Seeking Explorers, Inventors, Builders and Marketers

Over the past two years or so, I have written about my ideas on affordable computing in emerging markets and creating solutions for the next users (or as Clay Christensen puts it, the non-consumers). Over the past few months, what has become clear to me is that many of the ideas did not go far enough. To making computing a utility, we need to transform every aspect of the value chain. In short, we need to reinvent computing.

Here is my vision for Emergic, our computing solution:

Emergic proposes to bring comprehensive computing services to the next few hundred million users by making computing more affordable and relevant to their lives. The solution involves a centralised server-based computing platform–a gigantic computer of sorts–which hosts a wide range of software applications and content which can be accessed by users remotely over broadband connections using very simple low-cost access devices.

Emergic is built on and around the Internet, integrating computing and communications to make computing available as a utility. Not only does Emergic make computing easy to use (no upgrades, no downtime, no viruses/spyware), it also brings the cost of computing down to that of a cellphone – about Rs 5,000( $100) upfront and Rs 600-750 ($12-15) per month (hardware, software, content, connectivity, and support).

As I see it, to reinvent computing, we need to address six challenges, fulfill five goals and enable seven revolutions:

  • Six Challenges: Affordability, Desirability, Accessibility, Manageability, Security and Ubiquity in access to computing
  • Five Goals: Solve the Six Challenges simultaneously, Make CommPuting a Utility, Enable Human-centred Computing, Integrate with Cellphones, Construct the Memex
  • Seven Revolutions: Grid, Virtual Computers, Ubiquitous Connectivity, Loosely Coupled Software, Two-way Content, Humane Interface, Tech 7-11

    By taking a holistic view of the ecosystem and building a chain of integrated innovation, it will be finally possible to fulfill the dream of making computing accessible to every family, student and employee in every corner of the world. Only then will the true promise of the computer as a means to deliver solutions and services for the next users be realised. This is where the future of computing lies. This is why computing needs to be reinvented. This is where the next technology cycle will begin. This is a transformation that will take root first in the worlds emerging markets. This is the Emergic vision.

    The time has now come to accelerate the process of building on these ideas and taking them to the marketplace. Currently, in Netcore, we are 40 of us, most of whom are currently working on our messaging and security business. In parallel, we are building new teams to work on all of the areas mentioned above. For this, we are looking for fellow travellers those who are willing to navigate not with maps but with a compass, and can also lead others in this pioneering journey. We are looking for people at all levels and across areas technical development, systems architecture design, interface design and marketing.

    We are based in Central Mumbai (Lower Parel) and at present self-funded. If you are interested in joining Netcore and being part of the Emergic team, send me an email giving a brief background about yourself and your interest areas.

  • Hiring Guidelines

    Eric Sink offers guidelines for handling tough hiring decisions in a small ISV:

    Here are ten questions to ask yourself when considering a candidate for a developer position:

    1. Can this candidate bring something to the team that nobody else has?
    2. Is this candidate constantly learning?
    3. Is this candidate aware of his/her weaknesses and comfortable discussing them?
    4. Is this candidate versatile and willing to do “whatever it takes” to help make the product successful?
    5. Is this candidate one of those “10X coders”?
    6. Does this candidate have a bachelor’s degree from a good computer science department?
    7. If this candidate has a Ph.D., is there other evidence to suggest that s/he is one of those rare people who also has “Shrinkwrap Qualities”?
    8. Does this candidate have experience on a team building shrinkwrap software?
    9. Does this candidate write good code?
    10. Does this candidate love programming so much that s/he writes code in their spare time?

    India’s Cellular Industry

    A post by Om Malik provides a nice collection of numbers (from TRAI/Morgan Stanley) with some thoughts on the slowdown that has occured recently: “Morgan Stanley points out that for India to achieve its year-end wireless subscriber forecast of 62.7 million, the required monthly rate of new subscriptions should be around 2.6 million subs. However if the demand stays at the current run rate, India will have 50 million subscribers by March 2005. One reason for slowdown is that most operators are finally going after the customer who spends more than the typical $7 a month. The slowdown is one of the reasons why Indian government decided to give telecom sector a big wet kiss in its most recent budget, despite being quite ‘socialist’ in everything else.”

    How Many Devices?

    The Real-Time column in WSJ discusses the issue:

    Your PC has already replaced a number of devices (it’s a calculator, a typewriter and will set ’em up as many times as you want to play Solitaire) but get the right software, cards and cables and it’ll do most anything else. Telephone? Check. Radio? Sure. TV? Absolutely. Stereo? It can be done. It’ll even serve as a TiVo. Why, this one box can do it all!

    But is “can” the same as “should?”

    That’s where engineers and consumers can part ways. The guys in the white coats find the idea of a single box that does everything elegant, but consumers tend not to see the need for these jack-of-all-trades boxes. Possibly that’s because they know the other half of “jack-of-all-trades” is “master of none.” Sure, you can watch TV on your PC, and there are scenarios in which you’d want to do that. (Particularly if you want to capture video and/or stills.) But watching TV is a much-better experience on an actual TV than it is on a PC, even if you have moved your PC into the living room and aren’t camped out on an office chair. The same is true of schemes for using the TV to perform PC functions — assembling a playlist of MP3s or navigating through folders of digital photos can certainly be done with a remote, but it’s easier with a keyboard and mouse.

