Recently, a friend asked me a seemingly simple question: if I had to recreate the likes of the sites I had created during 1995-7 (IndiaWorld, Khoj, Khel, Samachar and Bawarchi), how would I do them? Would I follow the same approach I did back then, or would I look at different formats?
It was a question that made me think, and I realised that much of the Indian portal and content space has remained almost unchanged in the past 5-6 years. The home pages of the popular portals are almost the same. If anything, there is less to read now because of the increasing number of ads. More importantly, the way content is packaged has not changed, even as newer technologies in the information and communications space are making their advent. In fact, if one starts looking at the world of tomorrow rather than using the technologies of yesterday, there is a need for Indian portals to evolve in the way they present their services and the way they interact with their users.
The world of 1997 is different from the world of 2004 in many ways. For example, there are 25 million new cellphone users now, even as the computer users have comparatively gone up by only a bitto about 10 million. Many of the newer generation cellphones also allow web browsing. Telecom costs have fallen and always-on connections (albeit narrowband in most cases) are no longer a pipe dream. Google has become the de facto way how we surf not just search the Web. New technologies like RSS are making content syndication possible and easy. Weblogs have made writing easy. Social networking websites are creating a buzz as they help connect people through the strength of weak ties.
And yet, little has changed. Email, search and chat remain the primary drivers for our Internet usage. The browser that has become our window to the world remains frozen in time. We still have to go to the web pages that we want to visit. The look-and-feel of most web pages has remained almost the same over the years. Personalisation is still talked about, and other than My Yahoo, is barely used. Even the favourite sites that we visit have remained just about constant, as investment in dotcoms and the web has slowed in the past few years. Advertisers are few and far between. Things seem to be in an equilibrium everyone waiting for something magical to happen.
Of course, we went through a tidal wave of innovation during 1999-2000 as websites on every conceivable topic were launched. Without a sustainable business model (consumers resisting paying for content, and advertisers still unwilling to join the party), most shut down or are operating at subsistence levels, waiting for a future boom. The Internet is there in front of us, but has not yet become the utility in India that it should have.
It is time for us to rethink the Indian content space. As telecom competition makes connectivity cheaper and available at higher speeds, as the cost of access devices goes down, there will be a need for innovative content and community services which can bring the fizz back. Ready for version 2.0 (or is it 3.0) of the Indian dotcoms or have we already gone to sleep?
Tomorrow: The Changing Digital Infrastructure