multiple functions can be automated rapidly. This addresses the desirability issue. Third, monthly payment options allows the SMEEMs to link payments to business outcomes, thus addressing not just the affordability issue but also the ability to measure return on investment (RoI). As Ray Lane puts it in an article on I define software as a service as tying supplier revenue to a business outcome: the supplier sees the clients end result, measures its success, and receives revenue based on the results achieved.

    For the business, the key benefits are: there is no need to invest in any IT infrastructure, payments are made monthly and can be tied to business outcomes, and it is possible to get an integrated solution which automates key business processes. Software companies who so far have only limited success in selling software to businesses – need to learn from the Chinese gaming companies: shift to an online model to eliminate piracy and increase reach. Going the ASP route is going to be the only option for ISVs seeking to build a large and profitable business.

    I believe that from the perspective of emerging markets, the ASP model of software-as-a-service is a disruptive innovation. The competition, for the most part, is non-consumption, as SMEEMs use only limited software for their business. ASPs can change that. The Age of ASPs and software-as-a-service is upon us.

    Bus. Std: ASPs Failed – but are now making a Comeback

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    About 5-6 years ago, Application Service Providers (ASPs) were one of the hottest categories in software. They would transform the way software would be delivered, and create a win-win situation for customers and software vendors. That dream did not pan out. ASPs were lumped in the basket of Internet failures along with online pet food stores and b2b exchanges.

    Unlike the others, though, ASPs are now making a comeback and for good reasons. I believe that the ASP business is where Search was in 1999 when Google strode on the scene ripe for new entrants to come in and change the rules of the game. But first, let us take a walk down memory lane to understand the promise of ASPs and then analyse what went wrong in the first wave.

    ASPs offer applications over the Internet using their own servers to customers, who pay a regular fee for the use. For companies, there is no need to own either the application or the underlying infrastructure. For service providers, it helps them aggregate a large number of customers providing economies of scale. Using the Internet as the distribution medium, ASPs can reach out to customer globally.

    Wikipedia outlines the advantages: software integration issues are eliminated from the client site; software costs for the application are spread over a number of clients; and, vendors can build more application experience than the in-house staff. It also mentions the disadvantages: the client must generally accept the application as provided since ASPs can only afford a customised solution for the largest clients; the client may rely on the provider to provide a critical business function, thus limiting their ability to handle that function to that of the provider; continuing consolidation of ASP providers may cause changes in the type or level of service available.

    ASPs promised a world where software would be delivered over the Internet, customers would have to pay a monthly service charge rather than a large upfront payment, and vendors would have great scale in offering the services to business globally much like Yahoo, Google and MSN have done for consumers in every country of the world.

    On paper, the ASP idea looked like a great win-win for everyone. So, what went wrong?

    An October 2002 article in Baseline summarised what went wrong with the business model of Application Service Providers (ASPs): The idea was that the customers, then primarily dot-coms, would be freed of purchasing and maintaining software and could use their dollars elsewhere, perhaps to bolster their marketing budgets and build their brands. And the rent would provide ASPs with a steady source of incomeBut two things went wrong. First, there were few companies that thought renting was a good idea. Most wanted to own an asset as important as software, and they were not about to turn over anything that controls their critical business processes to an outsider. Second, the Internet stock-market crash wiped out most of the customers.

    John Hagels book Out of the Box (published in 2002) has an extensive discussion on ASPs, what the early companies did wrong, and how it can be done right. He writes: ASPs in many respects presented a false start in the efforts to break out of the enterprise straitjacket. In particular, few of them adopted Web services architectures as their technology platform. Instead, they attempted to build businesses on the Internet using traditional technology architectures. This proved a significant flaw in the early ASP model.

    Hagel then discusses the reality of the first wave of ASPs:

  • Product Complexity and Lack of Flexibility: Traditional enterprise applications were designed to meet the complex needs of a large enterprise. Small- and medium-sized enterprises rarely needed the full complex functionality embedded in these applications. As a result, the applications proved unwieldy in smaller enterprises they were slower and more complicated than necessary. [Also,] applications designed using conventional technology architectures presented major challenges when businesses tried to customize them or connect them with their existing applications.

  • Product Performance Concerns: Within the firewall, CIOs had much better control over performance. Outside the firewall, they worried about both technical and corporate performance.

  • Vendor Performance Concerns: ASPs were new start-ups, with a very limited track record. CIOs found that ASPs had very limited operating history to provide reassurance that their management processes had been tested successfully in high-volume, mission-critical environments.

  • Challenging Vendor Economics: Customer concerns about ASP performance and the lack of compelling product benefits contributed to much higher customer acquisition costs than anticipated. Sales cycles were also longer than anticipated. [As a result,] ASPs found themselves caught in a potentially life-threatening economic bind.

    Hagels key point: The Internet is not simply a new distribution channel. It often requires a fundamentally new set of products and technologies if a business is to exploit its full potentialWeb services architectures are the key to unlocking the full business potential of the Internet.

    That is the starting point for rethinking ASPs. But theres a lot more to ASPs than web services. We also need to rethink the markets they address. As I will explain in the next column, the big opportunity for ASPs is the long tail of enterprises in the worlds developing countries what I call the SMEEMs (small- and medium-sized enterprises in emerging markets). They have been largely unaffected by the Internet other than email usage and in some cases, a minor web presence. The software they use for their business remains almost identical to what they used five or more years ago. [In India, this is limited to mostly pirated copies of Microsofts Windows and Office, and Tally for accounting.] They are the weak links in the information value chain and the next big opportunity for software vendors.

  • Bus. Std: The Coming Age of Teleputers

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    George Gilder, a technology evangelist and author of the book Telecosm: The World After Bandwidth Abundance, coined the word teleputer many years ago. He thinks of it as a handheld device that’s a fully functioning personal computer, digital video camera, telephone, MP3 player and video player…Epitomized by the multipurpose cell phone handset or personal digital assistant, the teleputer is optimized for ubiquitous connectivity…[It] will be as portable as a watch and as personal as your wallet. It takes pictures or videos and projects them onto a wall or screen or onto your retina and transmits them to any other digital device or storage facility.

    While the complete functionality of the teleputer as described by Gilder is still some time away, there is little doubt about the direction we are headed in. This is very important from the point of view of users in the emerging markets. For many, it is the mobile phone, rather than the computer, which will provide the first glimpse of the Internet and Web.

    This is what Jonathan Schwartz of Sun said after his visit to 3GSM: The majority of the world will first experience the internet through their mobile phones. We sometimes forget that 10 times as many people bought handsets last year as PC’s. Round numbers, there were a BILLION wireless devices sold last year, and around 100 million PC’s. To that end, the odds are much higher you’ll watch broadcast broadband content on your phone than on your PC – and now that Nokia (and their peers) are the world’s largest camera manufacturers (just think about that for a moment), the odds are far higher you’ll even create broadband content on your handset…Another interesting meeting was with the CEO of Oberthur, who predicts we’ll see 1 GigaBYTE SIM cards by years end – that’s right, a Gig on an interchangeable SIM card. For extra credit, what happens when a significant portion of that memory is executable? That’s a mighty small computer.

