Tuesday, September 20, 2005

India's great hope: entrepreneurs

When India goes wireless and footloose
ND Batra
From The Statesman

Said to be the fastest growing mobile nation, with each month 2.5 million more Indians being added to the existing 63 million mobile market, India is ingeniously transcending its infrastructural limitations. The cultural, political and commercial consequences of this new wireless mobility for a densely populated India are unpredictable. From a business point of view, wireless mobility is a boon for the small man; and may even open up new opportunities for the homebound woman for starting small domestic ventures. For some it might provide freedom from social constraints.

I recall the remark of a vice-president of Finland’s mobile phone company, TeliaSonera, who said a mobile phone for a Finn is a remote control of his life. But for a militant operating in Baghdad, the wireless is a means of death and destruction; or may be a door to the Jihadist paradise. Many a time television shows old footage of Osama bin Laden, with a handheld unit in his remote mountain hideout on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as if he were directing his jihad remotely.

But we also see millions of businessmen using the same remote wireless technology for conducting billions of dollars of business in a borderless world. Culture determines the use of technology.

You might wonder, as I do, why the same technology impacts different cultures in so many different ways. During the T’ang Dynasty (618-906 AD), the Chinese were using wooden block characters for printing, which evolved to movable clay type in 1000 AD. The Koreans developed it further into movable metal type in 1234. But the printing technology developed by the Chinese and Koreans had no transformational impact on their societies. But look at them today; both China and Korea are ready to take over the world with their technological advances.

When Johannes Gutenberg re-invented the movable metal type printing technology in Germany (more than 200 years after it was developed in East Asia) and printed the first Bible in 1455, it shook up Europe and the rest of the world for several hundred years. The Europeans broke loose from the stranglehold of the corrupt Catholic Church, forcing it to reform itself after the protest movement initiated by Martin Luther, himself a Catholic priest.

The printing revolution splintered the religious unity of Europe, unleashing waves after waves of religious terrorism, star chambers and inquisitions, forcing thousands to flee to America to live in religious freedom. But it also created a strange wanderlust among the Europeans to explore the world for trade, which led to colonialism and empire building.

This is called the butterfly effect: a small change occurring in one corner of a complex system triggers massive changes (industrial revolution, for example), causing a total transformation in the system in the course of time. That is what wireless technology is doing today; it would metamorphose India.

Imagine Professor Amartya Sen’s “argumentative Indian,” with a Bluetooth clipped on his earlobe, staring into space and trying to clinch a point or haggling to make a deal with someone on the other side in cyberspace!Finland is one of the most wirelessly advanced nations in the world. Many new homeowners in Finland, a vast sparsely populated frozen land of the midnight sun, do not even bother to install the traditional fixed phone. They just go for the wireless, which is much more than a phone.

The Finns use it for Short Message Service (SMS), a low-cost way of sending small written messages to each other, instead of making calls; they use it for making purchases (charges go to the phone bill instead of the credit card); and they use it for many other activities where cash is required. In fact, a sales clerk might ask, whether to charge the card or cell.

Nokia, Lucent Technologies, 3Com and other telecom companies are developing universal standards that will give a lightening-speed access to the Internet and make information portable and accessible from mobile phones from anywhere in the world.

In the coming wireless world, where the handheld/handfree rather than the keyboard would be our lifeline, most of our experiences would be wirelessly mediated. The mobile unit, our ears and eyes, would become so “intelligent” and “prescient” that it would not only alert us to the next big sale or the best price for the next car model, but also warn us how stale is the fish; the gunman lurking in the shadow; or the landmine ahead. Wireless would become geo-spatial with Google Earth and other such competitive services from Microsoft and Yahoo.

It makes hardly any economic sense to get 650,000 villages in India wired at a huge cost, when the whole country could be wirelessly wired with a few satellites. The idea is not only practical but it is the only sensible way. Instead of re-tracing the footsteps of developed countries, India better leapfrog to the latest technology and go wireless; and footloose.

But will the wireless do any good to the Indian poor? Yes, of course. Along with the vote, if the poor in India are also given the power of the wireless including toll-free numbers, they would demand tools of economic development: cheap bank loans, roads, schools and hospitals. Wireless freedom would raise millions of small entrepreneurs — India’s ultimate great hope.

1 comment:

  1. We owe it to our former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda for ushering in the wireless [information technology] revolution in India. Hallowed by their names.

    If memory serves me right, the Puritans who fled England for the religious freedom of America carried two books with them, the Bible and a volume Shakespeare.

    B.S.N.L, a state monopoly and a state behemoth, is still the prime portal of internet in India. All said and done, it is still quite expensive for the average Indian, and forays in cyberspace make a big hole in one’s pockets. Unless the rates are brought down the poor in India will be denied the benefit of Internet. Come to think of it, how many colleges and universities in India have the Net connection for their students?