East Asia Trip Update

A few thoughts from my recent visit to Hong Kong, Beijing and Bangkok, and meetings with companies. Much of the discussion relates to the Thin Client-Thick Server product that we’ve been working on. Overall, I think we are definitely on the right track with the TC-TS and other Emergic ideas. Need to now sustain the development and productisation, and take it to customers within India and outside.

1. Need to be able to give a demo on a single notebook: “seeing is believing”. If not a single book, I should be able to make my notebook the TS and use one of their clients as a TC (ie, make the bootup floppy and do the configuration, even connecting both to a hub). We should be able to set this up in no more than 10-15 minutes.

2. Productisation of TC-TS is very important. We need to do this my mid-September — be able to send a set of CDs with documentation.

3. We need to get some beta customers and then some paying customers: this increases everyone’s confidence that we have a “commercial” proposition, rather than just an interesting tool.

4. What people find very interesting (and which they havent thought of) is the idea of using old PCs. It also means we need to figure out the second hand PC supply chain, to ensure a stable supply.

5. I am becoming inclined towards a “utility” type pricing option – a subscription price for hardware and software combined. We will also offer the software separately, but the customer should see a solution, and not have to buy hardware and software separately. This needs more thought.

6. 802.11b (Wireless LAN) is the way we need to offer connectivity. Wiring up with cables can get quite expensive. WLAN cards are dropping in prices – available at USD 40-50, with access point for about USD 125-150 (or even less). Expected to go down further. This also means we need to optimise our solution to work well on a 10 Mbps connectivity and not 100 Mbps since 802,11b works at 11 Mbps. Later, we need to get the speed requirement down to 1 Mbps for cable connectivity (especially if we target the residential market).

7. Think: what if Microsoft makes Windows free for developing markets, and/or reduces the price of MS-Office. From my point, our solution does 3 things: (a) reduce hardware price needed (b) reduce software price (c) increase manageability. There is no equivalent solution which does all three things.

8. Need to see if we can use TVs as display. Can we modify the TV output stream (for video) so we can do better than the 640×480 fuzzy display? TVs are there everywhere, and this saves the price of a monitor in some segments.

9. The User Interface has to become better. We should learn from the Mac OS X interface.

10. What is going to be our business model? How are we going to sell/distirbute the TC-TS?

11. We could even talk later to some CPU companies (eg. Intel XScale, Via) for making custom motherboards for TCs based on their chips.

12. We should also look at an interim “Boot-off-the-CD” TC, since this can help reduce the traffic flow across the Network.

13. Blogs are still an unknown quantity. But I think they will become critical for knowledge sharing in the coming months. Ray Ozzie (Lotus Notes creator and now CEO of Groove) has been blogging a lot on these areas recently. His mantra: OHIO – Only Handle Information Once. Thats the philosophy we need to use for our Digital Dashboard and Eneterprise Software.

14. To do business in China, we must know Chinese language (read, write and speak).

On a lighter note, did do some sightseeing: Great Wall and Forbidden City. I found both somewhat underwhelming. One thought that struck me: The Chinese emperors seemed to leave a lot less ostentatiously than our local Maharajas! In fact, I think India has a lot more attractions that greater depth and variety but we have just not leveraged our heritage enough, as compared to the East Asian countries.

Trellix Web Express

Dan Bricklin writes on Trellix Web Express (TWE), which is a “a system that is private labeled by others to provide integrated authoring and web site hosting.” Trellix just added blogging support to their core web authoring platform. Bricklin explains how their platform works:

TWE is run on behalf of particular service providers (e.g., CNET). Once signed up as one of their customers/members, you can enter the TWE environment using your browser. TWE runs on servers, just like web-based email. It publishes web sites that are served by (or on behalf of) the same service providers. If those service providers license Trellix Blogging (we are not announcing who yet), then when you click on “Create a Web Site”, you are given the option of clicking on “Choose the weblog template”. You then choose a “design” (the look of the web site) or accept the one proposed. You are then presented with an editing page, with the home page of the new, unpublished web site showing. At various places on the page there are “Edit” buttons next to template text and images, and there is a toolbar of other buttons like “Add Page”, “Add Text”, “Add Image”, etc., on the bottom. With a blog, there is one other button on the screen, right above your posts: “Post to blog”. To make your first post, you click on that button, type what you’d like to say into a text box, and then press “Done” or “Done and Publish”. That’s it. When looking at a page in the editor, you can always use the “Change Look” button to switch to a different canned look or to change background colors and images, add logos to each page, change default fonts, etc. The next time you want to add another post, you just log into the system, and press the “Post to blog” button next to the first page that comes up, type your post, and the press “Done and Publish”. All of this is pretty much as easy to use as web-based email.”

