TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: The New WWW

(This column is part of an ongoing series on “India’s Next Decade”.)

Look back to 1994-95. That was the time Mosaic had just been launched by the team led by Marc Andressen (who later co-founded Netscape). HTML made it so easy to create web pages. The hyperlinks made it possible to connect documents together and from a user’s point of view, leap across worlds just like the mind navigates through ideas. Experiencing the 1994 World Wide Web was like a million mind bombs going off. Suddenly, there were so many opportunities, so many possibilities. Suddenly, there seemed to be infinite futures imaginable.

Look even further back (perhaps, to the 1980s) to the first we time we interacted with a computer – in school, college, at work or at home. Remember that feeling? It was man and machine in communion, like a different world which was opening up in front of us. My first experiences with a computer was in 1983 when a friend showed me his new ZX-Spectrum at home and my father bought one for his office. I was in college then. I still remember wanting to rush to the office and try and out the new BASIC program I had written. I even made a game which would play out one-day cricket matches. I also programmed the Monopoly game. That rush of excitement, that feeling of exhilaration, the notion that anything is possible, that the old way of doing things is now going to change, that a new order is emerging – its coming back.

Cut to Kevin Werbach of Release 1.0:

Listen carefully. The old grassroots energy is coming back. Web services, Weblogs and WiFi are the new WWWThe new WWW makes software, content and connectivity into resources that may be shaped and combined into new ways. The three new W’s all have openness and critical mass going for them. They are built on standards, and have managed to gain the support of large platform vendors and independent developers alike.

(Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0 should know. Dyson has chronicled the PC revolution since 1975. Tech Talk too has covered these topics in the past few months: Web Services, Blogging and Wireless. Also read: Emerging Enterprises and Emergent Networks.)

Email, Instant Messaging and the Web have glued us together. Hundreds of millions of computers, cellphones and people are now inextricably connected together. But this is just a small beginning. There is much about life and business which can be made
better. There are still hundreds of millions in the emerging markets of the world who are not yet fully integrated into the global network because technology is still too expensive for them.

XML, XML-RPC, SOAP, WSDL, UDDI, Oultiners, OPML, Weblogs, RSS, 802.11 are the Legos for the new emerging world.What is now interesting is to see how the new WWW can be put together to spark the Next Revolution, one which will be driven more by the grassroots, the bottom of the (enterprise) pyramid. This is the set of opportunities our generation has to build new companies, and perhaps, a new India.

TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: The Third Revolution

The world’s infotech industry may appear to be in decline after the heady days of the late 1990s. Even the giants are finding the going difficult. The Nasdaq is back to the October levels, as there is a growing belief that the US recovery is going to take time. For the telecom industry, the light at the end of the tunnel is still not in sight. One bright spot for India has been the performance of the software companies, with almost all of them showing growth in excess of 25-30% in the past year, and projecting at least a 15-20% growth in the coming year. In a market where corporate spending on IT is declining, India’s has been a very creditable performance.

The slow IT spend is what we are seeing on the surface. Underneath, there are some very interesting developments taking place which promise to open up new opportunities for companies willing to look below. This buzz is happening among early adopters, in some of the geeky techie websites and writings, and with the smaller startups. It is almost like an underground network of sorts, with the portents to spark of a revolution in the times to come, even as the establishment (the bigger companies) worry about the present and near-term survival and growth.

We are seeing the start of the third technology revolution in the past quarter century. This started in the 1970s with the mix of chips and software and led to the birth of the personal computer industry. Computers and software had been around for many years, but companies like Intel, Microsoft, IBM and Apple made them available to a mass market through their innovations and marketing strategies. The computer, till today, remains the technology platform for companies and countries. Moore’s Law put silicon on a fast track of continuous improvements. Software made use of the faster processing speeds.

The second revolution came with the advent of the World Wide Web (WWW) in the 1990s, made possible by the use of the HTML language, the HTTP protocol and the Web browser. Together, they made is easy for making information available across computers. The hyperlink broke boundaries and connected documents, just as the Internet connected computers. A new generation of companies was born, bubble economy transmogrified (albeit for a brief time) the world. The survivors – Yahoo, eBay, Amazon, Google, Overture – were names we wouldn’t have recognised a decade ago (because they didn’t exist), and yet every day these sites touch our lives.

The third revolution is now in its formative stage. Writes Tim O’Reilly in an article, “Inventing the Future” (April 9, 2002):

“The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” I recently came across that quote from science-fiction writer William Gibson, and I’ve been repeating it ever since.

