Bus. Std: The ADAM and EVE of Computing

My latest column in Business Standard:

A recent cover story entitled The Digital Village in the Asian edition of Business Week (June 28, 2004) showcased how technology is helping India fight poverty. The magazine said in an editorial: A fascinating technology revolution is underway in India. No, were not just talking about [Indias] success in software and outsourcing work. Rather, it involves an explosion of projects that are making creative use of technology to deliver basic goods and services to Indias 700 million poor, most of which live in isolated villagesBy promoting local innovation and entrepreneurialism, the tech-for-the-masses movement could not only stimulate economic development in the countryside but also help find the key to turning the worlds poor into the next major source of global growth.

Rural India is just one of the segments in India that can be transformed by entrepreneurship and innovation. There is a lot about India that needs to change right from the way we deliver education to hundreds of millions of children to how we can automate millions of businesses to how we can find information about what is happening in our neighbourhood. Indias digital infrastructure needs to be built in a hurry to make up for the lost time. Many technology revolutions are being compressed in the space of a few years creating an amazing array of opportunities for entrepreneurs, provided they are willing to look at the market within.

One of the primary challenges that we face is making computing a utility, by bringing down the cost of usage to that of a cellphone. We need to provide access to a connected computer accessible to every family, employee and student in India. How can we do it?

To start thinking about possible solutions, there are four challenges that need to be addressed simultaneously. Think of them as the ADAM of computing affordability, desirability, accessibility and manageability.

Affordability: The existing solution, created by and for people with very high incomes, is too costly for most people in developing countries. While hardware costs have dramatically and monotonically declined over time, software has become more expensive to own and manage. Consequently, the total cost of ownership of computing solutions is still very high. (Piracy is a commonly used workaround when it comes to software. But most have to take the non-consumption route when even the pirated software plus the hardware costs exceed their budgets.)

Desirability: The utility of computers derives primarily from the services that it provides users. Even if the total package of hardware and software was affordable, people will not buy unless the services they derived from the computer were relevant to their lives. Furthermore, while the utility of computers is a necessary condition for their widespread adoption, it is not sufficient. People have to be knowledgeable about the utility of computing.

Accessibility: Given the low per capita incomes of developing countries, only a relatively small fraction of the population can afford to own even low-cost computers. Yet a significant number of people who cannot afford to own computers can still derive benefits from having access to computing services and be able and willing to pay for these.

Manageability: Computers require significant amounts of back-end support because of the complexity of the software. The cost and complexity of administration, support, and defense against spam, spyware and viruses act as significant deterrence to using them.

The present PC paradigm evolved 25 years ago in a world when networks barely existed. The PC, together with the Internet and cheap connectivity, has engineered the technology and productivity revolution in developed markets in the recent past. Spam, viruses, and spyware are increasing support costs, even as a saturated market for computers in the developed world is making technology companies look at emerging markets as the next big opportunity.

The issue is deeper than mere affordability; users in many of the developing countries have solved the software affordability issue by piracy. It is about building the computing ecosystem in these markets which brings utility and value of technology to daily life. The question then is: what is the new computing architecture that can leverage the availability of broadband communications networks and dramatically reduce the prices so that technology becomes more relevant, affordable, desirable, and accessible to the next generation of users?

To make computing a utility for emerging markets, there are many possibilities. Could the cellphone be the computer? Can we create an architecture around thin clients and server-centric computing? Can there be neighbourhood computing centres just like STD/ICO booths? Whatever be the solution, we need EVE to tackle ADAM a combination of Entrepreneurship, Venture capital and E(i)nnovation.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.