When I started thinking about what I wanted to do next in 2001, I had two building blocks: a small 15-person Linux-based messaging solutions business in Mumbai, and capital. That was not good enough. I am one of those people who need a reasonably clear vision of tomorrow and what we need to do before I can start. So, even as the messaging business has grown incrementally, I have been trying to envision the future.
I started with the premise that I will create solutions for emerging markets. Given by base in India, there was no way I could build products for the US or other developed markets. Those markets were far removed from the reality that I saw around me everyday. And I was not prepared to shift base to the US to be closer to the markets. Also, I was very clear from the beginning that I wanted to create a product-centric company. Outsourced software and services did not fascinate me. (Add to the list of starry-eyed entrepreneurs endlessly fascinated by the business models and success stories of the likes of Intel and Microsoft.)
The first idea in 2002 was to create a low-cost eBusiness suite for small- and medium-sized enterprises available for something on the order of Rs 250 ($5) per user per month. As I thought through this idea, I realised that we would have a tough time selling this in India there just weren’t enough computers in SMEs. The low installed base of PCs meant that any ASP-type solution would have a slow offtake. This problem also pointed to an opportunity the need to create low-cost computing solutions to counter the problems of high hardware and software prices. Between the two, the desktop cost was the first barrier.
Over time, as we thought through the problem, a possible solution came to the fore server-centric computing built around thin clients, thick servers, open-source software and remote server management. So, we created Emergic Freedom a Linux-based server-centric computing platform. But we barely made a dent in the market. I realised that people and companies had their own solutions: for hardware, it was non-consumption, while for software, it was piracy. If we were to succeed, we would need to take a look at the complete ecosystem of hardware and software.
This is where emerged the idea of the Rs 5,000 computer. My initial approach was to look at using old and refurbished computers, but these were hard to find in India. A stiff import duty made this idea a non-starter. If we had to solve the hardware problem, there was only one approach: the 5KPC would have to be built! That is one of the paths we embarked on a few months ago, even as we started thinking about ideas like grid and utility computing which would benefit from the ever-improving communications networks.
This slow, incremental evolution of ideas has now been encapsulated into a nice elevator pitch for Emergic: CommPuting at the price of a Cellphone hardware, software, broadband connectivity, content and support for Rs 700 per month. The focus is on the next users in the middle of the pyramid in emerging markets with India as the starting point primarily, homes, SMEs, educational institutions. The vision is not very different from Microsoft’s in its early days a computer accessible to every family, employee and student. My belief is that the time has come to reinvent computing for the world’s next billion users. The vision is now there, and there is a roadmap to take us from here to the future. It means building the thin clients, developing the backend grid computing platform, and creating the services which can make the solution desirable for the next users. It is now time to move ahead.