    Mobile Phones are also being hailed as the key for development. The Economist wrote recently (March 10 issue): Plenty of evidence suggests that the mobile phone is the technology with the greatest impact on development. A new paper finds that mobile phones raise long-term growth rates, that their impact is twice as big in developing nations as in developed ones, and that an extra ten phones per 100 people in a typical developing country increases GDP growth by 0.6 percentage pointsAnd when it comes to mobile phones, there is no need for intervention or funding from the UN: even the world’s poorest people are already rushing to embrace mobile phones, because their economic benefits are so apparent. Mobile phones do not rely on a permanent electricity supply and can be used by people who cannot read or write.

    The Economist has got one-third of the story right. There are two more points to be considered:

  • Multimedia-enabled thin clients: Think of them as phones with bigger input/output capabilities and options to connect multiple peripherals. These thin clients will have the same internal specs as the phones.

  • Grid Services: There is a need for centralised applications and data storage. Because of the wireless connection, a cellphone can connect to the network. All the heavyweight lifting is done on servers.

    Thin clients and mobile phones will complement each other what is needed between them is seamless mobility. This is where the “virtual desktop” comes in — one can start reading a book on a mobile phone, and continue reading it on ones thin client, and then perhaps back on the phone. All of this is possible if the state (what the user is doing) is stored on the server.

    This is how commPuting (communications and computing) in emerging markets will look like in the future. Both the multimedia-enabled thin clients and tomorrows mobile phones are examples of teleputers. They have the potential to transform life and work. This is a world where each of us will have a personal device and networks will be ubiquitous. Bringing this world to life is where the next set of opportunities lie.

    What is inside todays desktop computer will move to the server and what is inside a cell phone will power tomorrows network computer. The networks will be IP-based. Voice will become yet another service over these digital networks. The mobile phone will be our constant companion, and will be complemented by the availability of network computers with large screens.

    Services will occupy centre-stage. From commPuting to computainment to communicontent, it will be a world that will converge at the back-end (server-side) but will diverge at the front-end (multiple devices). While there will be no convergence across these screens, the convergence will happen at the back-end with respect to the data store. We will have different views to the same set of data across these devices along with seamless mobility. Welcome to the age of teleputers and service-based computing.

  • Bus. Std: The Many Uses of Mobile Phones

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    The innovation and growth on the mobile phones front is astonishing. The top-end phones available now have the processing power and storage available in desktop computers from just 4-5 years ago. Little wonder then that 2004 saw 674 million phones being bought, and estimates for 2005 stand at 730 million.

    The mobile phone is rapidly becoming the uber-device the one device that seems to have it all and becomes even more indispensable than it is now. Mobile phones have already started functioning as more than just communications devices. Mobiles serve as watches and alarm clocks. Even with the limited free games that come with basic phones, they are already good for time-pass. They can also function as calculators.

    In unfamiliar neighbourhoods, they tell us where we are. The address book and contacts list on phones is our social interface. Without the phone, many of us would be quite lost in connecting with other people! The calendar function on the mobile phones can help us track our lives. Phones can also function as radios. For some, the mobile phone also becomes a notepad send an SMS to oneself and make it a reminder service. Owners also have tended to customise phones with their own ringtones, themes and wallpapers.

    This is just for starters. Consider what some of the more advanced mobile phones are also doing:

  • Digital Camera: Point-and-click! Phones capture pictures and let us save them for posterity or transfer them to others and computers.
  • Audio Recorder: Mobile phones can be used to record conversations, or even brief notes to oneself.
  • Video Recorder: Phones are becoming video cameras also some of the newest cellphones can record an hour or more of video.
  • Multimedia Messaging: Everything recorded can be shared with others by using MMS.
  • Email Client: The phone can be used to connect to any POP or IMAP server and allow receiving and sending email. While most phones may not have the ease-of-use that a Blackberry has with email, contacts and calendar, the fact that it is on the phone itself and there is no need for a separate device can be a big help (along with the lower total cost of ownership).
  • Web Client: Phones can also browse websites via a WAP and/or HTML browser. Most websites may not look great on the small screen, but it is still possible to connect to any website.
  • Gaming Platform: Mobile games have become big business in the past couple years, as people seek entertainment in the free time that they have on the device that they always carry with them.
  • Documents Viewer: It is increasingly possible to view documents on the cellphone in the popular MS-Office file formats.
  • Computer Adjunct: For many, the cellphone has replaced the PDA as the complement to the computer. With a remote desktop application, it also becomes possible to make the mobile phone a window to ones computer.
  • Music Player: The next big thing in 2005 is reckoned to be the combining of music capabilities on the mobile phone. While phones can play MP3s, it will soon also be possible to have music streamed from the Internet. Motorola is expected to introduce a phone this year that marries the mobile with Apples iPod.
  • TV: In India, some operators have been promoting many TV channels on the cellphone over next-generation networks like EDGE.
  • Wallet: The phone can also be used to pay for purchases like a credit or debit card. There is already a billing relationship that exists between the subscriber and the operator, and that can be used to make payments to merchants.
  • Bar-code readers: Phones will also be able to read barcodes and that can have very interesting applications in commerce.

    Ramesh Jain, professor at University of California, Irivine, wrote on his weblog: Mobile phones are becoming very powerful and are likely to become a dominant device for CCC (communication, computing and content).

    So, the phones of tomorrow will be remote controls for our life. They will come with bigger, better keyboards and displays even though there are practical limitations on how big a device we will carry. Networks are becoming faster, too. And the device that was once a replacement for the fixed-line phone will occupy an even greater role in our lives. Countries like Japan and South Korea already lead the way in having multi-purpose mobile phones. China is following and India is not far behind.

    Consider some of the recent announcements at Cebit.

    A Slashdot reader wrote: Samsung [is] showing off a new cell phone which runs on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system which features a built-in hard drive. The SGH-I300 will offer 3GB of storage which allows you to store up to 1,000 songs on it for playback through the music player. The 3GB hard drive is similar to the type of hard drive that is found in Apple’s Mini iPod. These 1-inch drives with very low power requirements, are ideal for cell phones and other mobile devices. wrote about two of the announcements at Cebit: Motorola is demonstrating its 3G Motorola V1150 phone in Hannover. The sleek phone will come with an integrated 2-megapixel camera, two-way video calling and a new Motorola ticker technology called Screen3 that streams news and entertainment from Motorola…Sony Ericsson is showing off the W800 phone, the first Walkman- branded cell phone. The handset comes with a digital-audio player, FM radio tuner and 2-megapixel camera. The W800 will have 38MB of free memory for music and images.

