Bus. Std: Computings Kumbh Meta Cycle

My latest Business Standard column:

Indias Kumbh Mela takes places every twelve years. It sees the largest gathering of pilgrims in the world bathe in the Ganga to purify themselves. The four locations where it is celebrated are supposed to be the places where the gods spilt amrit the elixir of immortality.

Twelve years or so is also the cycle for computing breakthroughs. By my reckoning, the next major computing breakthrough is just around the corner. What will computings next Kumbh Mela usher in? On this hangs the fate of more than 500 million devotees, a billion aspirants, hundreds of billions of dollars in spending, and the future of todays tech giants.

Before we look ahead, let us take a peek into the past of computing and look at the previous computing Kumbh Melas. An understanding of the past is useful even as we peer into the future.

1945 saw the invention of the worlds first computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator Analyzer and Computer). PBS.org has more: ENIAC, with its 17,468 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, and 6,000 manual switches, was a monument of engineering. The project was 200 percent over budget (total cost approximately $500,000). But it had achieved what it set out to do. A calculation like finding the cube root of 2589 to the 16th power could be done in a fraction of a second. In a whole second ENIAC could execute 5,000 additions, 357 multiplications, and 38 divisions. This was up to a thousand times faster than its predecessorsENIAC’s main drawback was that programming it was a nightmare. In that sense it was not a general use computer. To change its program meant essentially rewiring it, with punchcards and switches in wiring plugboards. It could take a team two days to reprogram the machine.
In the late 1950s, IBM switched from using vacuum tubes to using transistors. VisionEngineer.com writes: Vacuum tubes are large, expensive to produce, and often burn out after several hundred hours of use. As electronic systems grew in complexity, increasing amounts of time had to be spent just to ensure that all the vacuum tubes were in working order. Transistors, in comparison, rarely fail and are much cheaper to operate. In the same year, IBM also introduced Fortran (FORmula TRANslation), a programming language based on algebra, grammar and syntax rules, and which went on to become the most widely used computer languages for technical work. These twin breakthroughs made computers reliable and easily programmable.

In 1969, IBM changed the way it sold technology. It unbundled the components of hardware, software and services, and offered them for sale individually. This is what gave birth to an independent software industry. 1969 also saw the setting up of the Arpanet, which later grew to be the Internet. 1970 also saw the birth of the first general-purpose microprocessor the Intel 4004. Unix began its life around the same time, as did the programming language, C. 1970 was also the year when the theory of relational databases was introduced by Ted Codd at IBM. Taken together, these developments in semiconductors, software and networks laid the foundation for modern-day computing.

1981 saw the launch of the IBM Personal Computer. From the IBM archives: [It] was the smallest and — with a starting price of $1,565 — the lowest-priced IBM computer to date. The IBM PC brought together all of the most desirable features of a computer into one small machine. It offered 16 kilobytes of user memory (expandable to 256 kilobytes), one or two floppy disks and an optional color monitor. When designing the PC, IBM for the first time contracted the production of its components to outside companies. The processor chip came from Intel and the operating system, called DOS (Disk Operating System) came from a 32-person company called Microsoft. The rest, as they say, is history. IBMs decision to source the two key components from external suppliers led to the modularisation of the computer industry, and the emergence of Intel and Microsoft as its two superpowers. In 1982, Time magazine chose the personal computer as its Man of the Year.

The period of 1992-94 saw many key developments which have shaped our present. Microsoft launched Windows 3.1, which rapidly became the standard desktop interface for millions. Around the same time, Intel started shipping its Pentium systems. The duos dominance led to the coining of the phrase Wintel. SAP launched its enterprise software program, R/3, which established the client-server paradigm. The Internets commercialisation and proliferation got a major boost with the launch of Mosaic, a graphical web browser based on the HTTP and HTML standards, by Marc Andressen and his team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in the US.

Computing has come a long way since the development of the first computer in 1945. Even though innovation has happened in an almost-continuous manner, my observation is that every twelve years or so comes a paradigm shift which blows out the old, and rings in the new.

So, the next computing Kumbh Mela should happen sometime soon (or is already underway). What is it going to be? Microsofts Longhorn? Google as the supercomputer? Cellphones as always-on, always-connected computers? Utility computing? Wearable computers? Something unseen as of today…? We will take a look ahead in the next column.

Bus. Std: Of Black Swans and Google

My latest column in Business Standard:

I recently came across a report on search engines from 1999. Among the companies it discussed was Google. As I read it, I wondered if I (or anyone else) could have imagined then that five years later, this start-up would have so transformed the search space, build the worlds largest computing platform, and be getting ready to do an IPO that will create $25 billion of wealth for its founders, employees and investors.

What is remarkable about Google is that it flourished right under the noses of its competitors without being acquired or crushed. The likes of Yahoo and Microsoft did not do anything until it was too late to prevent Google from getting where it is now. That is the incredulity of it all.

A Google happens once in many, many years. It is almost impossible to predict before hand that such a company will at some point of time in the future occupy a position of great power and influence over not just across its vertical but across the industry. Because, if we knew, we would do something about it. Competitors would seek to put roadblocks and hurdles, or failing that, try and possibly acquire it. Even otherwise helpful partners may think carefully if they realise they are going to help in building the next big behemoth. In other words, events and circumstances which lead to the creation of the once-in-a-lifetime companies are rare and almost unpredictable.

That is what makes Google a black swan.

Nassim Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and founder-chairman of Empirica LLC, a research laboratory and financial products trading house in New York, has this to say: A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations. Most people expect all swans to be white because that’s what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise. Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are.

In a paper entitled The Black Swan: Why Dont We Learn that We Dont Learn, Nassim elaborates on the black swan notion: The Black Swan is defined as a random event satisfying the following three properties: large impact, incomputable probabilities, and surprise effect. First, it carries upon its occurrence a disproportionately large impact. The impact being extremely large, no matter how low the associated probability, the expected effect (the impact times its probability), if quantified, would be significant. Second, its incidence has a small but incomputable probability based on information available prior to its incidence. Third, a vicious property of a Black Swan is its surprise effect: at a given time of observation there is no convincing element pointing to an increased likelihood of the event.

Think a little about what made Google thrive to get to the point where it has reached now. One, it had only one round of venture capital investment, giving the founders sufficient management control on the future direction of the company including the right to refuse takeover offers. Second, they focused on an area which others had given up on search. When Google started up, search was a forgotten area in the Internet backwaters. They not only made search work well, but also created a business model around it via the text ads. Third, they built up scale rapidly over the years. Their use of commoditised hardware and open-source software at the backend gave them the platform to keep costs low even as they layered their proprietary algorithms on top of the GoogleOS.

What Google has done is to build an alternative computing platform. This is becoming obvious as it starts our to roll out various services which go beyond just search a shopping service, social networking, a blogging platform, email with a difference (not to mention plenty of storage), and a local search/yellow pages engine. Rick Skrenta had this to say: 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.

Tim OReilly takes it further: In a brilliant Copernican stroke, [Googles] 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, making the network itself disappear into the universal virtual computer, the internet as operating system.

We have seen the emergence of a black swan before our very years in the past five years. Can the next black swan in the technology space come from India? In an interview with The New Yorker, Nassim Taleb quotes Scottish philosopher David Hume: “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.” Just because something has not happened before does not mean it is never going to happen in the future. It is for Indian entrepreneurs to prove Hume and Taleb right by envisioning a future very different from today and building it out. Ill be watching for a black swan in 2010.

[I would like to thank Chetan Parikh of CapitalIdeasOnline for introducing me to Nassim Talebs concept of black swans.]

Bus. Std: Broadband Blueprint

My Business Standard column:

One of the most important documents for India’s digital future has barely been discussed in the media. What happens to the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) recommendations on broadband and internet (available at http://www.trai.gov.in) will have far-reaching implications for each of us in our personal and business lives, and we aren’t even engaged in the debate.