So often, signs of the future are all around us, but it isn’t until much later that most of the world realizes their significance. Meanwhile, the innovators who are busy inventing that future live in a world of their own. They see and act on premises not yet apparent to others. In the computer industry, these are the folks I affectionately call “the alpha geeks,” the hackers who have such mastery of their tools that they “roll their own” when existing products don’t give them what they need.

The alpha geeks are often a few years ahead of their time. They see the potential in existing technology, and push the envelope to get a little (or a lot) more out of it than its original creators intended. They are comfortable with new tools, and good at combining them to get unexpected results.

Tim’s take on the future: Wireless, Next-generation search engines, Weblogs, Instant Messaging, File Sharing, Grid Computing, Web Spidering

TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: The Difference A Decade Makes

Consider what a difference the past decade has made in the fortunes of two Asian countries – Japan and China. Ten years ago, it looked like Japan would conquer the world. Writes John Grimond in The Economist in a recent survey on Japan (April 18, 2002):

In the late 1980s, after all, Japan invested $650 billion abroad, nearly half of it in the United States, where such icons as Columbia studios, Pebble Beach golf course and Rockefeller Centre in New York fell into Japanese hands. Americans had already become used to the idea of “Japan as Number One”, as the title of Ezra Vogel’s best-selling book put it in 1979. By the late 1980s, with companies such as Sony, Honda, Toyota and Toshiba sweeping all before them, Japan Inc truly seemed invincible.

Today, the calm exterior hides the internal crisis across the economy. Writes Grimond:

Imagine a country where the streets are clean, drugs cause few problems and muggings are almost unheard of. Imagine further that the trains run on time, most people are well dressed and many-at least to judge by the giggling girls shopping in the capital’s swankiest area-are able to afford the most expensive trifles that money can buy. In such a prosperous country, life would be long, taxes modest and unemployment certainly lower than in Europe, probably even than in America. People would be polite, thrifty and unbelligerent. Rather, they would be munificent givers of foreign aid, vigorous investors abroad and profuse lenders. Such a country is Japan, and to many it might seem paradise. Yet open a newspaper and you will see that this is a country in crisis.

Unemployment stands at 5.3%, just below its recent post-war record of 5.6%-and the official figure, because it excludes those too discouraged to register, understates the true picture. Electronics giants such as Fujitsu, Hitachi and Toshiba have been laying off workers in droves. Supermarkets, such as the huge Mycal chain which went bust last September and even bigger Daiei which was bailed out in January, are shedding jobs all the time, as are building companies such as Aoki and Sato Kogyo, which collapsed in December and February respectively. The number of bankruptcies last year had been surpassed only once since the war, in 1984.

Consider the changing equation between Japan and China. Writes James Brooke in the New York Times (April 21, 2002) in an article entitled, “Japan Braces for a ‘Designed in China’ World“:

In recent decades, Japanese companies invested to make China the “factory to the world.” In recent months, Japan’s blue-chip manufacturers announced investments to make China the “design laboratory to the world.”

The crumbling of an informal wall that long kept assembly in China and research [in Japan] may spell the end of Japan’s last great competitive advantage over its low-wage neighbor. And it is yet another step in China’s rise, one that means both new opportunities and wrenching change for Japan, which has lately been coasting on wealth built up in earlier, high-growth decades.

Today’s young Japanese have grown up in affluence, taking for granted high wages and their nation’s status as the world’s second-largest economy. But older Japanese returning from visiting Chinese factories and laboratories report that the hard-working, self-sacrificing Chinese workers remind them of the Japanese workers of the 1960’s.

As more and more Japanese manufacturing migrates to China, the research and development activity is gradually following, to be close to production.

“China is quickly becoming a country of low wage and high tech,” Yotaro Kobayashi, chairman of Fuji Xerox, warned recently, echoing the spreading insecurities in Tokyo. “They are going to prove to be extremely competitive with Japanese companies.”

It is not just companies and industries where leadership can change – even countries can rise and ebb.

Indians need to invent the future, not just be the plumbers and electricians in that world. From where we are, even doing the plumbing may be much better since we’ll probably get paid in dollars. But, from where I see, there’s a new technological future which can be built in which India has the opportunity to lead and be the anchor store, not a discount outlet.

TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: World Server

India is now pinning its hopes on the IT-enabled services business: If 1 million Indians can serve the world answering phones and emails in contact centres, developing software, analyzing x-rays and providing medical advice, processing insurance claims at even an average of USD 10 (Rs 500) per hour, it would add USD 20 billion a year. Nothing wrong with this picture, especially considering that we have no shortage of Indians to service the world. In fact, the latest mantra among the Indian software companies is BPO – business process outsourcing. There’s plenty of opportunity targeting the Fortune 1000 companies who are seeking to outsource to reduce costs. Falling bandwidth costs are making it easier to locate many back-office centres outside of the US, and India has emerged as a prime candidate.

Write Howard Rubin, Margaret Johnson and Susan Iventosch in SiliconIndia (April 2002) as part of a cover story on IT Sourcing:

India continues to be on top of the IT outsourcing market. The number of technical professionals in India is growing and now totals upwards of 4.5 million. The nation’s language (English), education system (IITs in addition to 1,900 educational and polytechnical institutions) and superior IT training programs have propelled it into its current prominent position.

Software has served India well in the past decade with exports touching USD 8 billion. It has helped India get recognition the way China has captured attention for its manufacturing prowess. The next spin-off from software is the world of IT-enabled services and BPO. All indications are that these sectors too will do well in the coming years. So, then what’s to worry about? After all, all our top software companies in cash and even though growth rates have come crashing down from the 100 percent a year days to 20-25 percent a year, that in itself is a great achievement considering what the tech sector has been through in recent times.

My worry is that we are following, not leading. We are being satisfied creating intellectual property for others, and not attempting to do so ourselves (other than a handful of Indian companies). The labour arbitrage and the dollars per hour model lulls us into a false sense of security. We send a mission to China which announces that India has nothing much to worry about: we are five years ahead of them. There are not enough of us exploring the new frontiers of technology, trying to envision the world of tomorrow and then working to build that. A quote from CK Prahalad and Gary Hamel’s “Competing for the Future”:

There is not one future but hundreds. Getting to the future first is not just about outrunning competitors bent on reaching the same prize. It is also about having one’s own view of what the prize isImagination is the only limiting factor.In business as in art, what distinguishes leaders from laggards, and greatness from mediocrity, is the ability to uniquely imagine what could be.

India’s is not a mission impossible. Look back 10-15 years. Japan was the top of the charts, there were plenty of self-doubts in the US about its competitiveness and China was an international pariah thanks to Tianamen Square. Today, the US is being talked of as an “empire” (like the Roman and British empires of the past), China is surging ahead to become the next big economic superpower, and Japan is in the doldrums.

TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: China Comparisons

“A decade ago, India and China had roughly the same GDP per capita. Now India’s is about $460 and China’s $840. If India continues to grow at 5.4%–a rate it has never been able to sustain over any length of time–it would take 12 years for it to reach China’s current income level and decades more to reach that of Thailand or Korea.”, writes
Anthony Paul in Fortune

Paul mentioned South Korea. It may be hard to believe today but “in 1960, India and South Korea were both very poor. India, at least until the 1990s, was not much involved in the world economy. South Korea staked its future on engagement in the economy. Today, its per capita income is about 20 times higher than India’s.”, writes Daniel Yergin in the International Herald Tribune.

There is little doubt that China has left India behind in the most important race that matters – the economic one. Writes John Thornhill in the Financial Times (April 12, 2002):

China and India, the two dominant powers in mainland Asia, seemingly have a lot in common. Both countries boast ancient civilisations, spicy cuisines, nuclear missiles, diverse populations of over 1bn people, and apparently limitless economic potential. They also share many problems: mass poverty, growing urban-rural divides, oppressive bureaucracies, and widespread corruption.

Yet to outside investors the differences appear starker than the similarities. While China’s relentless economic expansion continues to mesmerise foreign investors, India remains something of an afterthought in investment terms. While the sleeping giant that was China has woken with a vengeance, India still appears to be quietly dozing in the corner.

That impression is certainly reflected in the hard statistics. In 1999, China sucked in more than $ 40.3bn in foreign direct investment compared with $ 2.1bn in India. Foreign portfolio investors too have been busily buying into giant Chinese corporations while largely ignoring India’s smaller companies.

At $ 54.7bn, the market capitalisation of the China Mobile, the country’s most valuable company, equals 45 per cent of the total value of the Indian stock market. “China is a must-have in any global equity portfolio,” says one fund manager. “India is still not in that category.”

