Monday, December 31, 2012

Year end musing on Tablets, Notebooks and education

As we wrap up 2012, it would be an understatement to say it has been a year of tablets and mobile computing. Consumers were in the driving seat with a wide array of tablets available to them and corporations and Enterprise Architects continued to make the stride towards mobile-enablement of workforce with BYOD strategies.

As the devices become ubiquitous, manufacturers continue to look for fortunes at the Bottom of the Pyramid (apologies C.K. Prahalad). Just a small sampling:
  • Google was selling a $99 Chromebook to teachers this holiday season while also promoting its Nexus tablets 
  • Amazon’s Kindle continues to attract not just budget conscious tablet buyers but also those who want to hook into its ecosystem including Amazon prime subscriptions
  • RIMM 's PlayBook surprised analysts who had all but written off the blackberry maker (link)
  • Of course, Apple doesn’t want to be left out of the party. Not surprisingly announced iPad mini - Every inch an iPad  targeted at the budget concious
A lot more devices from a variety of players hold promise and I guess we are seeing just the tip of iceberg when it comes to innovation at the bottom of pyramid. Given this climate of euphoria, it was a bit chilling to read the NYT account of the challenges being faced by India’s answer to the BoP tablet market – Akash

After creating sufficient mindshare among consumers, marketers seem to be going after the holy grail - next generation market – namely students. A few years ago, a consortia of corporations joined together to provide One Laptop per Child. While the world awaits the laptop for each child, individual tech companies and politicians are not waiting. Manufacturers seem to have found a cash cow: Governments around the world that are pandering to citizen with promises of laptops (for votes?). A sampling from the media reports
  • The Uttar Pradesh government has started assessing the supplying capacity of Hewlett Packard (HP), which has quoted the lowest bid for supplying 15 lakh laptops that the government will distribute among students who passed Class XII in 2012 and are pursuing higher education. (Ref Times of India)
  • TN govt (India) to give free laptops to students this week: The ambitious free laptop scheme of the Tamil Nadu government, under which 68 lakh laptops are to be distributed to government-aided higher secondary school and college students, is all set to roll this week. (article)
  • North Carolina, US “We’re very excited that Orange County Schools will launch our first-ever effort to do a digital conversion (in) grades six through 12,” says Chief Academic Officer of Orange County Schools Dr. Denise Morton. “All students will have a laptop to use during the day and at home at night.” (ref article
  • Australian govt funds 141,000 laptops for schools
Just as I was beginning to wonder about the new generation of tech-saavy-laptop-tablet-wielding youngsters coming to the market, I came across an article on how Students make a quick buck off government laptops. "Many of these graduates don’t have jobs and their families are in a poor state. One father sold his laptop when his son was away, saying he was just watching movies in it with his friends.”

Paraphrasing Queen Marie Antoinette “If you cant equip them with knowledge to get ahead, equip them with tablets?” And a happy new year to rest of us!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Governments and society: Rape in Delhi and children gunned down in Connecticut

Two recent incidents, a world apart seem to be grabbing headlines and shocking communities. One is “a Brutal Gang Rape In Delhi Has Shaken India To The Core” while the other is the senseless shooting of innocent children in an elementary school that sent shock waves through the United States.

Both instances of senseless crime have received much needed spotlight from traditional media and digerati. Political leaders of all stripes have taken the stage promising constituents some action coming out of the respective tragedies. There was a slight difference, however, in the way the media reacted to statement by leaders: while the media in the US highlighted President Obama shedding some tears during his press conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ‘Theek Hai’ comment after his statement on the Rape had a polarizing effect at least among digirati

While the media attention on both cases slowly dwindles away from these incidents, one wonders if any action will really come of it? Probably not. And why?

Underfunded, highly overstretched, inept and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy in India. Enough said?! Anyone with some familiarity to India and Indian bureaucracy will surely have their favorite anecdote on dealing with the bureaucracy. I guess it is not just one factor at play in India, like the need to change the law as some in the media are suggesting, or just additional policing: the already overstretched police force probably has its hands full with chasing the bad guys, providing security to VIPs and of course trying hard to address the omni-present terrorist threat in India.

There is a similar Gordian Knot plaguing the government and society in the other part of the world. United States is a nation divided on the "second amendment" that protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Controlling gun violence is not as simple as having additional security checks or policing…or as the powerful American lobby group NRA has suggested: Put armed police in every school (ref: Washington Post). Literally fighting fire with fire!

Like rest of the digirati, bloggers and others voicing opinions, I would like to believe that change is around the corner. In the New Year all that legislators and bureaucrats will have to do is to wave a magic wand and pesto, we will have better, more peaceful societies!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review of a foodie's views on agribusiness: “An Economist Gets Lunch”

Tyler Cowen’s book “An Economist Gets Lunch” was added to my 2012 Christmas reading list for one simple reason: I have been trying to keep updated on agribusiness, given my role of an Enterprise Architect working with a multinational agribusiness fierm. Here is my initial reaction on the book.