First questions. What broadband? Why broadband? How broadband? Broadband connectivity, as defined in the TRAI report, is always-on connectivity of 256 Kbps or higher. While one can argue about the connection speed, that is a big leap from what is advertised today (64-128 Kbps).

Broadband is the endgame for the computer, communications and consumer electronics industries. Besides making Internet access faster, broadband can make possible a wide variety of applications. For example, video-conferencing can connect far-flung offices and also enable distance education, telemedicine can bring medical attention to remote areas, video-on-demand can time-shift entertainment to suit our convenience, voice-over-IP can bring telephony costs down even further, multi-player online gaming can now become a reality, and enterprises can access business applications centrally.

The two most common modes of broadband access are xDSL and cable. DSL works on regular telephone lines, and is the most popular way to deliver broadband. Cable companies can also provide broadband by virtue of the fact that they too have a wired connection coming into homes and enterprises. Other possibilities for providing broadband are via satellite and through wireless technologies.

The problem in India, as we have all experienced, is connectivity. TRAI has estimated that bandwidth in India costs 1,200 times more than South Korea, which is the most wired nation today. The end result is few in India have experienced the world of broadband.

While there is a lot of talk about building out India’s infrastructure in terms of its roads, ports and airports, we also need to act rapidly to build out our digital infrastructure. From education to healthcare, and entertainment to ecommerce, the world of broadband can also lay the foundation for booting up the domestic IT industry and help improve productivity across India’s industrial sector.

This is the context of the TRAI recommendations. TRAI has sought to address 11 hurdles that hinder broadband growth in India: price, access to the customer (lack of access to the incumbents copper for DSL, low quality of cable TV infrastructure and lack of organisation, high costs for DTH and VSAT, policies preventing wireless solutions from spreading, clearances for right of way), costs of backhaul networks (lack of effective competition in the within city networks, high costs of international bandwidth, ineffective implementation of National Internet Exchange of India), fiscal policies (high taxes and duties, and lack of incentives for faster growth), and content and applications (lack of locally relevant content and absence of change agent to drive growth).

TRAI hopes that the implementation of its recommendations will boost the Internet subscriber from last year’s 4 million to 40 million by 2010, along with a hundred-fold increase in the broadband user base to 20 million.

One of the most important recommendations of TRAI is that of local loop unbundling. In simple words, it means that the incumbent telcos (BSNL and MTNL) need to open up access on their last mile to others for an appropriate fee. This way, others do not need to replicate what is an expensive last-mile infrastructure. While the concept is sound, this is a non-trivial decision for the government-owned telcos. The interests of a few are likely to supercede those of many.

What India needs is a complete unshackling of all regulation to ensure that every Indian household and enterprise has access to affordable broadband by 2010. We need to think 5-10x the estimates of TRAI. To make that happen, we need to think disruptively. India needs to become a hotbed for next-generation wireless and other technologies which can deliver broadband to homes and enterprises rapidly. It does not matter if others have done it or not. We need to lead the way. Just like South Korea did a few years ago.

Let us set a goal of providing a whole solution of hardware (access device), software, broadband connectivity and tech support for Rs 700 per user per month. Of this, broadband access (512 Kbps or higher) should cost no more than Rs 250 per month. Now, let us work backwards and figure out what we need to make this happen. If we can imagine 100 million users in five years, this is a market of Rs 30,000 crore per annum for broadband service providers to fight over. The world of commPuting as a utility would have arrived. For once, let us hope TRAI is wrong with their estimates.

Bus. Std: The ADAM and EVE of Computing

My latest column in Business Standard:

A recent cover story entitled The Digital Village in the Asian edition of Business Week (June 28, 2004) showcased how technology is helping India fight poverty. The magazine said in an editorial: A fascinating technology revolution is underway in India. No, were not just talking about [Indias] success in software and outsourcing work. Rather, it involves an explosion of projects that are making creative use of technology to deliver basic goods and services to Indias 700 million poor, most of which live in isolated villagesBy promoting local innovation and entrepreneurialism, the tech-for-the-masses movement could not only stimulate economic development in the countryside but also help find the key to turning the worlds poor into the next major source of global growth.

Rural India is just one of the segments in India that can be transformed by entrepreneurship and innovation. There is a lot about India that needs to change right from the way we deliver education to hundreds of millions of children to how we can automate millions of businesses to how we can find information about what is happening in our neighbourhood. Indias digital infrastructure needs to be built in a hurry to make up for the lost time. Many technology revolutions are being compressed in the space of a few years creating an amazing array of opportunities for entrepreneurs, provided they are willing to look at the market within.

One of the primary challenges that we face is making computing a utility, by bringing down the cost of usage to that of a cellphone. We need to provide access to a connected computer accessible to every family, employee and student in India. How can we do it?

To start thinking about possible solutions, there are four challenges that need to be addressed simultaneously. Think of them as the ADAM of computing affordability, desirability, accessibility and manageability.

Affordability: The existing solution, created by and for people with very high incomes, is too costly for most people in developing countries. While hardware costs have dramatically and monotonically declined over time, software has become more expensive to own and manage. Consequently, the total cost of ownership of computing solutions is still very high. (Piracy is a commonly used workaround when it comes to software. But most have to take the non-consumption route when even the pirated software plus the hardware costs exceed their budgets.)

Desirability: The utility of computers derives primarily from the services that it provides users. Even if the total package of hardware and software was affordable, people will not buy unless the services they derived from the computer were relevant to their lives. Furthermore, while the utility of computers is a necessary condition for their widespread adoption, it is not sufficient. People have to be knowledgeable about the utility of computing.

Accessibility: Given the low per capita incomes of developing countries, only a relatively small fraction of the population can afford to own even low-cost computers. Yet a significant number of people who cannot afford to own computers can still derive benefits from having access to computing services and be able and willing to pay for these.

Manageability: Computers require significant amounts of back-end support because of the complexity of the software. The cost and complexity of administration, support, and defense against spam, spyware and viruses act as significant deterrence to using them.

The present PC paradigm evolved 25 years ago in a world when networks barely existed. The PC, together with the Internet and cheap connectivity, has engineered the technology and productivity revolution in developed markets in the recent past. Spam, viruses, and spyware are increasing support costs, even as a saturated market for computers in the developed world is making technology companies look at emerging markets as the next big opportunity.

The issue is deeper than mere affordability; users in many of the developing countries have solved the software affordability issue by piracy. It is about building the computing ecosystem in these markets which brings utility and value of technology to daily life. The question then is: what is the new computing architecture that can leverage the availability of broadband communications networks and dramatically reduce the prices so that technology becomes more relevant, affordable, desirable, and accessible to the next generation of users?

To make computing a utility for emerging markets, there are many possibilities. Could the cellphone be the computer? Can we create an architecture around thin clients and server-centric computing? Can there be neighbourhood computing centres just like STD/ICO booths? Whatever be the solution, we need EVE to tackle ADAM a combination of Entrepreneurship, Venture capital and E(i)nnovation.

Bus. Std: Transforming Rural India, the Hub Way

My latest column in Business Standard:

If there was one message which rang out loud and clear in the recent elections, it was that the poor of India want a better life. They voted for change dispensing with those in power. This was not so much about anti-incumbency as anti-incompetency. Even as India makes strides in some sectors, much of the country and its people remain frozen in time. They will have to make do with the promise of free electricity if the state governments ever get around to generating it. Bharat wants its own revolution one built around development and opportunities, not handouts and freebies.

So, let’s play a game of strategy. You are the Indian Chief Minister who has just won the local mandate. Success is defined as getting re-elected in five years time (let us assume there are no mid-term polls). How do you do it?