The latest Business Today (April 28, 2002) has a cover story on China. Begins the story:

In today’s global economy, countries are either on the bus or off it. China is firmly on it. India is sometimes on, sometimes off. China has constructed some 50,000 kilometres of expressways in the past decade, 25,000 kilometres since 1998, or a little over 17 kilometres a day. India still can’t get over the 13,151 kilometre long Golden Quadrilateral that will be in place by 2007.The Shanghai skyline, by some estimates, has seen the emergence of 20,000 high rises over the past 10 years. India is still raving over Delhi’s satellite township Gurgaon and Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla complex which together, boast less than 100 high rises.China has 160 million phones, India has a mere 6 million.

The Financial Express has been carrying a series of reports on China. One of the articles by Rajeev Jayaswal talked about how China’s tourist traffic has skyrocketed in recent times:

A conservative estimate puts China’s total inbound traffic at 60 million annually, whereas India has been able to attract a mere 2.5 million tourists annually.

China has set a goal to become the number one destination in Asia with 130 million foreign visitors by 2020. According to comparative data of World Tourism Organisation, China’s total inbound traffic grew to 27 million in 1999 from 10.5 million in 1990, whereas India’s total inbound traffic could only grow from 1.7 million in 1990 to 2.5 million in 1999.

This is mainly because China has adopted a policy of focusing growth in the core regions including Beijing, Xian, Guangdong and Shanghai. Now all provinces are in competition to attract tourists, said Mr Bhoothalingam, Manas Advisory chief executive. As a result, the country has been able to offer over 6,000 star-rated hotels, 126 airports, and 1,286 international travel services.

So, even as China powers ahead, India ponders and flounders. The areas that India is ahead of China is in software and IT services, which are now seen as India’s hope for the future.

TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: India Today

Shekhar Gupta’s column in the Indian Express about “The Hindutva Rate of Growth” asks: what else do you get when Modi’s indispensable, Sinha’s expendable? [Narayan Modi of the BJP is the chief minister of Gujarat where hundreds died in communal riots recently; Yashwant Sinha is the finance minister and his budget has been blamed by elements within the BJP for the party’s poor showing in the Delhi municipal elections.] Writes Gupta (Indian Express, April 19, 2002):

The political debate has now moved out of the realm of reform, development, growth and other such mundane, governance-linked issues. Secularism, real or pseudo, sounds much more like an election slogan than better governance.We now face the prospect of our politics receding into the 1989-90 phase of stagnation when we kept on fighting over mandir and Mandal while an interim government had to airlift gold reserves to prevent a sovereign default.Mercifully, given the momentum reform has given our economy over the past decade, it is unlikely that we will lapse into the old Hindu Rate of growth (2-3 per cent). The band in this phase of bankrupt politics will be 4-5 per cent[think of it as] the Hindutva Rate of Growth.

A 5 percent growth rate takes India nowhere. The latest Fortune (Asian edition, May 6, 2002 issue) has a cover story on India entitled “
India taps into the future (but can it escape it’s past?)
“. Writes Anthony Paul:

Even as India tries to catch up, it is falling further behind. In most Asian countries, the number of young adults is declining. In India the percentage of the population in the 15-to-24 age group is rising 1.6% annually.

That means the economy is headed for a rendezvous with demographic destiny: To keep all those young people employed, it will have to create no fewer than ten million jobs a year between now and 2010. In order to do that, says a recent report prepared for the government by the McKinsey Global Institute, the Indian economy needs to grow 10% a year. The best the country has managed since independence in 1947 is far short of that–7.8% in 1996 and 1997. The current level of growth, 5.4%, translates into just four million new jobs a year.

In principle, McKinsey argues, India can do it–as China, Thailand, and Malaysia have all proved. But reaching and sustaining 10% growth will require an enormous effort, starting immediately. And while a recent visit to the country turned up some reasons for optimism–an $11 billion national highway improvement program, an extraordinary display of information technology, a grassroots microeconomics movement–it also provided plenty of evidence that India won’t make it.

Fortune’s report card on India is telling: Business Climate C-, Jobs D, Productivity D, Infrastructure F, Trade C, Competitiveness C-. Only Inflation merits an A.

Incremental solutions will not do India much good. By moving at the rate we have done in the past will actually put us even further behind. Especially as compared to China.

One country India is invariably compared with is China. As of now, it is a no-contest.

TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: The Choice We Face

Indians wants to move ahead, but India doesn’t. Our politics, bureaucrats and our heritage hold us back even as the people want a better life. This has been the story of the past half-century. What will it take for us to become an economic success? I will argue that Indians need to forget (or at least try and ignore) the bottlenecks and pain points that we face, look beyond just IT services, and think into the future, using technology and grassroots entrepreneurship to drive us forward. It may be seemingly impossible, but as we will see, a number of technological developments are opening up very interesting opportunities. We can either sit back and accept or curse our present, or whole-heartedly embrace the challenge to build the future.

Just because we are in India does not mean we are in anyway less intelligent than people in the developed markets like US, Western Europe or Japan. Being in India is no excuse for being second-class. The battle for the future is a battle of ideas, a battle of wits, a battle of vision. We have to play against the world’s best and win.

As companies and entrepreneurs based in India, we have to make a choice. We can be kings of neighbourhood living happily ever after. Or we can take on the Goliaths of the world using knowledge as our competitive advantage. Yes, we will have far less resources than the world’s big companies (or even the smaller companies in the developed markets) have. But if we are willing to think through a vision of tomorrow and work determinedly towards inventing that future, the India of tomorrow will be one in which our future generations can live happily – provided we are willing to put in the efforts now.

As entrepreneurs and companies out of India, we may have limited money, resources and branding. But there is one resource which can help not just level the playing field but also be our source of strength. The Internet has made available in near real-time a vast pool of information ores which can be refined by us into knowledge and insights – if we are willing to put in the efforts.

The stage of competition is not limited by national boundaries. We may be in India but it should not make a difference. Many of us have the option of being anywhere we choose. We have made India our home and base – either out of our own free will or due to some pressures. But once the choice is made, let’s put that behind us. The chess game that we are embarking on is in a global theatre. There are few prizes for being also-rans. We have to use our intelligence, our knowledge, our clusters to outmaneuver, outthink and outsmart our competitors.

The coming columns will explore various technologies and the new future that is being created. Embedded in the whitespaces are the next set of opportunities. The next Intel, the next Microsoft can come from India – if we believe it can.

We will start our journey with a look first at where India stands today.

TECH TALK: The Digital Divide: Tech 7-11s, Digital Dividend

7. Tech “7-11s”

As we have seen over the past few columns, technology can definitely help in bridging the digital divide through the right mix of computing and communications. Technology needs to become, to borrow a phrase from IBM, “the next utility” for the people and enterprises on the wrong side of the digital divide. The distribution point for this tech utility needs to be in every neighbourhood and industrial cluster.

Think of these hubs as the equivalent of tech “7-11s”. The 7-11 (which stands for 7 am to 11 pm – the store timings) chain of stores dot many of Asia’s cities. Most of what families need for their daily consumption is available at these stores. They are a part of life.

The tech “7-11s” can serve multiple purposes. They can showcase the technologies which can make a difference for the masses, serve as retail outlets, help in installation and training for customers, host a digital hubs for Wi-Fi data networks, provide an Internet access centre, serve as a physical world meeting place for entrepreneurs in the neighbourhood to share and learn, and perhaps even a “MicroBank” (in the context of offering MicroFinance).

Digital Dividend

Says R Ramaraj, CEO of Satyam Infoway:

Digital technology is not a luxury item. It is not necessarily a “Rolls Royce” solution. It is the key that opens the door to the knowledge economy. It gives even the under-privileged an opportunity to participate in the new economy of the 21st century.

“Bridging the digital divide” does not mean guaranteeing equal access to every new technological development. At the same time, it means more than just bringing Internet connectivity to a few selected “model” villages and classrooms. The global effort underway among governments, businesses, and NGOs to bridge the digital divide isn’t about distributing sophisticated technology to the disadvantaged; it’s about expanding access to information and communication technologies to promote social and economic development.

To bridge the digital divide with effective, practical applications of technology, three elements are crucial: entrepreneurship, government policy encouraging and supporting equity, and ground level programs with local community participation.

As one of the farmers in Warna (Maharashtra) says, if we do the groundwork today, our grandchildren will not able to imagine life without tools such as computers and the Internet. We should probably think of it as our investment in their future.

Solutions that bridge the world’s digital divides (across countries, their people and companies) offer the next set of opportunities. An amazing array of technologies lie in front of us. The question is how can we put them together to create “digital delight” across the “digital divide” and thus reap the “digital dividend.”

TECH TALK: The Digital Divide: MicroFinance

Bridging the digital divide has to be a bottom-up effort. It has to be powered by innovative entrepreneurs – of whom there is no shortage in the world’s emerging markets. What these entrepreneurs need is, among other things, some capital to help bootstrap or grow their business. Bank loans can be onerous and time-consuming, besides being out-of-reach of small entrepreneurs who have no collateral. This is where MicroFinance comes in.