The book covers two topics. It is predominantly a foodie’s observations of “finding good places to eat” while traveling, interspersed with tips on cooking at home. The secondary topic is a brief discourse on agri-business which is restricted to two chapters (#7 and  #8).
The first section of the book reaffirmed my empirical observation from travels across continents: how a variety of meats and fish feature predominantly in menus around the world. Restaurants in most western metropolises’ have begun to offer at least a few vegetarian friendly entrĂ©e, but still cater to diets that are largely meat based. As the author observes, many meat by-products – e.g lard – are also used for cooking “vegetarian” entrĂ©e.  The vegetarian in me found the descriptions of the techniques of barbeque and the like inscrutable but I still found the narrative gripping enough to read through those sections.

In the brief analysis of agri-business, Cowen makes a few arguments on spreading modern agribusiness to more parts of the world. He observes “For all the talk about India as a great economic power on the rise, most Indian farming is still done by hand on a small scale. … The result of all these restrictions is that agriculture remains the most backward major sector of India’s economy and the rate of investment in Indian agriculture is barely increasing.” While making the argument, the  author contrasts by giving high points to Mexican agribusiness when he muses :
“What are the real reasons why Mexican food can be so much better in Mexico than in United States? I think of Mexico as a country that straddles two food worlds in a very advantageous manner. They have enough technology and modernity to manage modern food supply networks, run good restaurants, and send fair amount of diversity the way of everyday foodie. At the same time, Mexico still is in the close touch with more artisanal methods of food production. The country has agribusiness, but it doesn’t only have agribusiness. “

The right-leaning economist in Mr. Cowen also hypothesizes on benefits of genetically modifying crops, observing how corn did not originally appear in nature without human intervention: “the breeding of corn occurred over generations and from genetic tests it is identified as coming 8,990 and 8,610 years before birth of Christ.” A gist of the author’s arguments
·         GMOs increase the supply of food, thereby lowering food prices and feeding the poor
·         One of the next green revolutions may come from the direction of what are called Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  
·         The underreported story that GMOs have considerable environmental benefits is overlooked.
·         GMOs may help limit global warming through other advances
·         Rich countries do not need GMOs but poor countries do
I have been following some of the arguments on global food-security and also the role of multinational agribusiness firms in “feeding the world” And most of the arguments, when one looks at from a rational economic angle make sense. However, what is intriguing is that most discussions on food and food security focus more on crops and grains and to a much lesser extent on animals and poultry. The fact is that food-grains are just another, albeit significant “ingredient” in meat production: After all, animal meat, poultry and fish are the last leg in the “feeding the world” value chain?

Other interesting reviews of the book:

Monday, December 3, 2012

The business of Internet, Government and society

In a span of about 15 years or so, internet and wireless communication technologies have become globally ubiquitous and pervasive. And like other utilities - access to electricity, water and telephones - people in western societies have taken access to internet and wireless for granted. Even in developing countries where access to basic utilities is spotty at best, wireless and internet technologies are becoming more pervasive largely due to a combination of commercialization and a laissez faire attitude of governments.

Most consumers have come to expect that breakdown in “service,” even for a short span of time can only be due to a major force majeure - hurricane Sandy for example – nothing less

While many governments have taken a laissez faire attitude towards developing infrastructure for internet and wireless communication, they are not exactly being hands off. Government policy planners and bureaucrats, just like their counterpart business leaders and executives have come to realize the significance of “controlling” access to the infrastructures and access to these technologies.

Internet and wireless infrastructure is increasingly being viewed as a strategic asset that can impact National security. Shutting or disrupting access to wireless and internet in essence also shuts down
  • Commerce: Businesses and international commerce increasingly relies on pervasive internet technologies and access to wireless communication. Rather than develop their private LAN, WAN, MAN and area networks, corporations are more than eager to ride on top of public internet infrastructure. Public internet infrastructure is thought to be inherently more reliable since the points of failure are widely dissipated. It is also much cheaper to use than to develop private infrastructure. 
  • Communication: According to U.N. Telecom Agency report, the world has about 6 Billion cell phone subscribers. A mind boggling number when you consider the population of about 7 billion people
  • Entertainment: Entertainment, streaming movies, videos, games, music, social media etc etc all depend on pervasiveness of internet and wireless technologies. A disruption to either backbone can shut down the sources of entertainment.
Till recently, the primary risk to commerce on public internet networks was the threat to Network neutrality. However, recent incidents are making Digirati and corporate strategists reflect on broader risk to businesses that are increasingly dependent on public internet and wireless infrastructure for global commerce
  • Government’s shutting down access to internet: Censorship on the internet is just tip of the iceberg. The risk to businesses is a complete shutdown of access to the internet in a country or region! Just Last week, Syrian government briefly  managed to return its citizen to the digital dark ages. One can be certain that other governments are assessing their capabilities in this regard. (Ref Forbes article : These Are The 61 Countries Most Vulnerable To An Internet Shutdown)
  • Governments are increasingly relying on cyber-warfare as a powerful tool in their arsenals “in June 2009, someone had silently unleashed a sophisticated and destructive digital worm that had been slithering its way through computers in Iran with just one aim — to sabotage the country’s uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. (ref Wired article: Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History)
Business strategists and corporate policy makers are only starting to assess all the dimensions of the risk of leveraging public internet and wireless infrastructures. However, there a more prosaic way of looking at the risks: Much as we liked to think otherwise, risks inherent to “traditional infrastructures” (supply of water, electricity etc) apply to next generation infrastructures too. If we take this argument, traditional risk mitigation strategies should be applicable to technology infrastructure management too?