Monday, October 18, 2010

An office virtually anywhere

The workplace of the future will be very unlike what we have experienced for several decades. The era of the dedicated office building, desk and PC is slowly coming to an end. Soon, employees working for most businesses, particularly in the technology and service industries, will no longer troop into an “office” and occupy their assigned desks, nor will “personal” computers and cubicle walls mark the territory for each “worker”. Team meetings and gossip sessions will stop originating at the coffee machine or the water cooler.

Office 2020

The new and improved workplace is going to rest on the pillars of flexibility, mobility and collaboration. With enterprises moving towards the “more for less” and “asset lite” models across business operations, the “physical” workplace will not be far behind. In a bid to reduce their total cost of ownership, enterprises (particularly small- and medium-sized businesses) are looking, and will increasingly look, at moving their infrastructure and IT requirements to the Internet or, as it is now called, the cloud. Escalating real estate costs will force the traditional cubicle to change into a personal virtual office, with the same space being customized for several employees with the swipe of a card (or biometric scan of an eye).

According to technology and market research agency Forrester’s report on telecommuting, more than 40% of the US workforce will telecommute by 2016; employees will opt to work from home or remote offices, thus saving time and travel costs for themselves as well as their employers. The war for talent and the need for an inclusive, multicultural workplace will make organizations “location agnostic”, with the emphasis being on hiring the best talent irrespective of geographical location. Some of the world’s leading companies, including BT, AT&T and IBM, already encourage telecommuting. Tata Communications, for instance, has its apex management team of 11 executives in nine cities in four continents.

The most significant trend in information technology has been that of IT services emerging first in the consumer market, for individuals, and then spreading to the enterprise market, for businesses (what IT research and advisory firm Gartner called the consumerization of IT). The focus on employees is shifting from just “workers” to collaborators and co-creators, those who are rapidly adopting social networking and communication tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Skype in their personal lives. Enterprises are now catching on to this trend; unlike traditional, linear applications such as the email and static Intranets, Web2.0 tools such as Chatter, Jive, Yammer and Injoos provide real-time, collaborative platforms for engagement, knowledge creation and sharing, and activity management. “The more effortlessly employees can communicate, collaborate and share new insights with one another, the faster an organization can respond to changing customer expectations and business conditions,” said Ross Mayfield, CEO, SocialText, at the Web 2.0 Expo in May.

The fine line between the virtual and the real is becoming finer with the rise in popularity of virtual work environments such as Teleplace for decentralized teams akin to an office version of Second Life. Mark Levitt, program VP, collaboration and Enterprise 2.0 strategies at IDC, said in a press statement, “Teleplace provides a rich 3D collaboration environment that makes virtual meetings, presentations, training sessions and other interactions as real as possible without getting on a plane.” At least one-third of organizations will support social networking this year, predicts a 2010 Forrester report.

The problem areas

Are organizations prepared for this change? Are HR executives, IT departments and facilities administrators ready to face the challenges that a distributed and decentralized workforce is going to bring? Since these changes are already occurring around us, enterprises have no option but to rework their IT, infrastructure and facility strategies. Network architectures need to shift from centralized data storage and fixed LANs to distributed access—mostly over the Internet. The proliferation of video-based collaborative tools catering to distributed teams will put greater pressure on the IT and network infrastructure, leading to a rise in corporate content distribution network (CDN) technologies used to deliver content more efficiently to distributed locations. Security and privacy issues will multiply, with a plethora of end points that IT teams cannot physically control.

These implications are more serious from a people management perspective. Business leaders and managers will be required to manage by outcomes rather than by observation. Unfortunately, research by the University of California Davis suggests that even today, when bosses and co-workers see an employee at work, they tend to think more highly of that person, and their evaluation is even more favourable if the sighting is after normal business hours. Several academic studies, including Jay Mulki and others’ article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2009, have shown that remote workers tend to suffer from a feeling of isolation, which may affect their productivity and, in turn, retention rates. Given that effective communication is almost only based on body language and paralinguistic cues, team building and motivation in a globally distributed team will require the adoption of high-end video conferencing systems such as Telepresence that can create a virtual presence.

If managers aren’t already thinking about these issues, they must. Their employees surely are experiencing these changes and adapting their lifestyles rapidly. They will expand these tools into the work environment, unofficially if necessary. Can enterprises shake off their inertia and embrace the new world before it is forced on them?

