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.

Ideal Social Networking Site

Christopher makes his wish: “My ideal service would have the the multiple professional affiliation features of LinkedIn, but also allow me to show non-professional affilations. It would allow me to form intentional communities like Tribes.Net, but would also let me do a Wiki in addition to a message board. It would have meeting/party invite services like eVite, and blogging features like LiveJournal. It would have an endorsement system like LinkedIn integrated not only with professional endorsements, but personal endorsements as well, and you could even endorse intentional communities. It would let me better map and control my network, giving different friends different privileges. It would handle the release of my personal information like Ryse, but less clunky.”

Online News in 2003-4

Mark Glaser (OJR) looks back and forward:

2003 offered up much more than just an unhealthy fascination with blogs. We also obsessed over the proliferation of people with camera phones breaking spot news stories; the rise of Google and Google News; the soap opera at (AOL) Time Warner; the continued inroads of paid content; RSS feeds; massive online coverage of the war in Iraq; viruses, worms and spam overwhelming newsrooms; the struggle for independent news in Zimbabwe, China, Iran and Iraq; and political rhetoric and election coverage.

[In 2004], I’d say we will see an acceleration of many of these trends as online publications start to gain more solid financial footing. The watchwords for the industry are “cautious optimism.”

With the U.S. presidential election front and center for so much of 2004, and the Olympics, expect the three-ring circus that is online media to get more raucous and rowdy — but perhaps it will mature as well.

Among some of the things to expect in 2004:
– A continued explosion in blogging
– Net influences politics
– Participatory journalism
– Real Simple Syndication feeds
– Better content — at a price

Thin Clients for Security

News.com recently had a commentary by Philip Brittan of Droplets, who argues for server-centric computing:

Some experts say the roots of our current security plague lie in the fact that are we living in a Microsoft monoculture. Yet there is a more fundamental problem: There is simply too much to attack.

The desktop computing model is just asking for infection, and trying to inoculate each PC with patches is like trying to cure a flu outbreak by offering individual doses of medicine after it’s too late.

Servers, on the other hand, operate in highly managed environments and are much easier to protect than desktop PCs. If a server is infected, it can simply be taken offline, blocking a virus’s ability to replicate without affecting the operation of the enterprise.

All this points to a need to reverse the conditions that have turned desktop PCs into veritable breeding grounds for computer viruses and worms. The nutrients are program code on the client machines. All applications should be executed on secure servers and merely have their user interfaces displayed on the desktops. That would leave nothing for viruses to attack on the desktop, which makes them less destructive to users and far less able to propagate.

Mozilla as Platform

Linux News writes:

With user clients like e-mailers, HTML composers, calenders, debuggers, chat applications and address books, Mozilla must be far more than just a Web browser. And it is. The Mozilla Browser is built on top of the Mozilla Platform.

The Mozilla Platform itself is a set of programmable objects and XML processors bound together into a single program. Applications that exploit this platform consist of images, XML and text files that are interpreted at runtime when the platform starts.

Continue reading Mozilla as Platform

TECH TALK: 2003-04: The World in 2004

Besides the ongoing trends that we have discussed, there are a few additional themes which will be seen in 2004:

Smart Mobs: Two of the worlds largest democracies go to the polls in 2004, and in both elections, technology is likely to play an important role. In the US, Howard Dean has already shown how the Internet can be used to garner political and financial support from the grassroots. In India, the media is coming of age in reporting news and events. The rapid cellphone boom is also likely to impact how electioneering is done. This is part of a trend that Howard Rheingold has termed as smart mobs think of them as individuals empowered with technology can start harnessing the power of the collective.

Tech IPOs: After a hiatus of three years, the technology companies are getting ready to hit the market. Salesforce has just filed its prospectus, while Google is presumed to be getting ready to do so soon. Three years of a holding pattern among entrepreneurs and venture capitalists after the boom and boost of the dotcom era is now giving way to optimism that tech is ready to take-off again on the markets. The IPOs will be followed by predatory activity as the companies flush with cash seek to consolidate, and that will once again fuel investment in start-ups. Hopefully, the lessons of the past will not be forgotten.

SME Solutions: As most of the worlds larger companies have invested in technology over the past decade, the small- and medium-sized enterprises have lagged behind. For one, they found the solutions quite expensive. For another, they are less easier to reach and in a world where the big companies had been liberal with their IT spend, the smaller brethren were all but ignored. In addition, enterprises are realising that their real-time information systems are only as good as the weakest link in the chain. So, now, the race is on to target SMEs with affordable technology solutions. From Microsoft to SAP to IBM, the focus is now on making SMEs intelligent, real-time and event-driven.

Visualisation Software: Even as the information we need to process has multiplied manifold in the past few years, the screen real estate, our attention span and our faculties have not changed significantly. 2004 will see an increasing focus on software which can help us envision and interact better with information. The start of the year sees Grokker, a solution from Groxis, becoming available to provide better insights into the search results from Google. Expect more such innovations as companies seek to add an additional dimension to the data that we see and process.

Two other related technology areas which will continue to garner attention are biotechnology and nanotechnology. 2004 will see a closer integration between those with mainstream information technology. The sciences of life and the small will merge with that of bits and bytes to create even greater insights and innovations. If there is one defining trend for tomorrows innovations, it is that one needs to look at the whitespaces and intersections between technologies. Digitisation is breaking down barriers between industries, competition and countries. The world of Networks is at hand.

