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Saturday, November 17

Sorry !

While walking to the school today, I came across a old lady. She was walking slowly on the sidewalk in the same direction. The sidewalk was narrow and there was not enough space for me to walk past her. So I walked slightly off the sidewalk on to the grass and crossed her.

As soon as I passed her by, I heard her say sorry. It was not a sorry that we just hand down to others every now and then. It sounded as if she was sorry that she is old now and cannot walk fast enough. It sounded as if she was sorry that she was walking in the middle of the sidewalk and thus blocking my way. It made me feel very bad. I wanted to stop and tell her that it was alright to be old and to walk slowly, that she need not worry too much about us young people walking slightly here and there because society is not meant for only young and active, it is meant for everybody and she has a right to be old and walk slowly without feeling bad.

Instead I said "it's alright" and moved on. Today was a bad day.

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Saturday, November 10

Xkcd

Randall Munroe of xkcd fame was on campus today. Unfortunately I dozed off at my desk and missed his lecture (but read about it on Wikipedia just now which, surprize-o-surprize, is already updated with a short blurb about it).

I discovered xkcd few months ago, through the legendry angular momentum strip and it was an instant favourite. By next morning, I had finished all 300 odd strips and was hooked.

As the tag lines says, it is 'A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language', and physics and computer systems and pop culture. It is full of geek jokes, allusions that only a computer science graduate would understand and a celebration of nerdiness. However the best of the bread for me are those in which romance interplays with geekiness. They are just awesome. Here are some of my favorites. Find many more on the xkcd website. Enjoy and Happy Diwali !

















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Friday, November 9

OpenSocial : Developers vs Users

OpenSocial form Google is the new big thing that everybody has been talking about, especially since it is being seen as a major blow back by the Google to the Facebook. It will allow developers to write one application and have it run on multiple social network sites. In other words, a Java for web apps (looks like Java has become too unfashinable since I saw this analogy hardly anywhere else). This is great news for developers. But what about users?

Users will now have a choice of thousands of applications since developer can actually spend time in creating new applications rather than try and make one application run across multiple sites. So consider, a flixter application that I found to be very cool and added to my profile page on Orkut, spent 2-3 hours adding all the movies to it and comparing notes with friends. Then I logged in to Facebook and found the same application and now I want to match my interests with my friends here. No problem, spend 2-3 hours, add all the movies and there you go. More networks? Absolutely cool ! Same application, same interface, same fun - every time ! After all the fun of using the application is really in filling up the data and OpenSocial makes it possible to do it again and again and again.Also, on different networks, my social graph differs. So if I want to watch a movie, I just need to go check the same application everywhere and decide.

Ok, I'll stop. I think everybody got the point and that is, having the same application everywhere may be nice for developer but it is not such a big deal for user till the data also starts moving between sites. With a social network based around eah and every niche, a very urgently felt need is to consolidate the data, something which OpenSocial doesn't address yet.

At this point, I must conceed that probably a lot of users do not face this situation of having very different social graph on two different sites. As long as you assume that there is only one primary social graph for a user, OpenSocial is actually great because now every new player that comes along with a brillient idea that needs an underlying social graph to run on, can just leverage the already present social graph instead of going off and build one of his own. But what happens if the site that owns the social graph, decides to kick out this application? It can be a set back but I guess the applications will still have the data that users filled them with and hence, should be able to survive on their own. Or it may happen the other way round that a new site can bootstrap itself off some other network and then spin off.

Of course, the question is if all the data is used in a open manner all around, who gets the money that is generated off it and how is it distributed? Nobody till date has figured out a sureshot way of monetizing a social graph. Facebook is betting on ad revenue and only time will tell if that will work. So the problem is two fold. First off, the social graph owners have no idea about how to make money off what they have. In addition, if they open the data and somebody else figures out a way to make money from that, it is not clear how will they get their share. So on what conditions should they open it and how much mashing up of this data should they allow is not clear.

Well so many questions and very few answers. My feeling is that somebody will take a bold move forward and that will either make or break the whole thing. But that needs to happen soon. When Orkut came along 3-4 years ago, I remember the enthusiasm around it, spending long time on it but slowly everybody around me is kind of loosing that enthusiasm, more and more people are becoming inactive. Probably OpenSocial can bring back some of that interest with some interesting applications. I am all eyes/ears :-)

PS: Tim O'Reilly also thinks that It's the data stupid ! (I read it before writing this post though I have been thinking about these issues for sometime now ).

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Thursday, November 8

धन तेरस and Wikipedia

I donated some money to the Wikimedia foundation today and then realized that it was also धन तेरस (Dhan Teras, one of the days in this festival season, dedicated to Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth) today. It is a tradition to buy something new on this day, preferably made of metal. You can think this is as our own Indian thanksgiving in that sense but without discounts ! We being Indians, Gold is obviously the first choice but people buy all sorts of new things, cloths, utensils, jewelery, furniture, home furnishing etc.

Thinking in that respect, donating to Wikipedia seems like a good idea. I will have to see if this can be my own little way of celebrating Dhan Teras every year. Although it is often said that सरस्वती (Saraswati, Goddess of knowledge) and लक्ष्मी (Lakshmi, Goddess of money) don't go well together, where one lives, the other leaves, times seem to be all changing now :-) !

