Computing for Broadband 101

An article I wrote for Business Today (February 13 issue, page 18):

The year 2005 may well be the year of broadband in India. Or so, it seems. With BSNL and MTNL launching their services across India, other players too are getting ready for a price war. But before the much awaited broadband boom happens in India, we still have two important hurdles to cross before we can replicate the heady growth of mobile phones in India over the past five years — the cost and complexity of computers.

Ten years after VSNL launched commercial Internet operations in India, broadband promises a major upgrade to the quality of services that are available. Broadband is all set to usher in a variety of services across entertainment, e-governance, telemedicine, education and software applications. For us to realise the true potential of broadband connections, we will need to first rapidly ramp up the installed base of computers in India from the present 14 million.

Computers consist of hardware and software (the applications). Even as the hardware is becoming more affordable (a low-end computer will cost about Rs 15,000), software costs have risen as a percentage of the total outlay. So far, many in India have used piracy or non-consumption as solutions. Both are not good enough to boost usage and build a software and content developer ecosystem which increases the value of the computer by making more services available to end users.

Besides the affordability of the full solution, the other issue which needs to be tackled is that of manageability. Viruses and spyware have made life difficult for less savvy users. Backing up data from ones desktop is not something natural either. Support, especially for home users, is not easy to get from the vendors.

If broadband has to boom in India, the computing industry will need two innovations to reinvent both its architecture and business model. After all, what will people do with fat pipes without affordable and manageable access devices and a variety of services for users to access.

To reinvent the computing architecture, we need to take a leaf out of the industrys past in centralised computing and create zero-management access devices. Think of these as thin clients. To build these multimedia-enabled network computers, move the guts of todays personal computer (the high-end processor and the storage) to the server, and replace it with the innards of a mobile phone (with a low-cost processor and limited memory). The thick server delivers the virtual desktops to users over broadband connections.

This server-centric computing model has many advantages. First, the access device can now be dramatically simplified and has the potential to reduce the cost to about Rs 3,000. (Keyboard, mouse and monitor would cost an additional Rs 4,000). Second, the computers require no maintenance and can now be easily bundled with the connectivity without the worry of house (or office) calls for support. Third, piracy will be eliminated since all software and content is delivered via the server, and can be controlled and monitored by the service provider.

The second innovation needed is on the business model. Instead of asking users to make upfront investments, computing needs to become a utility available on a subscription basis for monthly payments. The pay-as-you-go model is what the world of mobile phone users and cable TV watchers is already very familiar with. This reduces the entry barrier dramatically for new users and provides a full solution at an affordable price.

Using thin clients and server-centric computing, it should be possible for service providers to offer a bundle including broadband connectivity and support for no more than Rs 700 per user per month which is about what is paid most mobile phone users in urban India. This is the point where computing will take-off and spur the creation of a wide variety of services making broadband a catalyst of transformation across homes, offices and educational institutions.

The next platform will consist of network computers as zero-management access devices, ubiquitous broadband networks, server-based computing and storage grids as the underlying infrastructure, centrally accessible services built around hosted software and content and utility-like subscription-based payment model. This is what will take the power of computing to the next billion users globally.

This utility computing framework also provides the building blocks for a unified digital infrastructure capable of supporting computing, communications and entertainment, and facilitating the creation of next-generation utilities. Just like previous utilities which brought transportation, water, electricity and telecom to transform the lives of the masses, so also this utility has the potential to realise the hidden potential of todays forgotten masses not just in India but also in other emerging markets.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.