(Thanks to my colleague, Priya Bhatia for her help in writing this article.)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Let Neutrality not lead to Mediocrity

Recently, Thomas K Thomas of Hindu Business Line wrote an article regarding the Net Neutrality issue that is being debated in several countries and was introduced into the Broadband debate in India by Google. While TKT was kind enough to quote my views, there's only so much one can express in a quote. Therefore, this post to elaborate on the quote:

But Indian telecom operators are not in favour of any such regulation.  Srinivasa Addepalli, Senior Vice-President, Corporate Strategy, Tata Communication, says that more than it being a question of principles it is a commercial issue. “It is fair that consumers should have unrestricted access to the Internet. It is also a fact that telecom operators are investing billions of dollars in creating infrastructure. The Internet is at the core of private enterprise today; network operators, like the content/service providers, should be allowed to develop their commercial models without additional regulatory constraints,” Addeppali says.
There was a twist in the Net Neutrality debate in the US with Google and Verizon announcing a joint proposal and with AT&T jumping into the fray with its support of said proposal (or at least one key element of the proposal). Proponents of an open Internet accused Google of a sell-out and Google responded with an analysis of myths and facts related to the proposal. (By the way, I liked this reasonably objective teardown of the Google-Verizon proposal).

Whatever the outcome of the current round of debate on Net Neutrality proposals, I guess there are some key issues that one needs to consider here.

Is the Internet a public good or a private enterprise?
What might have started out in defence and academic circles, is now the primary platform for knowledge, collaboration, commerce, entertainment, and more. On one hand you have the largest encyclopedia in the world that is user-managed and runs on donations, and on the other you also have the most valuable brand in the world, both of which owe their existence to the Internet. The late Dewang Mehta of Nasscom once famously included Internet bandwidth as a fundamental right of all (Indian) citizens and rightly so. But it is not just information or governance that the Internet provides us now and nor is the Internet "free". Content providers and commercial enterprises are free however, to charge their customers (or not) for access to their services as they deem fit. There is no regulation that determines how much a song download should cost or what the pricing of a hosting plan should be. You can sign up for a free, 'lite' version or upgrade to a pricey, 'premium' version. It's a competitive market out there, and a reasonably free market.

Is Internet Access a monopoly or a scarce resource?
In the early days of telecom (30 yrs back in developed markets, 5-15 yrs back in several emerging markets), customers had no choice, whether it was voice services or data connectivity. Regulators were introduced in most of these markets to break incumbent monopolies and encourage competition. Even until a few years ago, customers had very few choices for broadband connectivity, one or two service providers at most in any market. But that has changed. Wireless broadband access has emerged as a reasonable alternative to wireline, particularly in developing markets that have had very poor wireline in any case. Most markets have at least three such providers; extreme cases like India have 6-7 (and growing) wireless operators. Of course, these broadband networks (both wireline and wireless) have failed to keep pace with the exponential growth in Internet traffic demand but that does not reflect scarcity or monopoly behaviour. 

Regulators, I believe, should aim to make themselves redundant. That can only happen by encouraging competition, not just in terms of numbers of players, but also ensuring that each of the players has the requisite resources to be an effective competitor. Regulations should define the minimum acceptable performance levels, for customers and competitors; beyond that, effective competition should take care of creating sufficient customer choice.

Broadband Networks: No longer commodity utilities
For long, telecom networks have been called the pipes, equating them with other utilities like water pipelines and electric wires. Broadband networks, as critical to human existence now as the aforementioned utilities, have features that set them apart from the other pipes. For one, as mentioned earlier, they are no longer primarily provided by local or national government bodies and are not monopolies. In addition, the "content" that flows through them is also varied, competitive and unregulated (unlike water or electricity), The highway example is an interesting one, with several similar characteristics to the broadband network. As one of the industry experts in TKT's article says:

It's like any toll road in the country where every type of vehicle gets to use the expressway but the toll charges vary depending on the type of vehicle.

Everyone can use the roads to travel as they please, however, there are several rules that govern how traffic flows on the roads. There are certain roads (highways or expressways) that place limitations on who (or what type of vehicles) enter the road and charge them in a differential manner. Traffic on these roads is regulated in different ways; certain types of vehicles get priority to use fast lanes and some have to stick to the slower ones. On some roads, the authorities may mandate some capacity to be reserved for public transport by creating special bus or taxi lanes, even if it slows down the rest of the traffic. Finally, in specific circumstances, private roads can be built and the owners determine what they are used for and how. What do we gather from this:

A) Rules of what is allowed and what the charges are should be clear to the users (and to the regulators)

B) Differential treatment to users is permitted. In the light of (A), users can choose what they prefer. (By the way, roads are a near monopoly or maybe duopolies; telecom networks, we have established earlier, are more competitive than roads)

C) Certain capacity of the 'public' infrastructure can be reserved or set aside for critical usage or public interest. 