Monday, November 5

कूचा-ए-जाना

चलें कूचा-ए-जाना से, शहर को देख कर आयें,
तबीयत भर गयी फ़ूलों से, कांटे देख कर आयें।

नये मौसम मे सुनते हैं, नये अंदाज़ हैं उनके,
बदल जायेगा दो दिन मे, नज़ारा देख कर आयें।

जो आयें तेरी महफ़िल मे, ना जायें फ़िर कहीं उठ कर,
कुछ आयें नये और कुछ सब ज़माना देख कर आयें।

वो पिछले मोड पर जो राह छूटी हमसफ़र छूटा,
कसक उठती है रह रह कर कि जायें देख कर आयें।

हवा मे घुल रहा है दर्द, फ़िज़ां हो चली गमगीं,
सुनाता है गज़ल फ़िर से अभागा, देख कर आयें।

Sunday, November 4

Thinking Big but not like that !

Before reading my post, read this post about the problem of Indian Entrepreneurs not thinking big enough. There was a followup post on the same blog that countered some of those point.

It was during undergrad days that I heard this argument for the first time. The biggest problem with people pitching their business plans in competitions, according to one of the judges, was that they were not asking for enough money ! It sounded quite counterintuitive to my middle class trained mind. My instincts told me to borrow as little as possible and to bootstrap as much as possible, the old Indian way of doing business as somebody later put it.

But I was naive back then, didn't understand the importance of capital, didn't understand the central premise of running a successful company in a capitalist setting i.e. growth ! Year after year, every year, growth in terms of bottom line, revenue, profits ! Because although we start out with customers, with efforts to solve a problem they are facing, we end up running the show for investors and for share holders who want return on the money they have invested. VCs want a return of 10-20 times in a framework of 3-5 years, so they want entrepreneurs to focus on big market opportunities, billion $ markets and they want companies to dominate those markets. I have no issues with dominating the markets, I have no issues with 10-20 times the returns. I have problem with the way market size is estimated and profits are measured!

A market essentially breaks down into two components. Number of customers and how much each customer is willing to pay for your product. Now Indian market is very price sensitive, something that I admire. Everything should be priced for what it is worth, it may be costly but it should be worth it. It should not be costly because it can be, something known as "charging a premium" in business terms. Another problem is that Indian market is highly fragmented. Uniform means of accessing the market are virtually non existent in most of the industries. The great enabler Internet reaches a small minority of the country. Mobiles a little more. Organized retail will perhaps reach to slightly more in few years. So the easily accessible part of the market remains small.

Faced with such conditions, what should a new company do? It is difficult, unless you are operating at the scale of Reliance or Bharti, to reach out to a large population. At the same time, the small part of the population you can reach easily, is also the most wealthy, those who are learning the first lessons of consumerism, those who can and will spend. So to get a big market size, you charge premium. And that is the trend we see. Start looking at the burgeoning startup space in India and you will see tons of startups for people who can access Internet, who are urban. Some of the startups are selling something, others are hoping to get enough ad revenue.

On the other hand, it is only the big players that are expanding into the markets beyond that. Organized retail, printing, telecom are the spaces left for giants. What effect will that have on our own home grown entrepreneurs, those who are called unorganized sector is a post for another day. But in my mind this is a very clear dividing line currently. We may talk of inclusive development and bring down the fruits of free economy to everybody but the real promise of a free economy, entrepreneurism that will be primary driver of that aim, is being held back by the old notions of big markets and big profits. The article I linked above says,

Ask: what does it take to dominate the market opportunity? Capital availability is the easy part. The hard part is building out the product/service, hiring globally scalable talent, and penetrating global markets. Capital will make this happen in large part. And the ability to think big (obviously backed by a clear focus and execution plan) will make the capital happen!

I think capital availability is easy for those who are playing by your rules, to those who are going after markets that promise Billions and double digit growths. And if such a market is not available in India, we can always go global. But what about the huge but highly fragmented market that remains untapped within our own country? We can always offer medical tourism when our own citizens will not get medical health. We can do cheap printing for other markets when thousands in our own country go without books to read. And this is because markets are defined by purchasing power and not by need.

Let me take a example. Consider the blind people in India, around 10 million of them. They are probably quite a fringe part of the so called market. There is no dearth of opportunities for those who want to make something to specifically target them but first there are only 10 million of them and second, not a whole lot of them can afford to pay a premium and so market opportunity in traditional terms remains small. Will there be capital available for those who want to entertain this part of the market or must they forever be served by NGOs and CSR initiatives?

And this is what my gripe is with this concept of thinking big. I think it is very limiting to think big if that must only be in terms of money. I love big opportunities but they can be big in n number of ways, in impact, in terms of serving a part that will forever remain neglected otherwise or in terms of the problem they are trying to handle. They may need more than 3-5 years, they may not grow as fast. Read this excellent Nobel prize acceptance speech by Mohammad Yunus, specially the section on Free Market Economy where he describes the Grameen Bank's social business.

Fortunately, as always, we have people already working on this. The second article linked above talks about SKS Microfinance, something which has received VC funding actually. Another one is Eko. And I am sure there are many more which I have simply not heard of. So while social networks, video sharing may be nice and 'big' , unfortunately they will not bring in the real fruits of this free economy. For that we will need to plant new trees instead of just aiming for tree tops.