    Mobile phones are morphing to the point where voice is just incidental. They are becoming, what George Gilder has called, teleputers.

  • 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 (

    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?

    Bus. Std: New Markets for Future Technologies

    My latest column in Business Standard (ICE World):

    As we look ahead to 2005, the rapidly converging areas of computing, communications and consumer electronics are creating an unprecedented set of opportunities and threats. My belief which has got reinforced over the past year is that it will be the emerging markets like India will define future technologies in the. While the top 10% of these markets are just like their counterparts in developed markets (the top of the pyramid), there is a big chasm which separates the top from the middle.

    It is this chasm which presents an opportunity for entrepreneurs and established companies. This middle of the pyramid needs homegrown solutions which are not just priced differently but also may need different business models. This market segment is not just about making things faster, better and cheaper (not all of which are necessarily possible simultaneously) but also about focusing on the utility and value that the device or service provides and building specific solutions to address those needs.

    Think about the planned Rs 1 lakh car from the Tatas. It is not just about taking the Indica and trying to cut costs dramatically. To build the car, the Tatas will have to fundamentally rethink every aspect of the car and the corresponding value chains. They did a similar exercise when they came up with the Tata IndiOne hotel in Bangalore to offer a room for business travellers at less than a thousand rupees. Disruptive thinking is the need of the hour.

    Entrepreneurs in India have a great opportunity. As Indias consumer class burgeons, there is an opportunity to not just provide solutions to them but also propagate these solutions to other emerging markets globally. India serves as a laboratory to try out innovations and a large, first market.

    For the bottom of the pyramid thinkers, the middle is what comes first. The way to the bottom is via the middle. Just as the top globally is almost similar, the middle across emerging markets is very similar. And that is the market that needs to be addressed first. India may have 700 million people in rural areas, but it also has 300 million in urban and semi-urban areas. These potential customers comprise a huge target market of families across 45 million households, 40 million employees across 3 million small- and medium-sized enterprises, and 100 million students across schools and colleges. They are the ones on the edge. The right solutions can help provide new windows of opportunities for them. This is the first market for Indian entrepreneurs.

    Besides thinking about the markets outside the top 10%, there are three other guiding principles which I apply to my thinking and writing as we seek out opportunities across these markets: services, subscriptions and ecosystems.

    For the next markets, it is important to think of the services that the solutions provide. The target customers have limited resources. So they need to be convinced of the value that the solution provides. For example, instead of talking about computer hardware specifications, this market needs to know what they can do with a computer. That old marketing adage of customers needing a quarter-inch hole rather than a quarter-inch drill is perhaps most apt to describe the marketing approach that is needed for this segment.

    The middle segment is also more likely to adopt a monthly subscription-based model than one which requires a large upfront investment. Reliance Infocomm recognised this fact when they launched their mobile service and converted the handset capital expenditure into operating expenditure. This is partly about EMI (equated monthly installments) and partly about offering flexibility of upgrades in a technology world that is rapidly evolving.

    Finally, the solution provided needs to address the entire backend ecosystem, rather than just the silo that it is operating in. For example, to target computers to this segment, it is necessary to think about the connectivity and services (applications and content) that will be provided because that is the value chain the computing device is a part of. At times, it will become necessary to reinvent all of the elements of the ecosystem to provide a whole solution that is not just cheaper but also more desirable and manageable than the current offering.

    We are at a fascinating point of time. Even as new technologies converge (and diverge) providing us with an amazing array of options and opportunities, we are also part of one of the fastest growing economies in the world. We can build not just the India of our dreams but also create the next Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, Nokia or Google for the middle of the pyramid across emerging markets out of India. As Alan Kay said, The best way to predict the future is to invent it. And that is what Future Tech is about.

    Future Techs first column was published on December 17, 2003. There have been 27 columns so far. (All columns are available at The goal of Future Tech during its first year has been to provide insights into future directions in technology, especially from the perspective of emerging markets like India.

    An anniversary is always a good time to look back at what has been and introspect about the future. In the next three columns, I have compiled my best ideas over the past columns. After that, it will be back to predicting the future by working towards inventing it!

    Bus. Std: Tomorrow’s World Encourages Upstarts

    My latest Business Standard column:

    In this series, we are discussing cold technologies which Pip Coburn has 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 the 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 two columns, we covered five such cold technologies: open-source software, software delivered as a service, voice-over-IP, Wi-Fi and network computers.

    China Supply Chain

    A recent cover story in the Business Week talked about The China Price. The article began: They are the three scariest words in U.S. industry. Cut your price at least 30% or lose your customers. Nearly every manufacturer is vulnerable — from furniture to networking gear. The result: A massive shift in economic power is under way. It added: Makers of apparel, footwear, electric appliances, and plastics products, which have been shutting U.S. factories for decades, know well the futility of trying to match the China price. It has been a big factor in the loss of 2.7 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.

    Chinas presence looks like a colossus across the world of manufacturing. Using its low-cost labour and a large domestic market, Chinese manufacturers are achieving huge economies of scale, allowing retailers like Wal-Mart to sell microwave ovens at $28. The world textiles industry waits with bated breath to see what will happen in 2005 as global trade barriers come down. Chinas presence across global value chains has helped keep prices low. Now, increasingly, Chinese companies are seeking to compete more broadly. Recently, Chinas largest computer company was in talks with IBM to buy out its PC business. Going ahead, China seeks to compete with low wages and in high-tech.

    India Services

    What China has done in manufacturing, India is doing in services. Indias emergence in the software and business process outsourcing services value chain is helping companies cut their costs. A skilled and abundant workforce has been complemented by cheaper telecom costs to enable organisations create software engineering and helpdesk extensions in India. Costs are cut anywhere from 30-70% when companies outsource. Companies using India as a services base is now widespread. The quantum of work being outsourced to India is still small, leaving plenty of room for growth.

    In a recent survey on outsourcing, The Economist wrote: Over the next ten years, Russia, China and particularly India will emerge as important hubs for producing services such as software engineering, insurance underwriting and market research. These services will be consumed at the other end of a fibre-optic cable in America, Japan and Europe. Just as Dell and Wal-Mart are obtaining manufactured goods from low-cost countries, companies such as Wipro, TCS and Infosys, for instance, are already providing IT services from low-cost India.

    File Sharing Networks

    Peer-to-peer file sharing networks promise to revolutionse content distribution. Even though Napster was forced to shut down, other P2P networks thrive. More than half the traffic on the Internet is now generated by P2P applications. What they are doing is offering distributed alternatives to the problem of disseminating not just software updates but also broadband content. This promises to spur even more rapidly the growth of multimedia content. As the Web grows beyond text and images to include audio and video, P2P networks can provide affordable alternatives to content distribution.

