What does it take for us to make this future a reality? How can we make computing available to every family, every employee and every student in India? There are three triggers that are needed to create the foundation for a Digital India:
Ubiquitous Wireless and Wired Broadband Infrastructure: For too long, India has been hamstrung by short-sighted telecom policies. We need to treat broadband as core and critical infrastructure, just like roads, ports, airports and power.
Low-cost Access Devices with a Utility Computing Model: We need to reduce the entry barrier for consumers and small- and medium-sized enterprises to adopt computing - in essence, replicating the mobile revolution of the past five years on the broadband front. To do this, computing needs to become simple and affordable - and this is where network computers and mobile internet devices can play a central role.
Content and Applications: There needs to be an open platform allowing a wide array of providers to offer their services and bill them. Just like the mobile ecosystem has an in-built microbilling facility through the operators, there needs to be an equivalent micropayments option that consumers have to the business model for monetisation is not reliant only on advertising.
To get to the future from where we are today, we need to think about the innovations needed on the two Internets that exist today. The PC-based wireline Internet has about 30-40 million users, with a majority of the users using cybercafes. With only 8 million computers in Indian homes, this Internet is still a long way from becoming a utility in people’s lives. The mobile-centric wireless Internet can potentially reach a significant portion of the nearly 300 million cellphone users in India. However, the reality is that other than voice, there are only two services which touch a large fraction of this user base - SMS and ringback tones. The mobile-as-India’s-computer paradigm still has a long way to go.
Looking at it another way, for the real boom, the wireline Internet needs more devices (home computers) and the mobile Internet needs more services. What will it take to make both happen?
To solve the device problem, one needs to rethink computing in a world where broadband exists - and thus make computers affordable and manageable. For this, the answers lie in borrowing two ideas from the mobile industry - create a device that costs Rs 5,000, and combine it with a monthly service charge of Rs 500, and make the device simple to use without requiring its owner to become a technology expert!
The solution to these twin challenges lies in thinking ‘thin’ computers for Indian homes - connected over DSL or cable to servers over high-speed networks. All the computational processing is done at the server-end, and the network computers become simple ‘on-off’ devices - without compromising on the performance that current desktop computers offer.
To make the mobile Internet a reality in India, two changes need to happen, and they have to be driven by the mobile operators since they are the ‘gatekeepers.’ First, an open publishing platform is needed to allow anyone to create a mobile website that is accessible by everyone - just like on the PC Internet.
Second, mobile operators need to change their billing philosophy for value-added services. The bulk of the revenue that users pay must be given to the content providers. Mobile operators should, instead, charge for packet data flow through their ‘pipes.’ At a broader level, just like NTT Docomo did with its i-mode service in Japan in 1999, Indian mobile operators need to encourage the creation of a value-generating ecosystem.
Taken together, these innovations can help build the Digital India, and create a framework for other emerging markets to emulate and provide a large domestic market for companies to finally think India First.