Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What's a "killer app"

What is a killer application?

In a narrow literal sense the term “killer application” or "killer app” describes a software application that is so unique that it surpasses and even kills the competition. In a broader sense it means some method, technology, or an idea that creates something so attractive that everybody wants to embrace it. It becomes indispensable and its acceptance inevitable. Think about how the Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping redefined market capitalism to make it acceptable to the Chinese Communist Party and unleashed tremendous energies in China. The West Bengal Communist Party (India) could not do it. What a shame!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

There's more to offshoring

From The Statesman

Looking for the next big little thing?

Cyber Age/ ND Batra

The venturesome fear that they might miss out on the next big little thing, a Google, the self-organising information universe; Skype, a conversation-sharing website bought by e-Bay; or MySpace, a social network, acquired by NewsCorp. Money is seldom a problem; it is a consequence of one’s activities. Money doing nothing or being in the wrong place is a problem. Venture capitalists are on the lookout for newer applications, which they can bet on. If Kolkata becomes as friendly as Shanghai, investors will flock there.

On a recent visit to Bangalore, chief executive Derk Haank of the German publishing company Springer Science + Business Media said: “We constantly review each of our tasks and ask ourselves why this is being done in Germany or New York. We ask if we can do it in India?“ Hunting for talent and brainpower is one of the biggest challenges for business leaders today. For political leaders, the biggest challenge is to attract foreign direct investment that creates jobs and wealth by presenting their states as investment-friendly.

Even die-hard Communist leaders like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee of West Bengal need to wonder why the state is falling behind in spite of so much talent and brainpower. Why should Germany’s Springer go to Chennai instead of Kolkata? For most businesses, however, the best strategy is to look for an application, a technology, an idea or a business method that creates a new “marketspace”, that never existed before, and establish overwhelming market dominance as long as they can, until, of course, a newer one appears and makes it obsolete.

But a company doesn’t have to invent a unique application; instead it should be on the lookout for it and adopt it. This is one of the reasons that the US companies are offshoring their businesses abroad because offshoring, including R&D, is an extension of brainpower. If we network the world’s best brains, the rate of killer applications should increase dramatically because networking allows sharing and building upon each other’s ideas. But that also means that the rate of obsolescence will increase, leading to a state of turbulence. Controlled turbulence could be a source of self-renewal and creative destruction. File sharing in creative expression, for example, in music recording, is generating turbulence that might necessitate new business models, if law suites against illegal sharing don’t work well.

The Internet is challenging old business models. Businesses, however, flourish in a stable environment. Regardless of however one looks at Microsoft Corp and its market domination, Windows operating system has provided a universal standard and created desktop stability. But some times, a killer application could be replaced with a clone without adverse effects or disruption. For example, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer improved upon Netscape’s innovation, Navigator, which reached a critical mass and lost its dominance.

Killer applications have a short life span. Lindows and other open source innovations would soon challenge Windows. Google might cast a shadow over Microsoft. Nicholas Negroponte in the Introduction to Unleashing the Killer App (Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, 1998) wrote: “The primary forces at work in spawning today’s killer apps are both technological and economic in nature.” Semiconductors have “shifted the world’s economy from an industrial to an information base in a little over a quarter century”. Gordon Moore predicted that every 18 months, computing power will double at constant cost and his law has held its sway. The same has been true of the bandwidth which is becoming faster and cheaper.

Miniaturisation and speed have gone hand in hand with the power of networks, whose value increases dramatically with each additional node. From toys to public buildings, inexpensive digitisation has begun to penetrate everything. But all that began with development of the transistor which became the building block of integrated circuit and the tiny chip that now runs the digital universe. Whatever is digitised could be networked and shared. In theory, every human activity can be digitally designed and built with an Internet connection which would make every networked thing both a consumer and a supplier of information. This would make the global supply-chain system of information an inexhaustible source of further value-added information on which Google seems to be betting so much of its future. Networked databases could profile the whole earth.

Offshoring reduces transactions costs, but do firms really “exist only to the extent that they reduce transaction costs more effectively,” ask the authors, Downes and Mui. Core and the ring – a dynamic and stable core of top executives and a fluid and flexible ring of disposable employees, such as outsourced contractors or offshored workers – is the emerging shape of a modern business. And from this point of view, a firm becomes a “complicated web of well-managed relationships” with business partners and customers digitally spread. Not brick and stones, only digits shall rule. That’s the future. The authors state that killer applications are discovered more than invented. “To unleash killer apps, you must learn to see them coming and be prepared to put together whatever laboratories, partnerships and new business models are needed to make quick use of them. Before someone else does.”