    The Economist wrote recently about the most popular of these applications: The most active P2P system, accounting for an estimated 35% of all internet traffic according to CacheLogic, is called BitTorrent. It is an open-source software project that is free to use and enables very large files to be stored and retrieved efficiently at essentially no cost. Though it is used for pirated music, it comes into its own when distributing really large files such as movies, games and large pieces of software such as the Linux operating systemthings that would otherwise be very costly for companies or individuals to make available for download With systems such as BitTorrent, the more a file is in demand, the more available it becomes. Content automatically ends up being stored close to the users who request it, improving the performance of the system.


    The Internet is also impacting the world of advertising. As search engines have become popular (once again), they have also pioneered a new model to increase the effectiveness of online advertising. The ability to measure responses and pay based on performance is providing unprecedented capabilities to advertisers in fine-tuning their message. Business Week wrote in a special report on the surge in online advertising in the US: The Net is winning over mainstream advertisers with its computational precision. It delivers hard, quantifiable results measured in clicks and sales — down to the penny. In the process, it’s turning advertising from an art into a science.

    Going ahead, as the time spent online by users increases, online advertising will provide increasing competition to the traditional broadcast media. Dan Gillmor wrote in the San Jose Mercury News: Consider the new breed of advertiser in the online world. Google’s text ads, which pop up after someone searches using keywords, cost in most cases a small fraction of what it would cost to advertise in a local newspaper or broadcast outlet. In other words, Google and the other companies in this space are attracting ads from businesses — including businesses that are as small as one person in a home office — that in many cases never advertised before. The potential for this is larger than most people have recognized. In theory, the Net-based advertising market is almost unlimited — extending to any one person with any one thing to sell.

    So, get ready for the world of tomorrow increasingly built around cold technologies. They will disrupt incumbents and offer opportunities to upstarts. This is the process of creative destruction that guarantees that the only constant in the world is change.

    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.


    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.


    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.

    Bus. Std: The Cheap Revolution

    My latest Business Standard column:

    In a world where affordability, value-for-money and reduction in total cost of ownership are increasingly becoming themes driving technology purchases, there is an emergence of what Pip Coburn of UBS Warburg has called cold technologies. Richard Karlgaard of Forbes has labelled it as the Cheap Revolution.

    Coburn wrote in a research note in early 2003: A cold technology issue is one that commands a major portion of the agenda while having neutral revenue or even anti revenue attributes. A hot technology has the potential to generate revs. So, in 1980, whether one was a fan of the PC or not, both would agree that if the PC took off the tech pie would expand. The PC was a hot technology. Linux is a cold technology. It will shrink the pie. Cold technologies often are issues that are not product related but gain a disproportionate share of the agenda. The migration of the food chain into China is a cold technology issue.

    More recently, David Kirkpatrick wrote about technology in turmoil in Fortune: The technology business is in a state of turmoil that was unimaginable just a couple of years ago. Industry icons are under threat, market leaders are at risk, and the whole pantheon of tech greats seems to be under renovation…Microsoft and Sun face open source, Intel seems weakened, outsourcing threatens services playersthese are just a few of the recent shifts in the firmament.

    Barrons wrote about technology spending in the US context: [None of the current trends] seems monumental enough to drive a big wave of tech spending in the next 12 months. Sure, companies are still ga-ga over open- source software like Linux, they are adopting voice over IP phone services, they are buying densely packed blade servers and they are spending generously on security software. They also are forking over large sums to meet the stringent audit and reporting demands of Sarbanes-Oxley. But the dollars involved in all of those simply aren’t enough to move the needle on tech spending, given the huge size of the overall technology business.

    In the past, the technology industry built it, and the users kept coming wanting the next new thing. But this is no longer true. There is a shift in thinking in enterprises big and small the focus now is getting the maximum value from new investments. In developing countries like India, cold technologies are even more important. They will help the market expand beyond the top 10%.

    So, which are these cold technologies? In this and two future columns, we will look at some of the cold technologies that are giving enterprises and consumers more bang for the buck from their investments.

    Open-Source Software

    The remarkable growth of Linux and open-source has provided alternatives across the software stack. The Apache web server, PostgreSQL and MySQL database software, JBoss application server, OpenOffice desktop productivity suite and Asterisk IP-Telephony solution are some examples of open-source applications which are taking money away from commercial applications by offering alternatives at significantly lower price points.

    Forbes wrote recently in an article on no-frills software: The future will be dreadful for software vendors like IBM, Microsoft and Oracle. Customers will balk at ever-escalating prices for mainstream products and will opt whenever they can for bargain-basement software based on freely available code, such as MySQL or the Linux operating system. They’re using the mere threat of installing this open-source software to browbeat Oracle and Microsoft into coming back with better prices.

    The International Herald Tribune wrote about the new wave in the software industry: As software vendors end a second year of single-digit growth, MySQL and other second-generation open-source companies are booming. Most are doubling sales annually and adding staff as they transform the industry by distributing basic, powerful software for free or at a small fraction of the market price For the second-generation companies, the key to making money in the open-source universe is simple: Give and ye shall receive.

    Software as a Service

    The emergence of companies like (customer relationship management) and Ketera (spend management) which offer software as a service is challenging existing incumbents like Siebel and Ariba. The traditional software industry model has been to charge upfront for software, with additional charges for upgrades and maintenance. The new generation of application service providers now offers software delivered over the Internet for a monthly fee just like a utility company. Thus, while the old paradigm used to have a high initial fixed cost, the one is where there is no fixed cost but only a variable periodic cost.

    Marc Benioff of said in an interview with InfoWorld: This is about a new paradigm thats just lower cost and easier to use than the old paradigm. And traditionally in our industry, that can become a huge success Youve got to look at eBay and Amazon. These are the best solutions: written on big database servers with high-performance systems, high-performance hardware, massive amounts of storage, scalable app servers delivering pages under 500 milliseconds Selling things on eBay is a lot cheaper than setting it up on your store.

    This series will continue in the next column.

    Bus. Std: The Mobile Phone Revolution’s Lessons

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    A few years ago, the installed base of mobile phones and computers in India were about the same. Now, even as mobile phones march on to a figure of 50 million, the total number of computers in India nudges 12 million. Mobile phones are growing by about 2 million a month, while computers need about 6 months to touch the same figure. So, what caused this divergence in growth? Will computing take-off in India? Are there learnings for the computing industry from the cellphone world?

    Let us start by looking at the utility of the two devices. After all, the decisions to buy (or not buy) are made by consumers. Cellphones in India filled a latent need of person-to-person voice communications. More than mobility, it gave people a phone which they sorely lacked thanks to outdated and incumbent-protecting telecom policies over the past decades. Communications is a basic need of people. And for long, this was stifled some of us remember the long waiting periods for a phone connection. Into this environment came the mobile operators. With a willingness to make investments and using cutting-edge technologies, they were aided by a global telecom recession which made equipment available at much lower prices. All of this resulted in great value for money for consumers as prices fell to a couple of rupees a minute and cheap handsets from Chinese and Korean makers flooded the market, forcing others to compete on affordability. This created a positive feedback loop wherein it is the masses who have adopted mobile phones and continue to drive growth. Reliance Infocomm’s entry acted as the dynamo for even greater affordability by lowering further the price barrier for the consumer.