    Then there’s the fact that replicating simple devices’ functions with a PC can be expensive. Why worry about installing a card and tweaking software drivers to make your PC act like a radio when $8 could get you a cheap radio that sits on your desk? No software drivers required, and if the mood hits, you can pick it up and take it to the beach. Back in the mid-90s, this desire to get PCs to mimic less-complex devices made us wonder if somebody out there was selling a $50 card that would let your computer behave like an abacus.

    Sure, you’re better off with a real screwdriver, wire stripper or what-have-you, but you can’t fit them all in a pocket, which is where the Swiss army knife resided, at least before Sept. 11. The Swiss army knife is a natural for situations where space is more important than specialization — and that’s a model that works for cellphones or PDAs, too. A PDA or cellphone that can serve as a radio or MP3 player could be well worth it, even if the radio isn’t as quite as easy to use and you can’t hold quite as many MP3s — after all, those other devices won’t be in your bag contributing to a shoulder injury. (Folks we know who don’t mind the mildly dorky effect of holding a PDA up to their ear to receive phone calls have already gotten this message.)

    But once you scale the “one box” proposition up to PC or TV size, the space savings offered by cramming multiple devices together aren’t worth it to most consumers, no matter the elegance or cool factor. At this scale, specialization rules — there’s a reason there’s no market for three-foot long Swiss army knives.

    Atanu Dey has an opinion:

    To my mind, a device may have various functionalities as long as there is an underlying commonality to the supporting infrastructure that the device incorporates within itself. For instance, if the various functions require digital storage, retrieval, and decoding, then aggregating these functions on the same device that has at its core a huge amount of storage is logical. So you could combine digital diary functions with MP3 functions because they both share the same underlying hardware. Now add a communications function and you have a handheld PDA which plays MP3. Camera and picture viewer also logically follow since a PDA has to have a screen and so they are shared.

    But then, an all-in-one device has the obvious disadvantage that Brian pointed out in his comment, namely, you lose the device and you are up the proverbial creek without the paddle. Well, in that case, the obvious evolution of the device is to use the device for retrival and communications alone and keep the storage function outside the device, say, on centralized servers that are unlikely to get stolen. Ultimately, if you have broadband connectivity, then you really don’t need to drag your own harddrive all over the bloody place. This has the other advantage of lower power requirements.

    Indeed, most of computing could be moved to centalized servers and all you need is a retrieval device that is not complicated at all. Think about it.

    Alan Kay on Computing

    Fortune has a discussion with one of computing’s pioneers :

    Kay is now a senior fellow at HP Labs, where he continues his work. I was talking to him recently, though, because he has just been awarded an extraordinary trio of prizessort of a triple crown of computingin honor of his many years of extraordinary breakthroughs. First, in February, he was one of four former PARC researchers to be given the nation’s top engineering awardthe Charles Stark Draper Prizeby the National Academy of Engineering. Then in April the Association for Computing Machinery gave him its Turing Award, sometimes called the “Nobel Prize of Computing.” Finally, in June, he won the annual Kyoto Prize given by the Inamori Foundation of Japan, which comes with a cash award of approximately $450,000 and aims to recognize those who not only contribute to technical progress but also to “human development.” This is a man with plenty of laurels to rest on.

    But I was struck most by how much he thinks we haven’t yet done. “We’re running on fumes technologically today,” he says. “The sad truth is that 20 years or so of commercialization have almost completely missed the point of what personal computing is about.”

    For him, computers should be tools for creativity and learning, and they are falling short. At Xerox PARC the aim of much of Kay’s research was to develop systems to aid in education. But business, instead, has been the primary user of personal computers since their invention. And business, he says, “is basically not interested in creative uses for computers.”

    If business users were less shortsighted, Kay says, they would seek to create computer models of their companies and constantly simulate potential changes. But the computers most business people use today are not suited for that. That’s because, he says, today’s PC is too dedicated to replicating earlier tools, like ink and paper. “[The PC] has a slightly better erase function but it isn’t as nice to look at as a printed thing. The chances that in the last week or year or month you’ve used the computer to simulate some interesting idea is zerobut that’s what it’s for.”

    Kay also decries what he sees as a fundamental failing of the webit is primarily an environment for displaying information, not for authoring it. “You can read a document in Microsoft Word, and write a document in Microsoft Word. But the people who did web browsers I think were too lazy to do the authoring part.”

    So what is Kay trying to build now? Nothing less than “a new way of doing objects, operating systems, and networks, that makes use of the infrastructure we already have.” Kay’s ultimate dream is to completely remake the way we communicate with each other. At the least, he wants to enable people to collaborate and work together simply and elegantly. For him, “the primary task of the Internet is to connect every person to every other person.” In techie terms, he is working on an infinitely scalable system for “real-time immersive collaboration done entirely as peer-to-peer machines.” In other words, a system by which anybody could connect to anybody else at any time without having to go through some server.