A look at the history books offers no relief. Eminent reform-minded brethren of yours like Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, SM Krishna in Karnataka all failed in the last round of the game which took place. Do you think reform or do you think populism? Do you think short-term or long-term? Do you think caste politics or computer policies? Do you think social development or infrastructure development?

As you think, let me give you my thoughts. The need of the hour in India is, very clearly, the transformation of rural India not between two generations, but between two elections. Agreed, this is not something which can be done overnight. But let us remember, that there is five year’s time that you have. The right steps taken in the beginning can make a big difference in that period. The problem in India has been that few are willing to think that far ahead as they caught up in day-to-day politics and month-by-month survival.

What you need to do is to create a platform for rural development. It is not about providing free food and electricity which will only sap the economy further, but about creating a framework in which peoples incomes increase to a point where they can pay for food and electricity. To use an old adage, Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.

Rural India needs affordable services from education to market access, from telecom to healthcare, from financial intermediation to entertainment. The key issue in rural India is the non-availability of the services at affordable prices. Linked to this is the lack of perceived opportunities in rural areas. These twin factors create a situation in which few want to do business in rural India. It also leads to the exodus of people from rural areas into urban slums, which stretch the resources in the cities and towns even further. In other words, rural India is caught in a trap that it seems difficult to get out of. Which meansare you doomed to lose the next elections?

No! There is an alternative and for that we have to turn to a model proposed by Atanu Dey and Vinod Khosla. This model, called Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons (RISC), holds the potential to transform rural India for a capital investment (not necessarily by the government) of no more than Rs 200 per person. The model recognises the fact that resources are limited, and we can get the maximum leverage by concentrating investment rather than by distributing it at uneconomical levels.

What Dey and Khosla propose is the creation of 5,000 rural hubs across India, each catering to a population of about 100,000 or about 100 villages, such that the hub is no more than a bicycle-commute distance away for people in the villages. These hubs are about 10,000 square foot in size, built at a cost of about Rs 2 crore each. They have state-of-the-art infrastructure including 24×7 electricity, broadband connectivity, security and sanitation.

This standardised infrastructure reduces the costs of operation for service providers in rural India. From the point of view of the rural populace, there is one place in which they can get multiple services services which were hitherto not available or too expensive. This also creates the platform for budding entrepreneurs to make rural supply and demand chains more efficient, much the same way as the programming interface of an operating system allows software developers to build higher-level constructs without worrying about the low-level plumbing.

Says Atanu Dey: Fundamentally, the specific market failure that RISC addresses is that of coordination failure. RISC is designed to coordinate the activities of a host of entitiescommercial, governmental, NGOs. It synchronises investment decisions so as to reduce risk. It essentially acts as a catalyst that starts off a virtuous cycle of introducing efficient modern technology to improve productivity that increases incomes and thus the ability of users to pay for the services, and so on. It creates a mechanism that reduces transaction costs and therefore improves the functions of markets.

The total investment of about Rs 10,000 crores is very little money in the Indian context today. The multiplier effect that it can have on rural India is dramatic. More importantly, it will get you elected. We all win, right?

You can download the paper via a link from the Deeshaa website.

Bus. Std: Selling Software in India

My latest column in Business Standard:

The business of selling software in India is a tough one. For one, there is a small installed base of computers about 10 million, in contrast with 75 million wired and mobile telephone connections and 55 million cable television households. In addition, only a minority of the users pay for software the rest are fine with just making illegal copies and using it.

Software production, like other digital products, has a high fixed cost but a low marginal cost. For the most part, it is easy to copy. While the large enterprises need customisation and therefore have to pay for the software they use, the small- and medium-sized enterprises can use standardised solutions to start with. The consumer market does not see the benefits of paying for something that takes a few minutes to duplicate.

India is a market where 90% of population has to do with non-consumption of software. Of the remaining, 90% use pirated software. Legal software in India has only a 1% marketshare. So, even as India creates software for the world, our domestic market languishes. Little wonder then that we have few software success stories in the local market. Software is the oil of the information age there is no way India can build the next-generation digital infrastructure without it. If software companies and entrepreneurs do not feel they can make money from India, our growth will be hampered in the long-term.

Atanu Dey wrote recently on his weblog (http://www.deeshaa.org): As someone noted, people don’t want a quarter-inch drill — what they really want is a quarter-inch hole. So also, it is not that people want a personal computer — they want the services that a PC delivers. Owning a PC is not a great idea if there aren’t sufficient number of services one can obtain from one. Whether these services are available or not is not within the control of consumers of PCs. The conclusion therefore is that people will buy PCs only if it fits a larger ecology that is largely outside the control of any one single entity.

To build the ecology of computing and software in India, there are five issues which need to be addressed: availability, desirability, affordability, delivery and localisation.

First, computer deployment in India needs to increase not by 40% but many times that. India needs to build a base of 100 million computers across its small and large enterprises, governments, schools, colleges, homes, and rural hubs. This will provide the necessary base for developers to look at the market seriously. For this to happen, the total cost of ownership has to come down not just of the hardware, but also of support and maintenance. What is needed is a rethink of the computer architecture the availability of cheap silicon and storage and the coming world of cheap and plentiful bandwidth creates a platform to centralising computing and making thin and low-cost user devices. For every one new thick desktop, we could be deploying four times the number of thin access terminals.

Second, the value of software needs to be demonstrated. There is a need for better communication of what software can do both for our personal and for our work lives. Look at the computer ads that newspapers have there is barely a mention of what it can do. The focus is entirely on a gobbledygook of terms which describe the hardware. The experience of computers must be brought closer to people. This can be done through the creation of computing centres in every neighbourhood in India much like the way the STD/PCO booths brought the telecom experience to people.

Third, most software is priced in the Indian equivalent of US dollars. While this needs to change to more locally affordable levels, only clamouring for cheaper software without bringing in other elements is not enough. For example, by making available financing options for software as part of the complete computing solution, the entry costs can be significantly reduced allowing more users to start using it and see the benefits for themselves.

Fourth, there needs to be a change in how software is delivered. As broadband connections start proliferating, it will become possible for software to be delivered as a utility from centralised computing facilities. This utility approach to software will ensure that piracy is all but eliminated. A similar approach to gaming in China has created a large market with users paying on a usage basis. In addition, software needs to be part of a whole solution comprising hardware and maintenance.

Finally, there is a need for locally relevant solutions. Two approaches that need to be taken are to create content and software in local Indian languages, along with taking in the local context for business applications.

The software ecosystem needs to be built for businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive. It is not just about commercial or open-source software both are needed, just as we have the bicycles and the luxury cars. What users need is choice, and the current ones piracy or non-consumption are unhealthy for the industry and the country.

Bus. Std: Constructing the Memex Part 2

My latest column from Business Standard:

[Part 1 of the “Constructing the Memex” series]

In the past, the information available to us was limited by what we could remember, file on our own, ask others in a close circle, or access in a library. The Internet changed it all by making available a vast library of inter-linked digital information. Finding the information of value to us when we need it is still a challenge. In the beginning, we had Yahoos editorial selection of the best sites on the Web. Then, its editors updated site listings via incoming requests for additions as the web expanded. Next came the first generation of search engines which moved beyond the directory approach and crawled millions of pages, indexing the text on these pages.

Google, representing the second generation of search engines, used the information about links between pages as part of its PageRank technology, to come out with a superior way of searching. And yet, the problem of finding the right information in billions of web pages remains. Whether it is information in our personal or work life, there seems to be no end to the massive amount of information that we have to sift through. It is time to look at a new approach.

Imagine if we could bridge directories and search engines, making them much more customised based on our likes and the trails that we leave as we surf the Internet, and also taking into account all that we write in emails, blogs and elsewhere. This system would use our memory and knowledge as the starting point. We would start by outlining our interest areas – the topics that form the knowledge-sphere of our lives. This is akin to the directory of topics only much more personally relevant to us. For example, in my case the main categories of this list would be something like this: Affordable Computing, ICT for Development, Emerging Markets, Enterprise Software, Information Management, Small and Medium Enterprises, New Technologies and India.