    Contrast this with the computer industry. Even though the device has general-purpose applicability in many scenarios, Indian consumers are caught between non-consumption of the hardware and piracy of software. A computer still costs about Rs 15-20,000 for the hardware, with basic software adding another Rs 20-25,000 to the cost. Besides affordability, the other challenge with computers is manageability. Viruses, Spam and Spyware have made life difficult for end-users. Put it all together and the net result is that the consumption of computing is a fraction of that of mobile telephony.

    I would like to believe that we are today with computing where we were with mobile phones five years ago. There is a large potential market, but a few things need to be done to jumpstart consumption. Just like cellphones, computers too have the potential to grow by a factor of 10 in the next five years. What is needed to make this happen?

    There are two key ideas from cellphones that computers need to adopt. The first is the creation of a zero-management user device, and the second is that of a subscription-based utility-like payment model. The underlying enabler for both will in fact be the broadband industry that is coming alive in India.

    Total cost of ownership of computers can run into Rs 1,500-2,000 a month if one counts the cost of hardware, software and support. One way to bring down the hardware cost dramatically is to simplify the device. Think about the ease of using cellphones. That same simplicity needs to come to computers. The access devices can be thought of us thin clients or network computers, with processing and storage happening on the server. What does this is eliminate all support costs at the user end and also makes possible the delivery of applications and content without worry of piracy by the owners of the rights.

    The subscription model is what the telecom industry is very good at. Investments in infrastructure are made upfront, and users are asked to pay a small monthly fee for basic services, with additional payments for value-added services. The pre-paid model has done very well in extending mobile phone usage to a mass market, even as the front-loaded computing industry model has limited it to the upper classes. Imagine if computing were also available like a utility. This can reduce the entry barrier and create a positive feedback that can then get software developers and content providers creating solutions for an ever-growing user base.

    To bring the solution to fruition will require the creation of wireless broadband networks. In India, the last mile connectivity to homes and businesses has been a challenge. As of now, the two options are the copper line laid by the telephone company and the cable connection which carries television. In the first case, the incumbents (BSNL and MTNL) control most of the wired telephone lines across India and so far their broadband rollouts have been slow. The decision by the government to not unbundle the local loop has eliminated prospects of competition on this front. In the second case, the quality of cable along with the investments needed for upgrades have limited cable to carrying one-way content.

    What India needs is a leapfrog to next-generation networks that can deliver broadband over the air to users creating a high-speed ubiquitous and pervasive data network. This can then enable deployment of network computers like cellphones connected to a centralised grid of servers which provide the compelling services that users need and are willing to pay for. In fact, given the digitisation that is happening in both voice and television, the network computer could in future be the converged device capable of providing a hybrid set of services to users.

    To create a base of 100 million computing devices across India, there is, therefore, a need for thinking disruptively. The current model in the world of computing has gotten us so far, but will not take us further to make the vision of a connected computer accessible to every home, family and employee and build the digital DNA of India. We need to look at the other successful industry that has transformed communications in India in the past five years. Welcome to the world of commPuting.

    Bus. Std: Microsoft faces a Serious Challenge Again

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    Over the previous two columns, we discussed the emerging technologies in the area of search. While these ideas are helping provide us with a better window to the information web, there are also changes (and challenges) afoot on the desktop front with the search also underway for a new interface to the world of content and applications. Even as Microsoft has dominated the desktop since the advent of personal computing over two decades ago, it faces its second serious challenge in the past decade.

    The first challenge came in the form of Netscape and the web browser. During the early days of the commercial Internet around 1995-96, it was believed that the browser could become the de facto interface for everything. Sensing the threat, Microsoft responded by integrating Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system and effectively neutralising the Netscape threat. Over the past few years, there has been little innovation on the browser front as Explorer commanded a virtual monopoly on the desktop.

    Now, Netscapes ghost is making a comeback. Loopholes in Internet Explorer raised security concerns and created an opportunity for Mozilla and its Firefox variant. As it turns out, Mozilla emerged from Netscapes decision to open-source its browser work in the late 1990s. There is increasing speculation that Google could be working on a browser built around Mozilla to create an alternate desktop platform and target Microsofts monopoly.

    The New York Post wrote recently in a story that looked at some of the high-profile hires that Google had made: Google appears to be planning to launch its own Web browser and other software products to challenge Microsoft The broader concept Google is pursuing is similar to the network computer envisioned by Oracle chief Larry Ellison during a speech in 1995The idea is that companies or consumers could buy a machine that costs only about $200, or less, but that has very little hard drive space and almost no software. Instead, users would access a network through a browser and access all their programs and data there. added: Google has also been rumored to be working on a thin-client operating system that would compete with Microsoft in areas beyond search. Techies have even discussed the idea of Google becoming a file storage system.

    A commentary on ZDNet provided additional perspective: [Googles] strengths are data management, Web applications, targeted advertising and brand, and its most pressing need is to lock users in. It may well be the world’s favorite search engine but if someone else comes along tomorrow with a better way, then we’ll switch overnight. We’re fickle that way. What Google must do is get itself on the desktop. The obvious Google-shaped hole is local searching, where Microsoft has a history of conspicuous failure. A browser plug-in that amalgamated general file management with knowledge of Outlook, multimedia data types and online searching would be tempting indeed. Add extra features such as integrated email, instant messaging, automated backup to a remote storage facility and so on, and it gets very interesting. That would need considerable browser smarts, but would extend the Google brand right into the heart of the unconquered desktop where it would stick like glue It would also remove one of the big barriers that stops people moving from Windows to open source. If all your important data has been painlessly stored on Google’s farm and there’s a neat, powerful Java browser-based management tool to retrieve it, you can skip from OS to OS without breaking into a sweat.

    What all this adds up to is a different world of computing one that merges local computing and the Web seamlessly. This is a world of service-based computing. At the keynote address of DemoMobile 2004, Chris Shipley, the conference producer, said: Service-based computing delivers applications and data from a managed computing platform to a relatively simple end device the point of interaction with the data. Service-based computing puts the onus of managing the computing environment on the service provider, and liberates the end-user to engage with the information. Service-based computing will drive elegance into application and device design. Service-based computing not only enables, but requires, simplicity and reliability in end-point devices, no matter if they are a cell phone or a desktop PC. Indeed, service-based computing is bigger than todays mobile and wireless market. It is broadly encompassing of most enterprise, small business, individual, and convergent consumer computing. Service-based computing is the future model for nearly-all computing and communications.

