Last week, IBM launched a global ad campaign on “The Next Utility: eBusiness on Demand”. An excerpt from the ad:
To one generation, they were technological miracles.
To the next, they were practical necessities.
To your kids, they are invisible.
We call them utilities.
Water, Gas, Telephone, Electricity: their delivery conquered darkness, cold, isolation, and backbreaking labor. They created the most spectacular changes in the history of mankind. Yet, despite being heralded in their day as “technological wonders”, their greatest power lies in how commonplace they have become. As innovations, they advanced technology, but as ubiquitous, affordable and reliable services, they changed the world.
To bring out a revolution in India, technology needs to be thought as a utility. India needs a Tech Utility. Tech here encompasses computing (hardware and software) and communications. We had discussed a few ideas to bootstrap to create a technology foundation in India: second-hand computers, open source software and free spectrum. What the Utility concept does is bring a framework on how we should think about the deployment of technology.
The four key characteristics of a Utility that we need to apply to Technology are:
- A Utility is Commonplace. It is ubiquitous, accessible and virtue. We only know of its presence when it doesn’t work.
- A Utility is Affordable. Payment is by use, on a “subscription” basis. Each month, we get a bill for what we consume, and we are expected to pay it on time to avoid disconnection. We pay because the utility becomes a lifeline.
- A Utility is Reliable. It does not “crash”.
- A Utility has a Mass Distribution framework. There is a Network. This lets the utility be available everywhere.
Let’s take an example. Heard of the “Waternet”? This is what the Internet of today is! Elaborates William Buxton, writing in “The Invisible Future”:
The Waternet is just what you think it is: that great network of pipes and reservoirs that brings water to and from your house or office, run by a relatively small number of very large companies. It is a lot like the Internet. As with computers, we didn’t start connected. We had our own wells or cisterns, and we used things like septic tanks for our waste. Just as people have connected their PCs to the Internet via the local Internet service provider (ISP), so most of us have moved away from wells, cisterns, and septic tanks and taken our plumbing online by hooking with our local WSP (Waternet service provider).
The Waternet is essentially invisible. Furthermore, many of us do not who know their WSP is, especially at work. As it matures, the same will be true of the Internet. It will be the services and content, not the network, that will be visible.
So far in India, technology has always been thought of a luxury. Even today, most businesses will have at best a handful of computers, unconnected – neither to each other, nor to the network. This is where Change needs to begin. India needs a grid that makes technology available as a utility to consumers and businesses alike. The grid will help in networking the endpoints (computers, cellphones and other appliances). This will not just thus increase the value of the end points, but also leapfrog India straight to the “connected” era.
A Utility mindset towards Technology is what the New India needs, for, in the words of the IBM ad, “gains without pains”.