Each topic needs to be drilled down further. What is needed is a hierarchy of topics, which helps in further defining our interests in greater detail. For example, my outline for Affordable Computing could look like this: Hardware (Thin Clients, Refurbished PCs, Set-Top Boxes, PDAs), Software (Terminal Services, Linux, Applications, Language Computing), and Communications (Ethernet, Wireless, Satellite, Broadband).

This hierarchy of topics serves as the basis for our interests. It gives a unique lens and context to the information that we browse on the Web, write in emails and receive as attachments. These topics will evolve as our interests change and as we come across experts who may have done a better job in building out a certain part of the information ecosystem.

This is an evolving information base built not by a centralised organization, but in a distributed manner by each of us. Each of us would have a microcosm of the information space, created and updated continuously by what we did. It would ensure that our ideas would have a context, that we would never forget something, and that we could leverage on similar work done by millions of others like us. This is the real two-way web linking not just documents, but people, ideas and information.

In the previous column, we discussed Vannevar Bushs vision of a memex (memory extender), which envisioned just such a machine that would allow us to deal with information overload by leveraging aspects of the human mind and its capability to deal with associations. The platform exists today to construct the memex built around millions of personal directories and welogs.

The weblog becomes a personal journal which allows us to store links and abstracts from articles we find of interest on the web, along with our own ruminations. A personal directory provides a table of contents, a glimpse into the way our mind catalogues information. Two existing XML-based standards would help share directories and syndicate the blog posts that we create OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) and RSS (Rich Site Summary).

In a sense, the memex is more about assimilation than aggregation, more value-added integration than scanning silos, more amplification than just presentation. The building blocks already exist in the form of the millions of blogs created by people like us. What is missing is the outline, a map of each of our minds. Once we start creating this in a distributed manner, we will see the emergent effects of a whole which is much bigger than the sum of the parts.

In the past few years, various technologies like weblogs, RSS, OPML, web services, Googles API, visualisation tools and social software, combined with a deeper understanding of the science of networks have laid the foundation for leveraging individual intellect to put together a information framework that is far beyond the capacity of any person or organisation. The time for constructing the Memex has now come.

Bus. Std: Constructing the Memex

My latest column from Business Standard:

In the past decade, the Internet has extended our world by making accessible a vast quantity of information that was unimaginable earlier in our lives. It started in the early days with bulletin boards and newsgroups, pooling together a collection of documents on a single server, and then the ease of hyperlinking combined with directories and search engines made the physical location of information irrelevant. If it was out there on the Internet, it could, in theory, be found.

For many of us, our first Internet website memories are probably linked to Yahoo. Navigating through its hierarchy of categories or doing a search helped us get to what we were looking for. Altavista and Excite started providing search within pages, allowing us to type a word or a phrase and know that there were tens of thousands of matching documents. Google then came along and refined the process to perfection by using its PageRank algorithm, giving us results very much relevant to what we were looking for. In effect, Google became our other memory.

In its efforts to provide uniformity and consistency, Google has become a mass-market search utility. But it is not good enough. What is missing is the context that each of us have this is embedded in the web we browse, the documents we chose to save (or email to ourselves), and the subject-matter experts we know (or would like to know).

To begin thinking more deeply about this, we need to go back in time and learn more about a person called Vannevar Bush.

According to Randall Packer and Ken Jordan [writing in their book Multimedia: From Wagner to Reality], Vannevar Bush rose to prominence during World War II as chief scientific advisor to Franklin Roosevelt and director of the governments Office of Scientific Research and Development, where he supervised the research that led to the creation of the atomic bomb and other military technologies. His contribution to the evolution of the computer ranges far and wide: from the invention in 1930 of the Differential Analyzer, one of the first automatic electronic computers.

In 1945, Bush published a paper As We May Think, outlining a prototypical hypermedia machine. He called this mythical machine as the Memex meaning a Memory Extender.

Adam Brates wrote in his book Technomanifestos: Visions from the Information Revolutionaries: Bushs immense administrative burden the daily strain of sorting, allocating, researching, analyzing, synthesizing, crosslinking, and filing spurred his idea for an invention that would perform this work for people. Bush popularized the idea that machines could solve the problem of information overload. Bush wondered whether all the sprigs of scientific wisdom, if not somehow preserved, would fall from the tree of knowledge. Information must somehow by connected to be relevant, lest it become forgotten. Knowledge accumulated and stored in massive filing cabinets under lock and key would languish. An idea developed today might not be relevant until some point in the future. What happens, though, if it is forgotten? Application of all new knowledge would require some means of keeping it available, accessible, and relevant.

Vannevar Bush wrote in his paper: [The human mind] operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature[Associative indexing is] the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex.

Vannevar Bush wrote his memex essay in 1945 before we had the computer, Internet, Web, Yahoo and Google. Even today, we struggle with information overload. The memex could be the solution, the silver bullet . So, the challenge before us is: can we leverage all the recent developments in technology to construct the memex?

There are two interesting recent developments that need to be connected together. Search engines like Google allow us to search billions of documents in a fraction of a second, while weblogs have made publishing very simple with the result that there are millions of people writing regular journals on the Web. Both are significant in their own right, as a combination they herald something much more profound in the information space.

(This will be continued in the next FutureTech column.)

Bus. Std: Its time to wave Indias digital hand

My latest column in Business Standard:

Bookshops are temples for the mind. When I travel, I make it a point to visit the best bookstores that the city has to offer. Even in the Internet world, there is no greater pleasure than to serendipitiously find a book that answers many questions that the mind has been pondering on.

It was in one such temple in San Francisco that I came across a book entitled The Digital Hand: How Computers Changed the Work of American Manufacturing, Transportation, and Retail Industries. At that time, I was thinking about how to modernise India rapidly could we possibly learn from what the developed countries like the US have gone through, and accelerate the process in India.

The title of the book immediately appealed to me. Early, rapid and near-universal adoption of computers have long been one of the reasons for the technological lead of the US. So, to come across a book which traced the history of diffusion of one of the most important inventions of all-time was like discovering a hidden treasure.

The author, James Cortada, worked at IBM for three decades and had a ringside view of the computerisation of US industry. In the book, he focuses on how computing transformed the American economy in the second half of the last century.

The Digital Hand is a reference to Adam Smith’s invisible hand – the self-interest that guides the most efficient use of resources in a nation’s economy, with public welfare coming as a by-product. The computers is the modern-day digital equivalent an all-pervasive force that drives efficiencies in economies.

Why look at the past in a field that changes rapidly as information technology? Writes Cortada: Understanding historic patterns of adoption of digital technology gives us insight into how specific industries did, and continue to, operate because they are prisoners of existing applications and processes and, in most instances, of long-standing practices and attitudes. In other words, a study of the past can help us unravel the future.

This can be especially important in the Indian context as we seek to build our digital infrastructure. What the US did over fifty years, India needs to do in five. Every industry in India needs to absorb technology and rethink its processes if India has to accelerate on the fast-track of development.

The US corporations adopted new inventions sequentially mainframe, mini and personal computers, networks, wireless technologies and most recently, broadband networks. The American workers had time to adjust to each phase of technological innovation. Also, different industries computerised at different points of time.

In contrast, Indian industry has to focus on all-round and simultaneous adoption of new technologies in computing and communications. In the past, it has, by and large, been slow to deploy the new technologies hobbled in part by the high cost of technology and low cost of labour. This needs to change if India has to develop. India’s industrial units have to become globally competitive, so they can achieve the scale to produce cost-effectively for the domestic market. What we have to think is how, in the context of these digital innovations, can we live and work differently. India has the opportunity to leapfrog.