    As we peer into the crystal ball of tomorrow, the future starts becoming apparent: a variety of devices accessing centralised service-driven platforms. Think of the backend as a grid providing computing as a utility. The devices are thin devices delivering virtual desktops and encompassing not just the web browser, but also a capability to deliver rich client applications and rich media. This is a world that will be created first among the next users of computing in emerging markets like India.

    Techs future is ready to be played out with us as the central participants. The communications revolution has delivered the worlds cheapest telephony services to India. Can we do something similar in the world of computing?

    Bus. Std: Tomorrows Search Technologies

    My latest Business Standard column:

    Search has become a window to the world wide web of data. Todays search is simplistic: type a few words in a box, get back zillions of results, and click on one or more of the results to see if we get what we are looking for. Think of todays search as the DOS era: a good start, but not enough to unleash the real power of what can be. It took a decade to go from DOS to Windows. It has taken us almost as long to start imagining and working towards the next generation of search technologies. Here are some key ideas which will help define tomorrows search:

    Integration between Desktop and Internet Search: One of the great inconsistencies of our computing world has been the disconnect between being able to search the web much more easily than our own desktop computer. This is beginning to change with the emergence of desktop search utilities like Copernic, Blinkx and Hotbots desktop search toolbar. What is still missing is seamless integration between our personal data (spread across emails, attachments, IM logs and documents) and the web.

    Better Visualisation and Navigation Tools: Is a set of pages, each with 10-20 results, the best way to navigate the millions of search results that can show up? It is only now that ideas from information visualisation (for example, Groxis) are making their way for viewing of search results. By clustering results and providing visualisation techniques, it should be possible to provide rich interfaces for navigation.

    Real-time Search: The current model involve search engines crawling web pages every so often and including them in their search results. This means that at times it can be several days before new updates on a page can show up in search engine results. There are two ways to address this problem: websites can notify search engines via a ping when they are updated (much like weblogs do to sites like, and search engines can dynamically query specific databases via web services APIs to deliver results (much like Googles own API offers). A third approach has emerged with narrowly focused RSS- and XML-based search engines like Feedster, Technorati and

    Searchstreams Analysis: What searchstreams offer, according to John Battelle of Searchblog, is the ability to capture and record your search history as well as the things you looked at, all in one package. Battelle, who is also writing a book on search, explains further: What I really wish for, both to tell the story of my search, and to annotate my book, is the ability to take that searchstream and turn it into an object – a narrative thread of sorts, something I can hold and keep and refer to, a prop to aid in the telling and retelling of how I came to my answer. Tracks in the dust, so to speak, so others can follow and make their own, or follow mine and see (and question!) how I came to my conclusions. Imagine, I thought to myself, if instead of footnotes and citations, I could append searchstreams… Next-generation infoware tools like Furl (recently acquired by Looksmart) and are already working to enable some of this. Searchstream analysis could also be used to add context and personalisation to search. Searchstreams also offer a foundation to construct Vannevar Bushs vision of the Memex.

    Multimedia Search: Our world of data has grown to beyond search. Even though there is image search available on search engines, it is restricted to the text and keywords associated with the images. What is needed is the ability to look inside sound files, images and videos and allow search based on the content. This becomes especially important in the context of the growing ease of generating and publishing multimedia content via cellphones.

    Mobile Devices: Talking of cellphones, it is going to become increasingly important to support a quality search experience on these devices. The current search results are best shown on a web browser. Yet, in countries like India, the number of mobile devices computers. So, the focus for search needs to be on providing accurate results in the form of microcontent that can be sent and displayed on mobile devices. Not only does this mean a different format, but it could also mean providing location-based information.

    Local Search: Much of our life is spent in neighbourhoods. It is quite hard to find local information in the vicinity of where we live and work. It is estimated that a quarter of the searches performed on search engines have a local flavour to them. Being able to integrate the results with maps, directions and other neighbourhood-specific information can make search engines much more relevant. This is where search engines like Yahoo and Google will compete head-on with classifieds and yellow pages.

    Vertical Search: Chris Sherman wrote on SearchEngineWatch that searchers are becoming more sophisticated, and are learning that general purpose search engines are not always the best choice for every type of search. Because these search engines have a narrower focus and limited domain, they can offer specialized utilities for a richer experience. An example of vertical search engines is GlobalSpec, which focuses on the engineering industry.

    The state of Search is very much like the way the scientific world was in the seventeenth century until Issac Newton came along and helped lay the foundation for the world ahead with his theories and inventions. A similar revolution is needed in the world of Search. Can we in India play a role, just as we did in some of the mathematical discoveries many centuries ago?

    Bus. Std: Searching the Net — New Technologies

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    One of the defining battles in the mid-1990s was between Netscape and Microsoft over control of the desktop. Netscape threatened Microsofts Windows lock with its web browser. Microsoft fought back with a vengeance and finally won, as a marginalized Netscape was bought by AOL. Now, there is another battle thats shaping up which could be equally defining for the future of computing.

    This time, the attacker is Google. Over the past few years, Google has become the search engine of choice. As its dominance has soared, so have its ambitions. Over the past couple years, Google has extended itself beyond search to other areas organically and via acquisitions. In recent times, the wheel has come a full circle with speculation rife that Google may be planning to launch its own browser.

    There are two parts to the story as we see unfolding as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, along with a host of others, work to define tomorrows interface to the information web. The two parallel threads consist of building better search engines and creating richer interfaces. The search engines are the backend to solve the information overload problem, while the interfaces are the doorways to the world of content and applications.

    We will first discuss advances in search technologies. Later, we will look at how we will access this emerging world of service-based computing.

    The problem of search is one of plenty. There is a lot of data on the web that needs to be converted into useful information. Search is one the solutions to the proliferation of data that has taken place with the growth of the Internet. As John Battelle of Searchblog put it recently: Search is our response to the extraordinary info-abundance in which we’re all awash.

    Googles PageRank technology helped it separate the wheat from the chaff. In a recent article on Googles history, the Economist (Technology Quarterly, Sep 16, 2004) explained how the algorithm works: PageRank works by analysing the structure of the web itself. Each of its billions of pages can link to other pages, and can also, in turn, be linked to. [Googles founders] Mr Brin and Mr Page reasoned that if a page was linked to many other pages, it was likely to be important. Furthermore, if the pages that linked to a page were important, then that page was even more likely to be important. There is, of course, an inherent circularity to this formulathe importance of one page depends on the importance of pages that link to it, the importance of which depends in turn on the importance of pages that link to them. But using some mathematical tricks, this circularity can be resolved, and each page can be given a score that reflects its importance.

