Bus. Std: Say Hello to the Always-On World

My recent column in Business Standard:

Imagine a world where access to networks is the norm and not the exception, where information is available and notified in real time, where people are reachable independent of their location, and where objects can talk to other objects. This is a world where pervasive wireless networks create an atmospheric layer of connectedness between people, computers and things. This is the always-on world. It is a world that is being born, creating new applications and opportunities.

The 1980s saw the computing revolution, while the 1990s saw the communications revolution – in the form of mobile telephony and the internet. This decade is seeing it all merge into an IP-based wireless and broadband revolution. The cellphones have greater power than the early personal computers, and computers are coming with in-built wireless connectivity. Even as wireless and the ethernet are combining to provide high-speed access to homes and offices in the coming months, optical fibre networks provide the backbone to connect networks.

India, too, is starting to see the first glimpses of the always-on world. Telcos have started offering always-on, narrowband internet connectivity at fixed, affordable prices. Code division multiple access and general radio packet switching cellphones offer internet access. Service providers are setting up Wi-Fi hotspots and broadband-enabled cybercafes. Computer prices are falling, driven by a reduction in levies and increased competition. This year will see India add over 30 million cellphones and four million computers. Low-cost “thin” computers have the potential to accelerate the penetration of computing even more. The lack of a legacy installed base means that India can leapfrog directly to the always-on world. The availability of networks and access devices is helping to create the infrastructure for the always-on world.

What is missing is the content and applications that can take advantage of this ubiquitous platform. This development in India has so far been hobbled by the lack of a delivery infrastructure and the limited access device base. Suddenly, these limitations of the past are disappearing. What application developers and service providers can expect in the always-on world is a computing and communications platform that is real time, affordable and everywhere. Here are a few examples of solutions that can be created for the new, emerging world:

Connected homes: Low-cost terminals can be used to offer e-mail, chat, local information and limited transactions (bill payments, ticketing) for lower middle-class homes, for which the PC may still be too expensive. Services for tiny businesses: Small shops and neighbourhood stores can be provided networked terminals for providing updates on sales and inventory levels to wholesalers, and doing their accounting electronically. This can help bring down inventory costs across the value chain.

Sales force automation for SMEs: The mobile workforce in small and medium-sized enterprises can be given wireless-enabled handheld devices which can be used for real-time sales management.

Logistics and distribution for large enterprises: There is a need for fleet management applications to track trucks and other delivery vehicles as they move across the country. In the coming years, technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID) will enable individual items also to be tracked as they move across the value chain.

IT for education: With the increasing focus on universal primary education, schools can be given graphical terminals with a server for computer and computer-enabled education. Multimedia content can be created by the best teachers and distributed through the network to schools.

Today’s interactions on the web are in the form of request-response – we type the address of a website (or click on a link), and then are taken to the destination page (or website). We need to drive the interaction. What always-on infrastructure does is create the base for the publish-subscribe-web (PubSubWeb).

The PubSubWeb makes possible a new class of information that has the following four attributes:

  • It is frequently updated (as opposed to being static)
  • It needs to be repeatedly distributed to a continuously interested set of entities (as opposed to one-off, need-based access)
  • It is incrementally accessed (as opposed to getting the complete chunk and figuring out what has changed)
  • It needs to be “pushed” in real time (as opposed to demand-driven “pull”).

    In essence, the PubSubWeb establishes an information stream between information producers (publishers) and consumers (subscribers), making possible a whole range of new applications and services. For example, cricket updates, stock quotes, news alerts can be streamed to interested users in the form of microcontent – just the relevant and incremental snippet that has changed, rather than full pages with a lot of redundant information. On the PubSubWeb, information is syndicated by publishers and subscribed to by users. Weblogs and news aggregators are a good example of what the PubSubWeb makes possible. When a weblog is updated, it notifies a central server of its update, which in turn alerts users who have subscribed to receive the updates. Special software (news aggregators) can now go to the weblog, pick up an XML file, parse it, and make the incremental updates available to readers. This process eliminates the need for readers to keep scanning websites to see what content has changed.

    Just as HTML powered the request-response web, rich site summary (RSS) will power the PubSubWeb. Think of the PubSubWeb as the next upgrade to the web as we know it today. It is made possible by the always-on infrastructure that is being constructed. The tools and building blocks for the PubSubWeb exist. What is needed is for service providers to aggregate these tools and integrate them in a seamless manner to build a complete information and events refinery.

    The always-on world will thus bring forth new innovations. It is an idea whose time has come.

  • Published by

    Rajesh Jain

    An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.