Tomorrow: India in 2004

Continue reading TECH TALK: 2003-04: The World in 2004

Open-Source Development Model

Brad DeLong has a thought-provoking quote from a forthcoming book by Steven Weber on open-source software: “Ever since the invention of agriculture, human beings have had only three social-engineering tools for organizing any large-scale division of labor: markets (and the carrots of material benefits they offer), hierarchies (and the sticks of punishment they impose), and charisma (and the promises of rapture they offer). Now there is the possibility of a fourth mode of effective social organization–one that we perhaps see in embryo in the creation and maintenance of open-source software.”

An earlier post features a longer commentary from a paper by Weber.

How People are using Camera Phones

Textually lists out some examples:

– Women have been taking shots of clothing items in stores, then e-mailing them to friends for instant advice on whether they should buy.

– At concerts, instead of using lighters, fans raise their cell phones, and snap away – despite the standard ban on cameras – and hold them up so their buddy at home can hear, something referred to as a “cellcert”.

– People have been taking pictures of washing machines or plumbing fixtures that need repairing, then sending them off to the repairman so he’ll bring the right parts.

– Camera phones have been used by real estate agents enabling them to forward pictures to prospective buyers, giving a speedy edge in a competite market.

One can see a new culture emerging…

India’s Dutch Disease?

Atanu Dey explains what Dutch Disease is (quoting from a website):

In 1959 a large reservoir of natural gas was discovered in the Netherlands, which by 1976 earned that country revenues of some $2 billion in addition to an estimated $3.5 billion of savings in imports. By the mid 1970s, gross corporate investment had fallen by 15% since the start of the decade, while employment in manufacturing had declined by 16%. The total level of unemployment had risen from a modest 1.1% to 5.1%, while the share of profits in national income which had averaged 16.8% in the 1960s had fallen to 3.5% in the first half of the 1970s. While the first oil crisis had a devastating effect on most of the western industrial base, why did The Netherlands, with its new-found fortune in natural gas, fare worse than most?
This process of de-industrialisation of the existing manufacturing base was attributed to the upward pressure that the energy discovery placed on the Guilder and the wage rate, and was dubbed the Dutch Disease. Since then, the term’s use has widened considerably to encompass any situation whereby a country’s apparent good economic fortune ultimately proves to have a net detrimental effect.

..and wonders if India could suffer from it: “India is a two-sector economy: the urban educated sector and the rural uneducated sector. The latter forms the base of the huge pyramid and toils away at a subsistence existence. The urban sector is seeing a boom what with BPO and ITES and all sorts of stuff. Policy makers, politicians, journalists, management gurus, TV reporters, and everyone and his brother are totally wrapped up in this incredible phenomenon. India, they all scream, has arrived. Having convinced themselves of that, they focus entirely on that part of the urban sector that is involved in the boom. This leads to a shocking neglect of the larger rural sector. Then when the boom runs out of steam, the country is worse off than what it would have been without the boom at all.”

I would tend to agree with Atanu. The boom that we are seeing is in pockets of India. That is a good start, but we cannot forget the 70% of India that is largely unimpacted. India needs balanced, all-round growth. Maybe in the coming year, India’s politicians will think about the rural populace since they will be voting.

Broadband Home

Wired (Chris Anderson) looks at the trends driving the broadband home of the future, and the market opportunities it is creating:

The first is the rise of digital media. What started with the audio CD has suddenly become a clean sweep: DVD players now outsell VHS players, digital camcorders outsell analog versions, digital cameras outsell film cameras, and both digital cable and digital TV are poised to pass their analog counterparts in the next few years. Except for radio (Sirius or XM users notwithstanding), odds are increasing that the entertainment media you consume is 100 percent digital.

The second trend is a natural outgrowth of digital media: the home theater phenomenon. With the arrival of the DVD and its high-quality video and sound, consumers finally had good reasons to upgrade the rest of their home entertainment system. The result is a tsunami of wide-screen TVs, surround sound audio systems, and digital media devices. Today, 30 percent of US homes have a home theater, defined by the Consumer Electronics Association as at least four-speaker surround sound and a 27-inch or bigger screen. More than 2 million projection TVs with screen sizes ranging from 40 to 80 inches (6.5 feet!) were sold in the US last year. Nearly half of American homes now have DVD players. And sales of all-in-one surround-sound systems are about to surpass even stereo audio systems.

Finally, broadband has reached critical mass in the home. With a high-speed, always-on connection came a fundamental change in the way people listen to music, play games, and watch the news. Broadcast TV viewership is in decline; young people – the all-important 18 to 34 demographic – are looking to the Internet for their entertainment. What they first consumed on their PCs in a home office or bedroom they increasingly want everywhere, from the living room to the front pocket.

Which means the wired home is emerging in any number of ways. In one house, it might be a connection from the computer to the stereo – and suddenly all those MP3 files have rendered your CD collection obsolete. In another, perhaps a PlayStation 2 or Xbox in the living room holds the lure for online play; in comes the Cat-6 Ethernet cable or the Wi-Fi network, and the foundations of a broadband entertainment center are suddenly in place. Or in a third home, TiVo passion poses an obvious question: Why can’t I watch what I’ve recorded on any TV in the house? Install a home network and you can.

This impulse, played out in millions of homes, is creating a brand-new market unlike any other.