Organisations like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank and Bolivia’s Banco Solidario have helped provide finance to millions of entrepreneurs. Writes Professor Robert Kennedy in a Harvard Business School case study on Banco Solidario (February 18, 2002):

The term microfinance (also microcredit) is used to refer to the provision of financial services to low-income people and entrepreneurs, many of whom work in the informal sector. Informal sector workers have traditionally been cut off banks for both social and economic reasons. They generally have no formal employment status or documented salary, lack formal title to property for use as collateral, and have small credit needs and low savings generation.

These factors make serving the informal sector expensive and lead to the perception that the risk of doing so is high. Informal workers do, however, have financing needs, which are often met by informal lenders (either vendors or loan sharks) who make short-term loans at high weekly rates. Microfinance institutions aim to provide a more effective and institutionalized solution for the informal sector.

Here’s an example of how it works (Alkman Granitsas and Deidre Sheehan writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review,

in an article on MicroCredit entitled “Grassroots Capitalism”, July 12, 2001):

Grameen-style banks demand a sort of “social collateral”–in effect, peer pressure. It works like this: Each of the women (most microloans are only made to women) is tied to four others in her lending circle. The first loan is made to one woman, but all five members of the group are collectively responsible for repaying the loan. Until the first borrower has paid back at least half of the loan, the second in line won’t get a cent, and so on. Each week, all new loans, all loan repayments and all family financial problems have to be aired at the weekly centre meetings in full view of a roomful of gossipy village women. Peer pressure and potential loss of “face” keeps repayments high.

But ironically, keeping up the peer pressure is costly. Each loan officer is responsible for visiting just 200 to 300 clients every week. But some of those clients are miles apart down rutted dirt roads and where travel between villages can take the better part of a day. And with no mechanical aids, each and every transaction must be laboriously copied and recopied by hand in ledger books.

With loans of just $150 a piece on average and interest earnings of just a few cents a week, administrative costs can eat up as much as one third of the total value of the loan. In effect, microlenders are operating with a cost structure more closely related to private banking than general retail banking. So although the loans are profitable, the incremental profits are so small that it usually takes over 10 years for the microlender to grow to sufficient critical mass and break even.

Perhaps, some of the innovative tech solutions we have discussed here can help MicroFinance by connecting borrowers and lenders.

TECH TALK: The Digital Divide: Software

4. Software

The USD 100 Desktop Computer in a thin client-thick server configuration provide the computing base to help proliferate technology much beyond the numbers we have seen in the past 25 years. In the past quarter century, coinciding with the dominance of Microsoft in software, the installed computer has gone from nearly nothing to 500 million. There is an opportunity of a similar magnitude in the next 7-10 years: to build the software platform for the next 500 million computers which will be adopted by people and organisations living and serving the other side of the digital divide.

This software platform cannot cost hundreds of dollars for software. The result at these price points is there in front of us: large-scale piracy which hinders the incentive for software makers to targets these markets. Software has to be thought bottom-up in an innovative manner which that the entire suite of applications is available for no more than USD 5 (Rs 250) per person per month. This calls for an organisation to investing the equivalent of Rs 10 per business day on each of its employees for software. They will do so if they can see the productivity improvements at least yielding them that much benefit per day. Thought of in this manner, software becomes much more of a utility than an IT accessory.

To achieve these price points, software will need to be built on an open source platform, but with incentives for developers to spend time localising and customizing applications for the needs of their markets. The building blocks already exist: Linux as the operating system, KDE and Gnome as the graphical user interfaces, Mozilla as the email client and Web browser, Jabber for instant messaging, OpenOffice (which has served as the base for Star Office – Sun will soon be charging USD 100 for Star Office) for the suite of desktop productivity applications (including a word processor, a spreadsheet and presentation software) and Apache as the web server. What is needed is for software developers to build “Lego-like” on top of these applications and contribute their work back to the open source community, strengthening and extending the base.

Software applications for bridging the digital divide will need to support local languages and voice input/output. In India itself, there are over fifteen languages in use. Technology must connect to the people in their language. Voice becomes important because the keyboard may not always be the best mode of input, especially given the complexities of some of the languages. With a limited vocabulary, it should be possible to make voice recognition work well to interact with a much larger mass of people than just English can enable.