    To get a taste of what kind of world Kay thinks is possible instead, go to Squeakland.org and download a free, open-source program called Squeak. Calling it a program is probably an insult. Kay, its primary progenitor, calls it “a language, a tool, an environment primarily designed to help children and change the way learning is done.” It is a version of the Smalltalk object-oriented programming language Kay invented years agoand a relatively easy way for even kids to become programmers.

    Squeak is primarily used today to help children visualize math and science problems in a fun way, but related tools may have far more wide-ranging uses as we move toward the more interactive Internet that Kay envisions.

    I will be writing more about “Reinventing Computing” in my Tech Talk series in August.

    Alternative Energy Sources

    News.com discusses the options:

    Companies promoting solar power and other alternative-energy concepts are rapidly attracting venture funding, research grants and, just as important, the interest of many of the tech industry’s deep thinkers and influential figures.

    “We have a huge energy issue in this century, and it will not be solved by policy. The only real solution is technology,” said Jim Plummer, dean of Stanford University’s School of Engineering. “The alternative is to shut down our economy.”

    Lowell, Mass.-based Konarka Technologies, for instance, has raised $32 million from, among others, ChevronTexaco, utility company Electricite de France and venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Konarka, which counts Nobel Prize winner Alan Heeger as a founder, says it will deliver solar cells made of thin layers of plastic to its customers–large manufacturers–by the end of the year.

    In Silicon Valley, Nanosys of Palo Alto is working with Matsushita on sprayable solar coatings for roofs. Meanwhile, Nanostellar, which was founded by William Miller, CEO emeritus of SRI International, hopes to produce cleaner, cheaper catalytic converters. Other companies with alternative-energy ideas include Ocean Power Deliver (wave power); Clarke Energy (natural gas from landfills); and Bowman Power (microturbines).

    Additionally, fuel cell and battery companies such as MTI MicroFuel Cells, PolyFuel and Solicore are finding markets for their products.

    One of the alternative-energy areas drawing the most interest is a technology known as thin-film solar cells.

    Traditional solar cells–the hardware used for solar energy in decades past–are rigid silicon chips that must be built in expensive fabrication facilities and eventually get installed in somewhat ungainly roof racks. With thin films, manufacturers use ink-jet nozzles to spray photovoltaic materials onto sheets of plastic or roof tiles in precise patterns. Not only does this cut costs, but the electricity-generating materials are unobtrusive as well.

    TECH TALK: Tech Trends: The Enablers

    There are a number of enabling factors for this new wave of interest in e-business:

    Search Engines: Five years ago, despite the presence of many search engines, it was hard to find things online. And then along came Google. Search was now again fun, with relevant sites showing up in the first page of the results. Over the past few years, search technology has improved by leaps and bounds. The other thing that search engines like Google and Overture (now owned by Yahoo) did was that they gave advertisers a way to link their ads to the searches being done by people. This has given small businesses with limited budgets a great way to reach out to potential consumers, and pay only for performance (on the ad clickthroughs). What the likes of Google did have done is balance the needs of the various entities, according to David Evans and Peter Passell: Google’s most impressive achievement, we would argue, was to use its technology edge to create a balanced, “multisided” market — that is, to satisfy very different classes of customers whose demand is nonetheless interdependent Good technology was certainly a prerequisite to [Googles] success. And in light of Web surfers’ notorious reluctance to pay for anything, it’s no shock that the search engine users’ side of Google get the service at no charge. The company’s singular achievement was linking search results to advertising in a way that was both productive to advertisers and inoffensive to users of the search engine.

    Backend Digitisation: Companies have also now managed to digitise significant portions of their value chain, making the entire process much more efficient. This makes it possible to have near real-time information on inventory across the extended enterprise, allow customers to query status of their orders online, and use customer-relationship management software to build deeper relationships. What has made this digitization process is the commoditisation of IT, making it affordable and standardized to even the smaller businesses, who have been the weak links in the information value chain.

    Small Business Push: Under pressure from the online giants, small businesses have been fighting back, realizing that unless they use the Internet, their customers will simply go elsewhere. Yahoo Stores, Googles AdWords and eBay have given them the ammunition to fight back with a deeper online presence. Esther Dyson wrote recently in a Release 1.0 on small businesses (April 28, 2004) on why this is happening now: Broadband is becoming prevalent, especially in businesses, and their customers are online. Its possible to outsource almost any noncore function, and small companies can get purchasing economies of scale, not by joining some specialized exchange, but simply by searching online. What the Internet is helping small businesses do is to find growth and increase revenues.

    Local Search: The other big change thats happening is how consumers seek out local businesses. So far, it has been primarily via yellow pages. This is changing as local search offerings are enriched. It is now possible to search for businesses in a targeted geographical area, see the locations of businesses on maps, and get to their websites. In turn, businesses can finely target their ads. In the coming months, as the publish-subscribe web takes shape, it will be possible for consumers to also receive notifications on specific events in their neighbourhood.

    Taken together, these developments are helping re-shape the world of e-business to a more personalized and deeper experience for buyers, and a more cost-effective solution for sellers.

    Tomorrow: India Action: Create STIM and PIN-News

    Continue reading TECH TALK: Tech Trends: The Enablers