    The search of today can be considered in the C-prompt era, and needs an upgrade. So, what will be the Windows of the search era? In an interview with ACM Ubiquity, Ramesh Jain, professor of computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology, explains what needs to be done: Current search engines like Google do not give me a steering wheel for searching the Internet. The search engines get faster and faster, but they’re not giving me any control mechanism. The only control mechanism, which is also a stateless control mechanism, asks the searcher to put in keywords, and if I put in keywords I get this huge monstrous list. I have no idea how to refine this list. The only way is to come up with a completely new keyword list. I also don’t know what to do with the 8 million results that Google threw at me. So when I am trying to come up with those keywords, I don’t know really where I am. That means I cannot control that list very easily because I don’t have a holistic picture of that list. That’s very important. When I get these results, how do I get some kind of holistic representation of what these results are, how they are distributed among different dimensionsTwo common dimensions that I find very useful in many general applications are time and space. If I can be shown how the items are distributed in time and space, I can start controlling what I want to see over this time period or what I want to see in that space.

    One glimpse of search innovation comes from Amazon with its A9 search engine, which is built around Googles search results, and also integrates Amazons own book search results. John Battelle explained A9s approach in a column for Business2.0: A9 has broken search into its two most basic parts. Recovery is everywhere you’ve been before (and might want to go again); discovery is all that you may wish to find but have yet to encounter. A9 attacks recovery through its original Search History feature and its integrated toolbar, which tracks every site you visit. But new to this version of the site is a feature A9 calls Discover, which finds sites you might be interested in based on your click stream and — here’s the neat part — the click streams of othersA9 is more of a Web information management interface, with search as its principal navigational tool. [It is] betting that over time, Web users will come to recognize, then demand, that their search service not only find sites based on queries but also remember where they have been and what they have clicked on.

    A few years ago, it seemed the search game was over. Results were inaccurate and portals were the thing to do. Googles cutting-edge technology of linking resurrected an industry. Yet, the innovation in search is far from over. The game has just begun. In the next column, we will look at some key ideas which will define tomorrows search.

    Bus. Std: Has Innovation shifted from Silicon Valley to India?

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    During a recent visit to the US, I spent a week in the Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley is a hub of innovation. The freshest of ideas and work continues to happen there. In part, it is due to the ecosystem that is already in place the serial entrepreneurs who are on their second, third or even fourth venture, the angels who provide not just the seed capital but also the mentoring, the venture capitalists, the university backdrop (especially Stanford and Berkeley), and above all, the culture of risk. It is this mix that makes Silicon Valley unmatched globally.

    The week that I spent in the Silicon Valley was my longest in four years. I did about 35 meetings during this period mix of friends, interesting technology companies, and entrepreneurs. As I look back on my meetings, there is one impression that I find hard to shake off the world’s innovation capital (in technology) is in a holding pattern waiting for the next new thing. Inventing the future, not waiting for it to happen, is something people in the Valley are used to doing.

    There almost seems to be a hiatus as venture capitalists and entrepreneurs wonder what is the next big wave. Will it be next-generation search engines? Or web services? Or broadband wireless technologies like WiMax? Or all-in-one personal communicators? Or something different like biotech or nanotech? Whatever it is, it does not seem obvious in the Valley.

    Out here in India, we have no such qualms. Outsourcing is In and Hot. Anything and everything that needs people and can be delivered over a wire can now be done from India. A recent Economist business lead story discussed the outsourcing of the IT departments in US companies as part of infrastructure management services. We are delighted about the fact that soon, Bangalore will employ more engineers than the Silicon Valley.

    So, has the tide of innovation and entrepreneurship shifted from the Silicon Valley to the Indus Valley?

    Far from it. A growth in jobs in and around urban Indian centres does not equate to the coming of age of India as an IT Superpower. There’s a lot more to be done if we have to at the forefront of invention and innovation. We definitely have an opportunity to lead in the next generation of computing and communications technologies, but for that we need to see beyond writing software, managing back offices and networks for international companies. India needs to build an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship to build upon its success in services to occupy centrestage in the world of technology in the years to come.

    First, we need entrepreneurs willing to take risk. As it turns out, there aren’t enough of them. Taking risk also means embracing failure. We had a boomlet in dotcom entrepreneurs a few years ago, but that bubble burst quite quickly as the realisation dawned that this was not going to be get-rich-quick phenomenon. Entrepreneurship is not just about making money, it is about inventing tomorrow. And for that to happen, many have to fail for one to succeed.

    Second, we need early-stage venture capital and mentoring for the start-ups. Even as plenty of growth capital is available in India, there is very little finance available for entrepreneurs with passion and ideas. Part of the problem in India is that the VC funds have borrowed business models from the West, set up large funds, which in turn require chunky investments. So, even as it is possible for companies to get $5-7 million growth capital, it is nearly impossible to get a fifth or tenth of that amount for technology start-ups.

    Third, entrepreneurs with the initial capital will need mentoring. India has a limited history of technology entrepreneurship and as such the bench strength is not deep. Start-ups face all kind of challenges in their early days as they seek to reduce the risk of failure. Advice from experienced entrepreneurs and business people is what they need to make sure they do not make silly mistakes.

    Fourth, we need talent willing to join start-ups. This means that people have to look beyond the fat, rising pay packets and be able to share the risk (and reward) of the entrepreneurs in building up the new business. As salaries in the IT industry have risen and lifestyles have grown, it is easy for complacency to creep in. Instead of continuing the climb after reaching the top, we want to take rest! This continued hunger for growth and risk is what will create the success stories that will start the positive feedback loop of entrepreneurship.

    Finally, there is a need to focus on the middle of the pyramid market. Between the two extremes of trying to create solutions for global markets from India (highly unlikely it will succeed because of the distance from the target customers) and the bottom of the pyramid (always a very large enticing opportunity), there is a middle in urban and semi-urban India which needs innovative solutions at different price points. As India develops, this is an increasingly promising target segment. Once it can be made to work with this segment, the solution can be extended horizontally to other emerging markets, and vertically to the bottom of the pyramid.

    India has an opportunity to replicate the success of Silicon Valley by building its own Innovation Valley. Entrepreneurs seeking to venture out on this road with mountains beyond mountains would do well to remember these words of Dan Bricklin:

    In big business, when you need to cross a river, you simply design a bridge, build it, and march right across. But in a small venture, you must climb the rocks. You don’t know where each step will take you, but you do know the general direction you are moving in. If you make a mistake, you get wet. If your calculations are wrong, you have to inch your way back to safety and find a different route. And, as you jump from rock to slippery rock, you have to like the feeling.

    BUS. Std: The Net Will Change

    My latest column in Business Standard:

    The Internet as we know it is about 10 years old. It has had its share of ups and downs during this period. As we look ahead, the Internet that we currently use is going to be fundamentally transformed by an assortment of new technologies and business models. These will have far-reaching implications for us in India in both our personal and professional lives.

    The Internet’s impact has been rather limited in India in its first decade. Yes, we have about 8-10 million Internet connections and 20+ million users. But there are more who use cellphones. Applications and services on the Internet have also been surprisingly slow to develop, hobbled by lack of imagination, venture capital and business models. The connectivity situation (low speed, high cost, and intermittently reliable) has not helped.