Consider radio frequency identification (RFID). RFID systems consist of smart tags and reader devices. The tags send out radio frequency signals, which can be picked up in a short range by readers. Unlike bar codes which can carry very limited information, smart tags can store and broadcast object-specific information, giving each item its own unique identify and history.

Think of RFIDs as the next wave in communications: we first had people talking to people (through language and publications), then we had people interacting with computers (through the Internet, HTML and HTTP), now we are seeing applications talk to other applications (through Web Services). The next leap will be objects talking to other objects.

RFID is just starting to get adopted in the US. Wal-mart has mandated its suppliers to use RFID by the end of this year. Imagine if Indian retail chains and stores do the same in India. This will have multiple implications: it will position Indian manufacturers as Wal-mart ready, it will make Indian supply chains efficient very quickly, and it will give the Indian software companies competing globally a domestic market to build their strengths in what is a rapidly emerging area.

The equivalent of RFID can be found across industries. Whether it is WiFi or WiMax wireless broadband networks, open-source software, mobility-aware applications or RSS-enabled content, new technologies abound in all sectors. India has the ability to lead and set the standards, rather than be a followed and a footnote on the pages of business and technology history books. The Indian economic miracle needs to move away from its dependency on the hand of God each monsoon. It’s time to wave our Digital Hand.

Bus. Std: Engineering the Next Revolution

My Business Standard column:

During my recent visit to the US, I found myself standing on Sandhill Road at Menlo Park. Sandhill Road is at the heart of the worlds venture capital industry. Almost all the leading VCs have their offices there. It is one of three elements which make up the Silicon Valley ecosystem. A few miles away is Stanford University, whose mix of professors and students churn our start ups year after year. And then there is the famed Valley culture, which encourages and amplifies innovation and entrepreneurship. While it rewards success handsomely, it also does not look down on failure, seeing it as a milestone on the journey.

As I stood overlooking the freeway and the mountains in the distance from the Sandhill perch, my mind wandered to the eternal search that drives the innovation system. What is going to be the next big thing? Web services? Broadband wireless? Convergence?

There are two thoughts which struck me as I stood there. One, the epicentre of the next revolution is likely to be in the emerging markets of the world. Two, the driver for this revolution will be affordability rather than the next big technological advance. Let me explain.

In the developed markets of the world, the various technological waves came sequentially computers in the 1980s, local area networks in the late 1980s, client-server software in the early 1990s, the Internet in the mid and late 1990s, and wireless and broadband in the past few years. One of the key drivers was Moores Law, which states that processing power at fixed costs doubling every 18 months. As computers became cheaper thanks to falling prices of chips and peripherals, it created a positive feedback loop that drove adoption across various industries.

Now, the same mix of cheap processing power and high bandwidth is working its way across the developing markets. There is one important difference. In the developed countries like the US, the various phases of technological enhancements were sequential, giving consumers and businesses time to adopt and adapt. However, in the emerging markets like India, there are all happening simultaneously.

Consider whats happening in India. Cellphone adoption is increasing at over two million a month, leading to a user base of over 50 million by the end of 2004. Decreasing prices are driving computer adoption higher this year should see sales of over 3 million computers. Wireless data connectivity is available in hundreds of cities. Cable companies, telephone companies, power companies and Internet service providers are all working to provide high-speed connectivity to homes and businesses. So, in India, even as we benefit from falling prices, we are having to adjust to a world where the same ubiquitous envelope of computing and communications is rising around us.

This, according to me, is the Next Big Thing. As nations develop, an unprecedented opportunity exists to create solutions for the next billion users from countries like India, China, Brazil and Russia. The challenge for entrepreneurs is to catalyse and capitalise on the technology-led development process that these countries are going through.

Once again, consider India. Even as we get taken up with offshoring and outsourcing opportunities, we need to understand that a focus only on services will not transform India. (To put this in focus, less than 0.1 percent of Indians are involved in
IT related services are currently involved in providing software and other business process services to international organisations.) As India develops, agriculture needs to become more efficient, thus reducing the labour force involved in farming. This surplus has to be absorbed in production. This means that the production of non-manufactured goods (such as handicrafts) and manufactured goods will have to expand and become more efficient to be able to absorb the surplus labor from agriculture and provide higher incomes.

Affordable technology solutions can help in compressing time and speeding up the development process. Information and communication technologies can help in providing much-needed access to markets. India can benefit from the technologies developed to accelerate the education of its people and the modernisation of its industries. The challenge for entrepreneurs is to think on how to create solutions in this context for the twin engines of future growth – rural India and the small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The developed markets of the world are like the countries of Europe in the fifteenth century. The developing countries like India and China are like America waiting to be discovered. Entrepreneurs are like the intrepid explorers who set forth from the Old World to discover new lands for conquest.

For the VCs on Sandhill Road, the emerging markets are a world separated by many a continent and ocean. Even as they ponder on the future, Indian entrepreneurs have the opportunity to shape history 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. India, its IITs and other engineering institutions, and its entrepreneurs have the opportunity to create the platforms for the next markets.

Bus. Std: Wonderful World of Wireless

My latest article from Business Standard:

One of the most significant elements of Indias infrastructure that has taken shape in the past few years is invisible to its users.

The cellular networks that have put 30 million phones in the hands of Indians and continue to do so at a rate of over 2 million a month are a shining example of how wireless technologies can rapidly help India bridge the gap in digital infrastructure.

The cellphone has connected Indians with a technology that is as good as any in the world. In fact, new users prefer cellphones to landlines.

Compare this to a decade or so ago when one still had to wait months for a telephone connection and pay exorbitant charges for making long-distance and international calls.

Competition among operators, led especially by the cellular companies, has ensured that rates have fallen by 70-90 per cent in the space of a few years.

India has one of the lowest telecom rates in the world. To go mobile, all it takes is a few minutes for the paperwork and an investment of a few hundred rupees a month. As cellular usage keeps growing, India will have over 200 million cellphone users by 2010.

The cellphone with its ability to connect people via voice and SMS is just one of the wonders that wireless technologies are bringing forth.

Road warriors in India dont leave home without their Reliance CDMA cellphone connecting their laptop to the internet from anywhere has never been easier.

As 3G networks proliferate in India and handsets become more sophisticated, the cellphones functionality will increase to encompass a wider range of services.

Want to take a photo and send it to family? Want to find friends nearby? Want TV on the cellphone? Want to buy things using the cellphone as a credit card? The phone will be able to do it all.

The wireless revolution goes much beyond cellphones. In India, CorDECT/WLL, developed at IIT-Chennai, is providing voice and data connectivity to people otherwise left out of the footprints of telecom and cellular providers. In the coming years, wireless will also become a key driver of broadb and data connectivity.

The 802.11 family of protocols (of which WiFi is one) is enabling untethered connectivity for computers to devices.

As Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital put it, 802.11 is to wireless communications what the x86 is to computing and what ethernet is to networking.

The most important element of the 802.11 family is its use of the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz part of the spectrum which is unlicensed in most of the world.

However, both bands are still not completely unlicenced in India. This needs to change if India is to leapfrog into the new era via its use of these emerging technologies. India needs a million WiFi hotspots and this cannot happen with the current restrictions on access points .

In the coming years, technologies like 802.16 (WiMax) and 802.20 (MobileFi) will extend coverage to a complete neighbourhood (15-20 km), getting past the 100 metre limitation of the current generation of WiFi protocols.

At the same time, the speeds available are rising to support tens of megabits per second. This will enable a few towers to blanket entire cities, or a single tower to connect tens of villages in rural India.

Other technologies like Bluetooth and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) also hold great promise. Bluetooth is already being used to provide freedom from wires.

RFID is going to be embedded in all kinds of objects, and promises to to dramatically reduce inventories across supply chains as information flows in real-time on the movement of products embedded with RFID tags.