He adds: “Here we have a full-fledged web site creation tool, one that regular people can use to easily create customized multi-page web sites without any knowledge of HTML, that now has blogging built-in. Blogging (adding posts with date/time stamps, doing archives and permanent links, etc.) will now be as native to TWE as adding text or images to a web page. Or, viewed another way, here we have a blogging tool with web site creation built-in. If you want to add a page telling your readers who you are, or one with an essay to further make a point, you can. And you can do it without learning and setting up another tool.”

WiFi: 1994 deja vu

From SiliconValley.com on WiFi:

A technology originally developed to link PCs in small, wireless clusters is spurring grassroots efforts to create Internet “clouds” that could eventually bypass the networks of big telecommunications providers.

So far, the greatest buzz over WiFi, or Wireless Fidelity, has surrounded the sharing of connectivity among neighbors, friends and strangers.

But the inexpensive technology, known scientifically as 802.11b, may be destined for something much bigger. Users are expanding homegrown networks with little or no control from the local phone or cable company.

Wireless clouds could support a new generation of technology, from always-on portable phones and handheld computers to futuristic sensors that could continually update weather or smog conditions, for instance.

Coverage remains limited today, a far cry from what is offered by cable, phone and cellular companies. WiFi is still mostly used to provide Internet to laptops and desktops in homes and offices as well as airports, hotel lobbies and coffee shops.

But advocates say WiFi’s organic growth, low cost and simplicity bodes well for future development. And while current wireless equipment extends DSL or cable Internet service to several hundred feet, the range can grow to a dozen miles or more with the addition of a stronger antenna.

The real potential lies in using WiFi for wide-area network coverage, going beyond its LAN scope. This is great for emerging markets who can now build a high-speed, pervasive network infrastructure, bottom-up.

Microsoft CRM Strategy

Technologyevaluation.com writes on Microsoft CRM and enterprise applications strategy: “MS CRM products functionality includes basic contact management (interaction and opportunity) as part of Sales Force Automation (SFA), simple e-mail based marketing campaign tools, and call management (customer service ticket queues) with a basic customer service knowledge base, content authoring and approval workflow. These features are what the targeted customers likely need at this stage. An affordable, no-frills out-of-the-box application with minimal implementation risk and innate integration to MS Outlook, web browsers, and MS Exchange will likely strike a chord with this market segment.”

Good set of starting ideas for our eBusiness suite.

Sun, Linux and the Desktop

Sun aiming new line at several targets — including Microsoft, writes Dan Gillmor:

By many reckonings, no major technology company is more threatened by the free software operating system than Sun itself, because what had been low-end, Intel-based Linux computers are moving steadily up the computing food chain as computing power grows.

Sun’s bow to that reality has taken several forms, including low-cost server computers based on the company’s own Sparc microprocessors and Solaris operating system. More recently, Sun bought a Silicon Valley company that was selling cheap servers running Linux. And this week, it introduced a new line of Intel-based servers running Linux.

Sun is aiming at several targets with this line. One, of course, is Microsoft’s server operating systems. Another is Dell Computer, which primarily sells hardware running Windows and has pushed hard into the server marketplace.

Now it looks like Sun is planning a move even further down-market — well beyond installing Linux on some desktop computers inside the company.

What are Sun’s competitive advantages in such a market? Well, it already knows hardware, though as McNealy noted, Sun, like other companies selling Intel-compatible computers, buys assembled machines from Asian contract manufacturers.

Sun also has a soup-to-nuts software offering for customers who are looking for technology that handles basic office chores such as word processing, e-mail, Web browsing and number-crunching. Maybe the operating system would be Solaris, maybe Linux, maybe a choice as with the new server machines.

Interesting strategies from Sun, but I don’t think they have an option. Actually, Sun should be focusing on the Rest of the World with Linux and its hardware expertise (think Thin Clients), but they still want to try and win the market closest to (their) home.

In fact, we should perhaps look at ideas from Sun and Apple as we focus on the TC-TS solution. Both bundle hardware and software. That is what we will probably need to do. The debate within me goes on!

