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.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.