Whether it is in providing voice connectivity to the next hundred million at affordable prices or in providing high-speed internet access for rural communities, wireless technologies offer a great leapfrog opportunity for India.

It would be good for us to pay heed to these words of Kevin Werbach (writing in a recent report entitled Radio Revolution: The Coming Age of Unlicensed Wireless for New America Foundation):

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. Yet the benefits of the paradigm shift are not guaranteed. Exploiting the radio revolution will require creativity and risk-taking by both the private and public sectors. At every step, there will be choices between preserving the status quo and unleashing the forces of change. The right answers will seem obvious only in hindsight.

India faces many of the same decision issues. Radios of a different kind delivered news information to much of India in the previous century. The new radios promise to bring the future to the next generation of Indians provided we make the right choices today.

Bus. Std: Tech’s Disrupting Power

My latest column in Business Standard:

The recent bid by Comcast, the largest cable company in the US, for Disney, one of the worlds foremost entertainment companies, highlights how technology is disrupting industries. Through Disney, Comcast is seeking ownership of content for its fat pipes. The driving force in media and other industries is digitisation of text, audio and video, and the availability of a high-speed internet for distribution.

Rapidly increasing computing horse power, smart software and broadband networks have accelerated the process of digitisation by providing users and organisations the ability to manipulate content and transmit it cheaply and quickly anywhere across the world.

The impact of digitisation is not limited to media and entertainment. The telecom world is also being shaken up as voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) services cut the cost of making phone calls and eat into the revenue of telcos. In fact, the US Federal Communications Commission is preparing rules that would allow delivery of the internet through power lines and make online phone calls cheaper. In some countries, WiFi networks are already providing an alternative to the cellular networks in providing ubiquitous internet access.

Digitisation puts power in the hands of the users. Napster forced the music industry to rethink its pricing and distribution policies, with the result that now many online music stores offer songs for as little as 99 cents (Rs 45). Apples iPod is one among a whole new generation of small, portable devices with the capability of storing and playing thousands of songs.

The creators of Kaaza, a decentralised file-sharing software which has become the most downloaded program and is now on over 300 million computers worldwide, recently launched Skype, a peer-to-peer VoIP service. Skype allows computer-to-computer phone calls over the internet for free without the need for any centralised switching system. As Fortune magazine put it, it is disruptive for even the emerging IP telephony service providers: It costs the top provider of paid Internet telephony (Vonage) US$ 400 to add a customer. It costs Skype US$ 0.001.

Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) like TiVo in the US are allowing users to timeshift content. The TiVo allows TV programs to be recorded on a computer hard disk at home, for viewing at the users convenience. TiVo users can skips ads (or replay the ones they like). Imagine the potential for PVRs in a TV-crazy country like India no longer does one have to worry about being home at a specific time to watch ones favourite soap operas.

Highspeed networks are also proving disruptive to the traditional software industry model of selling software for a high one-time price (with incremental payments for periodic upgrades). Now, a new generation of application service providers (ASPs) like SalesForce.com offers software on a rental basis for a small monthly fee via the internet. Updates are instantaneously available to all users. The same concept is being applied to online multi-player video games and is driving internet usage (and profits) in countries like South Korea and China.

So far, digitisation has had only a limited impact in India. But this is about to change. Two key factors offer India an opportunity to leapfrog into the digital world: affordable products and broadband networks. India will benefit from the incessant drive by technology providers to keep lowering the prices of their products. We have seen it with TVs and cellphones, and are now seeing it with DVD players and computers.

This will be complemented by the availability of always-on, high-speed network connections which are becoming available in pockets across the country. From telcos to cellcos, from cable companies to energy providers, everyone wants to build the digital bridges.

As the digital infrastructure gets built, a process of creative destruction and reconstruction will take place. It will be possible to deliver music, movies, software and games electronically from centralised computers, thus combating piracy which has been the bane of the various industries for long. Video-on-demand can open up new opportunities not just for the entertainment companies, but also for training and education. The combination of 802.11-based wireless networks and VoIP have the potential to offer flat-rate telecom access.

Consider one of the areas which digitisation can have a positive impact education. In India, there are great disparities in the quality of education imparted across institutions in urban, semi-urban and rural India. India needs quick and scalable solutions to deliver quality education to hundreds of millions of children and youth to prepare them for the world of tomorrow. The availability of low-cost computers and high-speed networks can completely transform education through its value chain from content creation, translation, delivery and facilitating teacher-student interaction.

The force of digitisation is here. It brings change and opportunity. Old and new economy entrepreneurs and managers need to understand and embrace it, and see how it can be integrated into their way of doing business and life. Because their customers already are.

Bus. Std: Emerging Technology for Emerging Enterprises

My latest article in Business Standard:

One of the last frontiers at the intersection of business and technology are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), especially those in emerging markets like India. SMEs are the largest employers in every country. Yet they are today the weak links in business value chains as their processes are still not digitised and information flows are still largely manual and paper driven.

SMEs have been slower to adopt technology than their bigger brethren. SMEs typically have low penetration of computers, limited use of business software, information that lags behind reality and websites that are not updated. In other words, there is a disconnect between business and technology usage in SMEs, leading to operational inefficiencies, lower profitability and slower growth.

Just as emerging markets can leapfrog to a higher stage with the use of the newest technologies (like India has done in telecom), so can SMEs. The dramatic and continued improvements in information technology over the past decade have resulted in commoditisation at the hardware and software level, making it affordable for emerging enterprises.

New technologies appropriately leveraged can help SMEs in modernising their operations and creating new opportunities for sustainable growth. Technology to improve operational efficiency needs to work at three levels:

IT Infrastructure: Affordable computing solutions like thin clients, server-centric computing, open-source software, remote management and mobility integration can help build the right base for 1:1 computing (one employee, one computer; one office, one server) within SMEs. Cellphones can provide real-time access to business information from anywhere and at anytime. Multiple office locations can be connected together via a virtual private network (VPN).

Collaboration and Communication: A computer for every employee can make individuals more productive. For the enterprise as a whole to be more productive requires software that makes teams work together better. Collaboration software in the form of weblogs and wikis can help in making groups work together in distilling tacit knowledge. E-mail, enterprise instant messaging (IM) and voice-over-IP (VoIP) can assist in facilitating low-cost real-time interaction among employees, partners and customers.

Business Process Automation: With a computer for every employee, SMEs can think of their business processes very differently. Information flows across the organisation can now happen in near real-time, layered on web services and service-oriented architectures. Business process standards like ebXML and RosettaNet can help in information sharing beyond enterprise boundaries.

Taken together, this provides the right technology platform for SMEs to build their business:

  • A scalable backend infrastructure which provides instant, personalised and cost-effective communications, secures the enterprise and provides simplified administration of the technology resources.
  • A computer for every employee provides the foundation for personal productivity enhancement and creates the base for electronic capture and flow of information.
  • A suite of applications that powers an information refinery and ensures an intelligent, event-driven, real-time enterprise.

    Technology can also help in opening up new opportunities in two ways:

    Information Dissemination: One of the biggest challenges that SMEs face is getting prospective customers to know about their existence. While websites that are updated regularly are the starting point, CEO weblogs can amplify the message. A CEO weblog helps build direct communication channels to prospective partners and helps the SME to distinguish itself from others, based on its knowledge of the industry in which it is operating.

    Information Access: SMEs need to use the resources available on the web more effectively. This can provide market intelligence, track the competition and identify possible business partners outside the local area. What the web and search engines have done is reduce the friction in finding information. For example, when going for a meeting, it is now possible to Google the person and company so one is much better prepared.

    The right use of new technologies can help SMEs bridge the gap with their larger competitors and help make them into intelligent, real-time enterprises. Ciscos CEO John Chambers called productivity the new engine of wealth. Productive SMEs powered by new technologies can be the growth engines for their economies.