D) Customers can, in certain circumstances, negotiate and build private infrastructure and use it the way they want.

As a Broadband customer, I would be willing to pay a premium for a network that understood my priority applications and provided a superior performance for such core services, even at the expense of other stuff. For instance, I would surely like to access my enterprise applications (Intranet, Mail, etc.) much faster / better than say, a YouTube video. A doctor providing remote medical assistance would surely want her tele-medicine application to not be choked mid-way through the procedure. On the other hand, a movie junkie (perhaps the doctor, on vacation) would want nothing more than super-fast download of the latest iTunes movie (in HD). Should we let this be left to fate (or best effort, in Internet / telecom parlance)? I say, No. Internet service providers need to make their networks more capable, to discriminate intelligently and individually across different types of content / applications. In a world where our lives are going to revolve around the cloud, networks have to become more than dumb pipes. Intelligent networks will create more value to the customers as well as the content providers. 

Maybe most customers do not want such intelligence. Maybe most content providers do not care about it. But for the few that want the choice, let regulation not take it away and relegate them, in the name of neutrality, to an "average" experience.

I welcome your comments and feedback, particularly because the "Net Neutrality" debate is still not defined well enough in developing markets.

Posted via email from Global Gyan

Monday, February 1, 2010

iPad - the device for the gaaks.

Most of us have become experts at seeing what isn't, so we miss out simple 'what is' facts. The other problem that we face is that of wanting everything, everytime, everywhere.

Apple's latest creation, the iPad, has underwhelmed the tech media and analysts; they are unable to see why somebody would use a large smartphone or an inferior laptop. Many others are aghast at the iPad's lack of Flash support or multi-tasking. That there aren't two cameras to support photography and video-chatting has let down a few more. Of course, some can't get over the "i" jokes and worse still, the "pad" jokes.

I beg to differ. I see here (and in a few other such devices) an opportunity to expand the market for digital services. Take it beyond the tech workers and fans of gadget blogs, take it beyond the home and office use, take it beyond the developed markets. I firmly believe that iPad has the opportunity to define its market, not as a large smartphone or as a cheaper/smaller laptop but as the primary digital device for the GAAKS, as against the geeks! (More about the gaaks, later.)

Broadband penetration remains relatively low in several emerging markets, not only because of supply constraints but also because prospective customers do not see value in the service. The primary interface device is a computer that is as "complex" as it is expensive. Most kids and senior citizens (all 45+ would qualify!) that have not received "formal" IT education would not venture to use a computer without assistance. Even when they do use a computer, it is rarely for its computing or processing power but really for the purpose of communication, media consumption and sharing. Finally, the keyboard is the most counter-intuitive input/control device that puts-off even highly educated people, leave alone those that aren't.

It is obvious that the next Broadband access device has to be developed using the same principles that have made mobile phones and media players accessible to several billion people worldwide. Simple and intuitive user interface that helps in communication/sharing and digital media management. A device that two-year old kids can manage and so can 60+ old grannies. Something that the neighborhood aunty will find as appealing as students focusing on their courseware. Something that the average-J can use to be more productive at work. Move over geeks, we need to serve the grannies, aunties, average-j, kids and students. The GAAKS.

Using a few personal, albeit anecdotal, experiences, let me outline needs of the gaaks in the context of a digital device:

Grannies: Simple visual control-interface, limited need for typing. Big, bright screen; large icons. Mostly photos, videos and music. Reading books. The occasional video chat. Home use.

Aunties: Cool looks. Fit in handbag. Idiot-proof controls (Oh, did I delete something!?). Music, videos and photos. Calendar. Facebook. Mail reader and forwarder. Home + nomadic use.

Average-J at work: Portable. Simple but secure. VPN/Exchange connectivity. Mail, Calendar & Contacts. Notes. Presentations (on-screen or projector). Document editor. Corporate apps. Occasional media (IT rules permitting). Mobile use.

Kids: Rugged (4-feet drop proof). Delete-proof. Intuitive physical & visual interface. Music, videos, games. Education apps. Occasional books/comics. Anywhere the parents want a silent kid.

Students: Cool looks. Portable (fit in a ruck-sack with other assorted stuff). Social networking. Music, videos, photos & games. Camera or camera-phone interface. Search. Reading books & making/sharing notes. Everywhere use.