That’s how you go from incremental to exponential change, as it happened when telegraph reached a critical mass in 1843, making possible the rise of the first network of collaborative information gathering and distribution. The world has never been the same.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Musharraf and Saddam Hussein

Rapists and bastards

Pakistan’s General Musharraf may be soft on rapists but he is America’s man, says Nicholas D. Kristof. Kristof is regarded by some as a most conscientious columnist of The New York Times. This is what he wrote in one of his recent columns, “Lining up to be raped?”

“The irony is that while he's a nitwit on social issues, Musharraf has proved himself to be a good economic manager, and the 7 percent growth rates generated by his reforms will help undermine fundamentalism and sexual violence in the long run. During his U.S. visit, Musharraf pressed for a free-trade area between the United States and Pakistan, and that's a great idea to promote Pakistan's development.”

So forgive his tirade against women?

Kristof is no less confused about right and wrong than is Phil Donahue, the ex-TV talk show host, who was de-throned from his national perch by Operah Winfrey long ago. In a shouting match with Bill O’ Reilly, Donahue said about Saddam Hussein what Kristof said about Musharraf: "Saddam was a bastard. But he was OUR bastard, just look at the pictures of Rumsfeld shaking his hand."

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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Cyber age
ND Batra
Changing USA’s image
From The Statesman

There will never be a time when we could say that we have won the war of ideas. That was the mistake the USA made when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and the Cold War was over. It was a false dawn; and to some influential but misguided scholars it seemed the end of history.

You could look at history as a stovepipe, something rising from the bottom and going to the top. Or you could imagine history as an uninterrupted landscape, where past, present and future co-exist in a dynamic tension. Even if Islamic Jihadism is vanquished, some new dangerous ideology will arise to threaten peace and our most cherished ideals of freedom. Some people, especially those trained in advertising and public relations, believe that all that the USA needs is a new image and therefore it must re-brand itself, just as corporations do. That shows poverty of thinking.

To a great extent, a corporation can control its message and its image because it is the sole source of information about itself. But you cannot control the image of an open society because there are so many independent actors, institutions and corporations; for example, Hollywood, US military, corporate America; Britney Spears, Eminem, Guantanamo Bay, Wal-Mart, Microsoft; all contributing to the US image abroad. And now add to all this the havoc caused by Katrina, the horrific images of stranded and abandoned people; and the Bush administration’s initial response to it. Somebody has to say loud and clear that Mother Nature is stronger than the strongest nation in the world.

The US image abroad is an “emergence” and its quality depends upon how much of the USA is present in a country. A country that is exposed to only Hollywood violent movies and video games is likely to have a distorted image of the USA.

But add to it a McDonald’s, university campus, cultural centre, and a garment factory; you see the image of the USA in that country begins to change.

Keeping the emergent nature of the image, it should not be difficult to understand why the public image of the USA differs from one country to another. The image depends upon the quality and the extent of its presence and its usefulness to the country.

Consider this: Why would a small, poor country like Bangladesh give one million dollars for Katrina relief? Apparently, American corporate presence in Bangladesh has generated goodwill, which a public opinion poll might have missed measuring.

How much the newly appointed under secretary of state for public diplomacy, Karen Hughes, can do to refurbish the image? She cannot re-brand America because it is not a corporation or a product. Even the smartest public diplomacy campaign won’t change perceptions overnight especially when the USA is deeply engaged in multifarious actions abroad. Events may occur beyond its control, which could further blur the image in some countries. No quick fix crisis communication will help.

The always-on 24-hour global communication, blogs, instant messaging, chatrooms, and news cycles, make it impossible for practitioners of public diplomacy to devise a central strategy to impose a message discipline, as it can be done in advertising campaigns for a product or a political candidate. Nor is public diplomacy like a political campaign, where negative campaigning could kill an opponent with a devastating effect.

In an environment of decentralised communications, you might still control the message, but you cannot control the meaning when instant alternative interpretations, Al Jazeera, for example, are available. Each nation is different, so what works in Bangladesh may not work in Indonesia or Uzbekistan. The challenge is to find the right vehicle to embody the message for a specific local audience. Al-Qaida has used local clerics to champion and spread its jihadist message.

Public diplomacy practitioners must use local leaders to champion and advance their cause and they should do so in such a manner that it makes the local people feel good about themselves while at the same time generating goodwill towards the USA or any country that is using information culture to foster goodwill. There was a time when Hollywood was the best cultural export, but now many people believe that the US popular culture, due to proliferation of senseless violence and explicit sex, creates negative impressions in foreign audiences, in spite of the fact that the world has been spending billions of dollars importing American entertainment, filmed and taped programmes, as well as box office hits.

The paradox is that in spite of negative feelings about US popular culture that it depicts profanity, nudity, mayhem and crime, piracy of popular cultural programmes, even in the Arab and Muslim world, remains unabated.

In any case, public diplomats, who want to win over the hearts and minds of the people in the Arab world, should not count upon Hollywood’s popular culture as the nation’s goodwill ambassador.