    What is missing? The big enterprises have consulting organisations, IT services companies to complement their in-house IT staff to identify and deploy solutions. SMEs are handicapped by their small size and limited budgets, besides being much harder to reach. As a result, they have little help in their technology deployment. There is a need for full-service IT organisations focused on SMEs that can understand business requirements, suggest solutions, help in the implementation (based on standardised technology components) and provide outsourced management of the technology infrastructure.

    This is an excellent opportunity for mid-tier Indian IT companies. If they can create the right solutions for the bottom of the enterprise pyramid, a market of three million SMEs in India and another 50 million outside India is waiting for them.

  • Bus. Std: Say Hello to the Always-On World

    My recent column in Business Standard:

    Imagine a world where access to networks is the norm and not the exception, where information is available and notified in real time, where people are reachable independent of their location, and where objects can talk to other objects. This is a world where pervasive wireless networks create an atmospheric layer of connectedness between people, computers and things. This is the always-on world. It is a world that is being born, creating new applications and opportunities.

    The 1980s saw the computing revolution, while the 1990s saw the communications revolution – in the form of mobile telephony and the internet. This decade is seeing it all merge into an IP-based wireless and broadband revolution. The cellphones have greater power than the early personal computers, and computers are coming with in-built wireless connectivity. Even as wireless and the ethernet are combining to provide high-speed access to homes and offices in the coming months, optical fibre networks provide the backbone to connect networks.

    India, too, is starting to see the first glimpses of the always-on world. Telcos have started offering always-on, narrowband internet connectivity at fixed, affordable prices. Code division multiple access and general radio packet switching cellphones offer internet access. Service providers are setting up Wi-Fi hotspots and broadband-enabled cybercafes. Computer prices are falling, driven by a reduction in levies and increased competition. This year will see India add over 30 million cellphones and four million computers. Low-cost “thin” computers have the potential to accelerate the penetration of computing even more. The lack of a legacy installed base means that India can leapfrog directly to the always-on world. The availability of networks and access devices is helping to create the infrastructure for the always-on world.

    What is missing is the content and applications that can take advantage of this ubiquitous platform. This development in India has so far been hobbled by the lack of a delivery infrastructure and the limited access device base. Suddenly, these limitations of the past are disappearing. What application developers and service providers can expect in the always-on world is a computing and communications platform that is real time, affordable and everywhere. Here are a few examples of solutions that can be created for the new, emerging world:

    Connected homes: Low-cost terminals can be used to offer e-mail, chat, local information and limited transactions (bill payments, ticketing) for lower middle-class homes, for which the PC may still be too expensive. Services for tiny businesses: Small shops and neighbourhood stores can be provided networked terminals for providing updates on sales and inventory levels to wholesalers, and doing their accounting electronically. This can help bring down inventory costs across the value chain.

    Sales force automation for SMEs: The mobile workforce in small and medium-sized enterprises can be given wireless-enabled handheld devices which can be used for real-time sales management.

    Logistics and distribution for large enterprises: There is a need for fleet management applications to track trucks and other delivery vehicles as they move across the country. In the coming years, technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID) will enable individual items also to be tracked as they move across the value chain.

    IT for education: With the increasing focus on universal primary education, schools can be given graphical terminals with a server for computer and computer-enabled education. Multimedia content can be created by the best teachers and distributed through the network to schools.

    Today’s interactions on the web are in the form of request-response – we type the address of a website (or click on a link), and then are taken to the destination page (or website). We need to drive the interaction. What always-on infrastructure does is create the base for the publish-subscribe-web (PubSubWeb).

    The PubSubWeb makes possible a new class of information that has the following four attributes:

  • It is frequently updated (as opposed to being static)
  • It needs to be repeatedly distributed to a continuously interested set of entities (as opposed to one-off, need-based access)
  • It is incrementally accessed (as opposed to getting the complete chunk and figuring out what has changed)
  • It needs to be “pushed” in real time (as opposed to demand-driven “pull”).

    In essence, the PubSubWeb establishes an information stream between information producers (publishers) and consumers (subscribers), making possible a whole range of new applications and services. For example, cricket updates, stock quotes, news alerts can be streamed to interested users in the form of microcontent – just the relevant and incremental snippet that has changed, rather than full pages with a lot of redundant information. On the PubSubWeb, information is syndicated by publishers and subscribed to by users. Weblogs and news aggregators are a good example of what the PubSubWeb makes possible. When a weblog is updated, it notifies a central server of its update, which in turn alerts users who have subscribed to receive the updates. Special software (news aggregators) can now go to the weblog, pick up an XML file, parse it, and make the incremental updates available to readers. This process eliminates the need for readers to keep scanning websites to see what content has changed.

    Just as HTML powered the request-response web, rich site summary (RSS) will power the PubSubWeb. Think of the PubSubWeb as the next upgrade to the web as we know it today. It is made possible by the always-on infrastructure that is being constructed. The tools and building blocks for the PubSubWeb exist. What is needed is for service providers to aggregate these tools and integrate them in a seamless manner to build a complete information and events refinery.

    The always-on world will thus bring forth new innovations. It is an idea whose time has come.

  • Bus. Std: Portals of the Future

    My column in today’s Business Standard looks at the opportunities in the Indian portal space:

    Even as India changes, its internet portals remain almost frozen in time. Scan through the home pages of the leading Indian content sites and you will find that the formats remain almost unchanged from what they were many years ago. Even as new technologies are edging on to the mainstream, the legacy of many of our leading portals holds them back. Content creation and consumption needs to change if the internet is to become a utility in the lives of Indians.

    For long, the growth of the internet in India has been hobbled by high telecom access charges. This is now beginning to change as fixed price narrowband bundles offer the promise of always-on connectivity. Broadband is also becoming selectively available, especially in cybercafes. This 24×7 connectivity will make the internet part of the daily routine of Indians those who have the access devices.

    Affordable computing devices will be the second factor which will have an impact on the internet in India. Low-cost thin clients which outsource storage and processing to central servers over reliable, high-speed networks will lead to a dramatic increase in the availability of computing for employees at work and families at home.

    The dramatic growth in cellphones will also alter the landscape. By the end of 2004, India is expected to have over 50 million cellphones (as compared to an installed base of computers of about 13 million). Many of these cellphones will have data connections. If the operators price data at flat rates rather than by the download quantum, the cellphone can become a possible alternate for accessing microcontent in some situations.

    Thus the combination of always-on connectivity and affordable access devices will lay the foundation for a renaissance in the Indian portal business provided the service providers go beyond the legacy of HTML and start adopting new technologies.

    The foundation for the next-generation information platform needs to be built on the two pillars that have driven the open-source software movement user customisability and distributed collaboration.

    Users should be able to dictate what information they get and how it is delivered to them. This means they should be able to subscribe to content feeds which deliver new, incrementally updated content in real time rather than having to remember to visit websites periodically and scan multiple pages to find out what has changed. This is where RSS (rich site summary) comes in. RSS enables syndication and thus becomes the core of the next generation two-way web.

    Just as RSS impacts content consumption, change is also afoot in the world of content creation. The ease of publishing showcased by the growth of weblogs (which are personal journals) is creating alternatives to traditional media. People at the grassroots can now be connected via the strength of weak ties in micro communities, as has been demonstrated in the US by the election campaign of Howard Dean.

    By leveraging these emerging technologies such as RSS and weblogs, Indian portals can integrate themselves more closely with the lives of their readers who now can also help contribute to their evolution.

    Three ideas can help launch the next generation of activity (and the first wave of profits) in the Indian internet space: NINE, PIN and STIM.

    NINE (New Indian News Ecosystem) goes beyond the personalisation offered by MyYahoo by allowing the inclusion of content via RSS feeds from any website. By combining customisation, editorial recommendations and analytics from blog posts, the portals can facilitate interactive interactions among the participants in a way not possible in traditional media and discussion forums.