Freeman Dyson

Writes Salon:

Freeman Dyson loves the metaphor that divides scientists into two groups: Birds, who look down upon everything and have a God’s-eye view of the world, and frogs, who spend their time in the mud. The renowned Princeton physicist calls himself a frog. “I’m not against the first group, but they take an exalted view of science. Frogs typically enjoy exploring things locally and developing skills.”

The brilliant frog has spent his lifetime developing skills in disciplines ranging from nuclear engineering to science writing. But he is probably better known to the digerati as the father of computer consultant extraordinaire Esther Dyson. Nonetheless, the slightly built Freeman Dyson is a giant among scientists, largely due to his talents as a writer.

In making his observations, he thinks with his heart and hands, qualities he values as an essential part of sound scientific inquiry. This thinking is also an essential part of art. So it is no surprise that Dyson equates scientific inquiry with craftsmanship. Perhaps this is the self-styled frog’s greatest legacy: to be down in the mud, engaging in the tactility of life as a human who happens to be a scientist.

[Thanks to Arun Katiyar for the link.]

TECH TALK: Tech’s 10X Tsunamis: Tech Utility: At Your Service

Technology as a utility has different connotations depending on where one is. In the developed world, it takes the form of grid computing. In the emerging markets, it means making technology affordable by pricing it on a monthly installments basis. In both cases, the common aspect is the way technology is viewed: as something which is always available, just like electricity.

Grid Computing

First, let us take a look at grid computing. Ryan Rhodes, writing in eServer Magazine (June 2002), puts the concept in perspective:

Rather than countless PCs sharing tasks, imagine a large cluster of mainframes and other servers acting as a single integrated computing system that can be accessed by home- or business-based PCs. Beyond simply sharing files and information, users can access an extensive grid of high-end enterprise computers via the Internet, using idle compute cycles to crunch massive amounts of data. Certified users could access super-computing resources, computing clusters, data-storage systems, data sources and even network with other grid users. Taking it even further, users could create entire virtual organizations with complex business processes running remotely. The only costs involved are likely to be those charged to lease grid resources.

Proponents are convinced that grid computing will be the next logical evolution of the Internet, in essence, bringing the power of mainframes to the masses. According to Anne MacFarland of The Clipper Group, Inc., Today we price systems based on things like processors and disk capacity. Grid computing begs the evolution of a new unit price for computing that can dynamically respond to the users ability to solicit bids for the best computing rates. This, in turn, will allow enterprises to rethink what is done with in-house systems.

Adds The Mind Electric, which develops software for service-oriented architectures, about how grid computing is likely to evolve:

Grid computing platforms operate in a similar manner to the National electricity grid, transparently connecting producers and consumers of services while shielding them from issues like fail over, load balancing and clustering.
In the past, grid-computing platforms were positioned primarily as a way to make use of spare CPU cycles. But now that web services have become popular, they are rapidly becoming viewed as a promising architecture for supporting large-scale service-oriented architectures. IBM’s new CEO, Sam Palmisamo, recently said, “the grid is the ultimate method whereby you can establish this seamless, open standard computing model”.

When a consumer wants a service, a Grid can quickly locate one or more services of the specified type. In addition, if a particular service fails, the Grid will automatically reconnect the consumer to an equivalent service.

Grids are equally well suited for connecting producers and consumers of data. When a consumer wants a particular kind of data, it can perform a query and obtain the location of one or more matches. If there is heavy demand for a specific piece of data, it is automatically replicated to other nodes on the grid.

An example of how grid computing is making technology a utility is provided by Aaron Ricadela writing in Information Week (June 17, 2002):

At Pratt Whitney, the calculus that shapes decisions can get pretty precise. The $7.7 billion aerospace-engineering division of the manufacturing conglomerate United Technologies Corp. employs hundreds of engineers to run complex computations that simulate airflow through jet engines and test stress on materials. Pete Bradley, the company’s associate fellow for high-intensity computing, isn’t about to ask his team to line up to access centralized computers. Instead, engineers solve problems on deadline by running jobs on a computational “grid” comprising 8,000 computer chips inside 5,000 workstations across three cities. “We no longer talk about things like, ‘We saved X number of dollars’–it’s just part of our business,” Bradley says. “We couldn’t live without it.”

We cannot live without it. That is what a Utility is. That is what Technology is set to become.

Tomorrow: Tech Utility (continued)