Most precious American values such as individual initiative, innovativeness, entrepreneurship, freedom of speech, and competition, are represented by its corporations, educational institutions, and non-profit organisations. Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Oprah Winfrey embody more of what America stands for than what Hollywood produces. But how would Karen Hughes show and tell the world — especially the Arab-Muslim street — that America is what Americans, women in particular, do at the workplace, its ultimate source of strength and self-renewal?

Tuesday, September 6, 2005


Cyber age ND BATRA
Of human bonds in the digital age
From The Statesman

In this digital age of loosening human bonds and transitory attachments to disembodied groups that rise and disappear in cyberspace, sense and sensibility of place, its physical and cultural geography, is becoming important to people.
The feeling of being in New York or Kolkata, the smells, the sounds, the sweltering summer, has become so desirable. Cultural values and religious life of a people are anchored in physical space. Once upon a time, there stood in their majestic grandeur the mighty World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. In the swirling waters of New Orleans hit by hurricane Katrina, stood the French Quarters.
Personal digital assistants, third generation cell phones, the Internet anywhere and wireless global connectivity are diminishing face-to-face interactions and engagement from the realities of life. But natural calamities like the onslaught of Katrina on the Gulf coast, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, like the horrific attacks on New York and the Pentagon, bring back people their sense of humanity.
The question is whether the digital age, which gives us the choice to work and collaborate from anywhere, could also revitalise and renew abandoned downtowns and slums especially in big cities like New Orleans. Bulletin boards, chat rooms and virtual communities hold the promise of bringing about new social activism in community and empower people to demand changes, but so far it has not been happening. “Roman law was designed to shape the behaviour of the citizens, preferably through self-regulation, into conformity with deeply held notions of personal and civic virtue,” wrote Joel Kotkin in The New Geography. Can civic responsibility be maintained if one loses a sense of place?
After the attack on New York, every one from taxi drivers to the mayor began chanting, “I love New York.” Although no one said, I love the Pentagon, the attack on a symbol of the US military power steeled the national resolve to eliminate the evil from its roots.
Digital economy tends to make people less committed to their communities and, as Kotkin said, “The information-age aristocracy — with access to instant communications technology and dependent only on the work of elite knowledge workers — can live in a kind of self-created universe.” But much more than a self-created universe was shattered on 11 September, which Rudolph Giuliani, the ex-Mayor of New York tried to restore.
Only a local leader could have done it; but in the process Mr Giuliani became a symbol of resurgent America. That’s what has been missing in the havoc caused by Katrina in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz, Mardi Gras, Cajun cuisine, and much more.
The closer the world becomes because of globalisation, the greater will be the need for localism and committed local leaders. Think about the wisdom of those magnificent Indian leaders of the post-freedom era who had the courage to reorganise the country along linguistic and cultural boundaries, thus strengthening local bonds. India is democratic and strong because of the distinct identities of the regional people, who become united, greater than the sum of the parts, when the occasion arises.
Yet a serious question arises as to how a region should make itself attractive enough to keep and lure the elite, when a substantial portion of work becomes mobile and could be done from anywhere in the world. Peter Drucker, the management guru, saw the digital economy threatening “a new class conflict between the large minority of knowledge workers and the majority of people who make their living traditionally”.
In the 1990s’ technology-driven boom, the median family income in the USA went down, while the number of millionaires more than doubled. Trickledown economy has been trickling very slowly to the bottom rung of the people. Stock market does not spread wealth, though the number of Americans owning stock directly or through their pension funds has increased substantially. When the top 10 per cent own 90 per cent of the stock, market alone cannot provide a cure for poverty. Migration of jobs from industrial rust-belts to other countries and the consequent desertion of erstwhile prosperous communities have been causing pain.
President George W Bush’s call to reform education, including testing and teachers’ accountability, has been an attempt to halt “the geography of despair” created by “the growing power of locational choices” by the elite and corporations, who are becoming increasingly global, mobile and rootless.
Kotkin suggested “the urgent need to concentrate on building a broader economy, including some industrial and warehouse functions, that could tap into the skills and energies of those people who might otherwise be left behind”. Consider this, for example: When China exports shoes, garments and electronics, it spreads wealth among its lower-class semi-skilled people.
When India exports software, it spreads wealth mostly among the elite. When the elite become disconnected with other social groups, the community withers away. In the digital age, Kotkin observed, “The oldest fundamentals of place — a sense of community, identity, history, and faith — not only remain important, they are increasingly the critical determinants of success and failure.
As people and advanced industries hunt the globe for locations...they will seek out a new kind of geography, one that appeals to their sense of value and to their hearts, and it is there that the successful communities of the digital age will be found.” But what about New Orleans where 68 per cent of the people are black and feel abandoned?