    PIN (PIN-code-based India Network) brings neighbourhoods alive. The postal code is a natural unifier since we all know the codes of where we live and work. Yet we know very little about what is happening in our vicinity. Via PIN, merchants and service providers can produce RSS feeds of new events. Residents can subscribe to these feeds based on their interests and provide contributions to shape the online reputations of the shops. Thus PIN provides a platform to create a two-way flow of information and experience.

    STIM (SME Trade Information Marketplace) bridges the information gap between buyers and sellers, thus providing a solution to the biggest problem for small and medium-sized enterprises generating new business. SMEs are their own biggest customers and yet find it hard to reach one another. STIM helps SMEs make business connections via the internet.

    The first chapter in the Indian dotcom story ended up getting aborted as investors and advertisers cut off the oxygen of capital. The second chapter in this epic is waiting to be written. What portal entrepreneurs need to do is discard the legacy which holds them back and bring in innovative thinking combined with new technologies to craft a new and profitable future.

    Bus. Std: A Tale of Three Platforms

    My column in today’s Business Standard (ICE World) on the need to construct the next generation of platforms for the telephone network, the PC and the world wide web:

    The three technology platforms that form the foundation of our digital life today are the telephone network, personal computer and the world wide web. While the legacy of the telephone goes back many decades, the PC and the web are recent creations. They have served us well today, over 500 million computers are in use across the world, billions of documents on every conceivable topic across the world are no more than a few clicks away and a global telecom network connects people, computers and information.

    Yet these platforms are now beginning to show their age. The wire line telephone network which has carried voice so well gets stretched to its limits when it comes to data, the computers cost makes it unaffordable for much of the developing markets and the web has overloaded us with information, even as the time we have in our lives has remained constant.

    The time has come to rethink and construct the next generation of platforms in each of the three areas communications, computing and information access. We need to consider the technological developments that are taking place, aggregate them and build platforms which will bring technology to the next billion users across much of the developing world.

    Imagine a world where bandwidth for voice and data is not constrained and we are enveloped by a ubiquitous communications network. Imagine a world where computing is available for all at prices everyone can afford. Imagine a world where just the right information is delivered to us in real time. This is a world that is now at hand. The elements to construct this future are visible if only we are willing to see them. As we in India think about constructing a digital technology infrastructure, it is this tomorrow that we need to envision, and not one built and encumbered by the legacy of yesterday.

    The communications platform needs to be built on IP (internet protocol) and be always on. Voice needs to become an application on IP networks. Wireless and broadband technologies need to be made available for homes, businesses and rural areas at affordable prices. Just as the Indian government is constructing a network of expressways, we need to enable the construction and deployment of high-speed IP-based networks across the country. Existing artificial telecom restraints and restrictions need to be done away with. For this, service providers need to be given the freedom to carry any traffic voice, data, video on their pipes. A reliable, world-class access infrastructure is the prerequisite for the new, shining India.

    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 requirement is access devices which are as easy to use and affordable as phones and have the functionality, versatility and footprint of computers. Think of these as PC terminals, designed for a networked world. The architecture of todays computer was created in the late 1970s and 1980s when networks were few and far between and, therefore, both storage and processing had to be done locally within the device. As we get high-speed networks, the access device can be simplified, and storage and processing can move back to central servers across a network. This re-architecting along with the use of open-source software can help cut the total cost of ownership of computers by 70-90 per cent.

    The information platform needs to become real time, event driven and multimedia-oriented. The first web made publishing possible by the few, for many. The next web will enable mass publishing and narrowcast audiences many writing for the few. Information will not just be accessed through the browser or searched but will be delivered via RSS (Rich Site Summary; an XML-based syndication format) to news readers. Think of this as the publish-subscribe web. It bridges the gap between information producers and consumers by establishing an information stream between publishers and subscribers, ensuring real time delivery of news, information and events. The other shift is towards multimedia information, as the tools to create and distribute digital content proliferate in the form of devices like camera phones.

    India has an opportunity once again to do things right. What is needed is a generation of entrepreneurs to think beyond the curve and outside the box to create technology platforms and solutions for tomorrows world. As Alan Kay said, The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

    Bus. Std: Borrow a leaf from Rajiv Gandhis book

    My technology column has started in the ICE World section of Business Standard. ICE World is published every other Wednesday as a technology supplement. The first in the series looks at the need for India Technology Missions.

    India is in the news in the Western media finally, for the right reasons. Indias brainpower is attracting attention.

    Could India be the services capital of the world, just as China is en route to becoming the worlds workshop?

    The question is moot at this point India still has a long way to go. While a beginning has been made in the right direction, a lot still needs to be done.

    Indias infrastructure is still pathetic, technology adoption by companies is still quite poor outside the export-oriented IT sector, education is still not universally available, rural areas remain frozen in time and governance still hinders rather than helps.

    Can something be done about this?

    The need of the hour is a focused national agenda in key areas that delivers results in a specified time period. There also needs to be co-ordination across different entities so that they are not working like scorpions in a pit.

    The country must rise above individual and local self-interests. It is a kind of agenda that is ideally pushed by a centrally created team which decentralises execution and is able to get the best from different elements that have specific expertise. We need a few, focused missions.

    My mind goes back to the mid-1980s when Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister, launched a mission under Sam Pitroda to create appropriate technologies for transforming Indias telecom sector.

    The result was C-DoT (Centre for Development of Telematics), which created low-cost exchanges for rural India and began the first phase of Indiaa telecommunications revolution. Later, a few more missions were created. But after Gandhis death, the scenario changed.

    A note on one of the websites of the Madhya Pradesh government offers an insight into the role and working of missions: The missions crafted a model that worked through participatory structures, which generated collective action as well as altered institutional arrangements within government to generate intersectoral action around identified mission goals. Missions gave time frames with milestones and fast-tracked procedures.

    India needs a set of technology missions to build human capital and digital infrastructure in the country. The government (or a collective from the corporate and educational sectors) needs to initiate these missions, staff them with the best people it can find, give them the appropriate budgets, promise non-interference and let them run.

    Indians are capable of doing things well not just when they are non-resident Indians. Look at some of the physical infrastructure projects that have been undertaken in recent times the Delhi Metro and the Golden Quadrilateral expressways project , for example. A lot more needs to be done. This is where the India Technology Missions (ITMs) come in.

    A few ideas for the India Technology Missions:

  • Hardware – The Rs 5,000 computer: Imagine a PC-terminal a thin client which can connect to a central server for processing and storage. Given the high-speed networks within organisations, this can help dramatically reduce the total cost of computing. With keyboard, mouse and a refurbished monitor, the total cost of such a computer should not exceed Rs 5,000.

  • Software – Indian Language Desktop Applications: Local language support at the application level is critical for the growth of computing in India. What is required is to use an open-source software base and to translate the strings that make up the various applications, adding appropriate utilities (like a spell check for a word processor).

  • Business – Industry information and process maps: There is a need to create business process templates for applications used by small and medium enterprises (SMEs). This means mapping the information flows for various industry verticals and getting software developers to use these maps to develop their applications.

  • Connectivity – Fixed-price broadband bundles: For all the talk of the telecom revolution, bandwidth remains expensive in India. What does it take to offer always-on 500 Kbps connectivity for homes and 2 Mbps for enterprises at Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, respectively?

  • Content – Locally relevant information and services: The neighbourhood around our home and office is where we spend our lives. And yet there is no easy way for us to know what is happening in the vicinity and for the shops and service providers to notify us of whats new. Personalisable and localised information marketplaces are required.

    These are but a few ideas which can take computing to the next billion users in India to improve lives, increase incomes and spur domestic growth.

    In forthcoming columns, we will explore what disruptive innovations are needed to make these a reality and build Indias digital infrastructure not between two generations but between two elections.