(I have described generic / average usage scenarios. There are bound to be exceptions in each of these categories. Have also not included stuff that can be done using pretty much any mobile phone: yakking, texting, FM radio, etc.)

Which device is more likely to serve these large user segments: a laptop-variant or an iPod Touch variant? Remember, most of these people already have access to a mobile phone, so they have basic voice and narrowband connectivity. A bigger, brighter and more capable iPod Touch or an iPhone appears to be more relevant to these users than a laptop or a netbook. The iPad may not yet address all these requirements but from a hardware perspective, it appears to have all features (except a video camera for chat: surprising but not a deal-breaker). The interface and software are almost ideal for the gaaks; a few rough edges should get resolved through software upgrades.

Us geeks will still buy the iPad because, well, we just have to have it. It will add to the bag-load of devices and accessories that we carry with us everywhere. The significance of the recent Apple announcement is that a whole new, untapped market is about to open up. What they call "blue-ocean" stuff in management consulting parlance. More power to the gaaks.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Broadband in India - Praying for Better Times

(This article, in this form was published at on Jan 11, 2010)

India has about 7 million broadband subscribers, broadband, which by the way is defined in India at >=256Kbps: just about enough speed to let you experience the new, emerging Internet. The Indian Govt. had declared 2007 as the year of broadband, and a target of 9mn subs was set for the year. Even two years later, we are way behind! Just so you know, China has over 80 million broadband subscribers.

Why is a nation such as ours, IT superpower and aspiring global superpower, so poor when it comes to broadband penetration?

Very Poor Fixed Line Infrastructure

Most countries that have a high broadband penetration have (a) high wireline penetration, and / or (b) robust cable infrastructure. Simply speaking, if you do not have the basic infrastructure, you cannot provide a superior service such as broadband. Unfortunately for us, neither of these two conditions exist in India.

There are about 37 million fixed lines, of which only about 30% – about 10mn – are even capable of providing broadband. In recent years, there has been almost no investment in increasing and/or improving the quality of fixed line infrastructure. The country has added more than 400million wireless connections in the last 8 years, as against none in the fixed line space. While lack of focus on wireleine by the incumbents, BSNL and MTNL is an important factor, the blame must really be borne by the regulatory and policy regime which has not created an environment to encourage competition (and thereby, investment) in fixed line infrastructure / services in the country. The TRAI had recommended unbundling of the local loop as a step towards limited competition, but as has now almost become a norm, the TRAI recommendations were not accepted by the DoT.

Less said the better about cable infrastructure. It is a highly fragile and completely unregulated cobweb of many thousands of independent networks. It will take an investment of at least Rs 200 billion to upgrade the cable last mile to make it 2-way and broadband capable. Nobody, it appears, is willing to take that challenge up.

No Encouragement to Competition

It is well-recognized that the mobile revolution in India has been driven primarily by competition: at least 6-7 operators across the country. Private operators were licensed years before the incumbents were allowed to enter the mobile market; several steps have been taken towards creating a level playing field for all the licensed mobile operators. On the other hand, in broadband, there is absolutely no policy measure to encourage private operators to enter and compete; this in spite of the fact that none of them have any last mile infrastructure to speak of, and therefore, require considerable support in the initial years.

The incumbents that are riding on public-funded fixed line infrastructure have – in almost a predatory manner – dropped tariffs so much that India has, at the same time, the lowest broadband ARPU and the poorest broadband penetration in the world! Wireless broadband (read 3G & WiMax) is generally expected to become the competitive alternative – but there has simply been no urgency in creating the policy environment to encourage wireless. Spectrum â the essential ingredient to rolling out wireless networks â has not been made available for Broadband; the proposed spectrum auctions have been postponed several times in the last 2 years.

Can something be done to salvage the situation?

Unfortunately, in the short term, I see no option for the customers and private operators. During 2010, the incumbents will strengthen their dominance in the broadband market (for whatever it is worth); private operators will half-heartedly roll out parallel copper / cable networks and will be plagued with quality issues. If spectrum auctions happen in Jan-Feb 2010 as currently envisaged, 3G and WiMax services should become available in most metros towards the second half of the year.

The Broadband market will have to wait till 2011 for true competition, high quality and innovative services – available in all major towns and cities. But the rest of the world will not stay still. Singapore is experimenting with getting 100Mbps to every home by 2012; we hope to get to about 1Mbps in the top 100 towns by then.

Every year, since 2005, I have been hoping that the next year would be the year that broadband becomes widely available in India. I have been proven wrong before; I pray that things change this time around.