    As we look ahead, a number of developments offer promise of an Internet platform which could be as good as the best in the world. We have yet another opportunity to leapfrog. (Considering that we don’t normally do things when they should be done, attempting to leapfrog is always a good option!) A positive feedback cycle can be created by low-cost access devices, affordable broadband connections, relevant applications and value-enhancing services. There is a need for co-ordinated action across multiple industries to realise this future.

    So, what does the New and Next Internet portend? What are its characteristics?

    Always-on: We are moving in India from a pay-per-use pricing model to a flat rate subscription model (in some cases, with download limits). But the instant availability of the Internet connection will fundamentally change the way we use the Internet everything now becomes a few clicks and a few seconds away.

    Ubiquitous: As data networks envelop us, the Internet will become pervasive. Already, the presence of cellular networks provides computer users the ability to connect from anywhere. In the coming years, technologies like WiMax and mesh wireless will blanket much of urban and semi-urban India.

    High-speed: The narrowband speeds that we are used to will give away to higher speeds as real broadband makes its way to the mainstream. The world wide wait will be a thing of the past. What this will do is encourage the use of more media-rich content.

    On-demand: As connectivity improves, there will be little difference between online and offline. If it is out there, it is instantly available. This will lead to the rise of centralised services especially for business applications. We will have control over when we want entertainment delivered.

    Multi-format: The computer will no longer be the only device accessing the Internet. Smartphones with wireless data networks will provide equally viable alternatives. This means that there will be two screen footprints that content providers will need to cater to.

    Two-way: The growth of weblogs is a harbinger of the publish-subscribe Internet. Readers and surfers will have the ability to participate in the content creation process. Cellphones with cameras can turn device owners into content producers.

    Personalised: The Internet will also become more individualised as websites (especially search engines and portals) build up increasingly sophisticated profiles based on what we do. This will enable highly targeted advertising.

    Not Free: This new Internet will not be built around the free access model that we have been used to. The eyeballs-centric business model is a thing of the past. As we find content and services of value, we are more likely to start to pay for them.

    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 computing, entertainment, consumer electronics and entertainment to tread into each other’s territories.

    We are already seeing early services which are building around these new attributes in the US and some other countries: Apples iTunes music store sells music and could as easily be extended to other DRM (digital rights management) content, Google has fundamentally changed the online advertising business, Starbucks complements its coffee blends with Wi-Fi hotspots, Chinas online games have transcended piracy, has signalled the rebirth of the application service provider (ASP) business, TiVo timeshifts television and will soon offer movie downloads, Vonage offers flat-rate unlimited calling plans over IP networks, cable companies offer a bundled triple play service combining cable, telephony and Internet access.

    India, too, will experience many of these disruptive innovations sooner than we can currently imagine. The New and Next Internet is the harbinger of change and turmoil. It creates opportunities and threats. It is time that we start thinking and building for tomorrow. Because someone somewhere might be doing just that.

    Bus. Std: The Next Computing Kumbh Mela

    My latest Business Standard column:

    In the previous column, we looked at how every twelve years or so, the world of computing sees major breakthroughs which transform the landscape. Think of this as the computing equivalent of the Kumbh Mela. The last major breakthrough was during 1992-94 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 in the early part of this decade. The next computing Kumbh Mela should be just around the corner. What will it be?

    Consider the present. The installed base of computers in the world stands at over 600 million, and is estimated to touch 1 billion by 2010. Cellphones already have over a billion users worldwide. More than 500 million new phones with an ever-increasing array of features are being sold every year. Broadband networks both wired and wireless are proliferating. Devices like Apples iPod are becoming status symbols in the US. There is even talk of Apple becoming the Microsoft of music.

    Search engines are now the window to the Web, as evidenced by the black swan Google. Internet advertising has been reborn via the search engines and their ability to provide contextual links. eBay is working to make inefficient markets efficient globally and considers its market opportunity at about $2 trillion. Application Service Providers are making a comeback as software becomes a service, even as the enterprise software industry faces consolidation. Outsourcing to India and other countries continues growing. Bangalore will soon have a greater concentration of techies than the Silicon Valley. Telcos are shifting voice to IP networks. Radio Frequency IDs promise a world where machines will talk to other machines.

    As we look ahead to the next computing Kumbh Mela, consider a couple of thoughts.

    Following the announcement of Googles Gmail in April, Rich Skrenta wrote on his blog at Google is a company that has built a single very large, custom computer. It’s running their own cluster operating system. They make their big computer even bigger and faster each month, while lowering the cost of CPU cycles. It’s looking more like a general purpose platform than a cluster optimized for a single application. While competitors are targeting the individual applications Google has deployed, Google is building a massive, general purpose computing platform for web-scale programming. This computer is running the world’s top search engine, a social networking service, a shopping price comparison engine, a new email service, and a local search/yellow pages engine. What will they do next with the world’s biggest computer and most advanced operating system?

    This prompted a post by Tim OReilly: In a brilliant Copernican stroke, gmail turns everything on its head, rejecting the personal computer as the center of the computing universe, instead recognizing that applications revolve around the network as the planets revolve around the Sun. But Google and gmail go even further, showing that once internet apps truly get to scale, they’ll make the network itself disappear into the universal virtual computer, the internet as operating system Pioneers like Google are remaking the computing industry before our eyes. Google of course isn’t one computer — it’s a hundred thousand computers, by report — but to the user, it appears as one. Our personal computers, our phones, and even our cars, increasingly need to be thought of as access and local storage devices. The services that matter are all going to run on the global virtual computer that the internet is becoming.

    I believe that the future of computing will be driven not by the existing users but the new users. These are going to be from the worlds emerging markets. They need computing at the price of a cellphone. They need computing as a utility. 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 the next users at a fraction of todays prices. It will be about making hardware, software, broadband connectivity, content and support available for Rs 700 ($15) per user per month for the next billion users of computing. This is a global market of $180 billion per annum which does not exist today.

    To address this market needs a reinvention of the computing ecosystem. Luckily, all the elements needed to make it happen exist. Whats needed is for entrepreneurs in countries like India to look within at homes in their neighbourhood, at the small- and medium-sized enterprises in their city, and the schools and colleges which educate the next generation. Look around, and imagine the future one in which computing is ubiquitous, and a platform which can touch and transform peoples lives.

    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 each other, and investments in education and healthcare to make sure they reach rural people these are the elements of the tech utility.

    The computing Kumbh Melas of the past created innovations which diffused computing and the Internet across the developed markets. This first phase of the technology revolution over the past few decades touched the lives of the top of the global pyramid of consumers and enterprises. The next breakthroughs will take information technology across the digital divide. As William Gibson said, The future is already here its just unevenly distributed.” The next computing Kumbh Mela is happening. Can we see it?