The Inevitability Of Technology-Led Transformation

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2005
The Inevitability Of Technology-Led Transformation
Ganesh Natarajan is Deputy Chairman and Managing Director of Zensar Technologies, Pune, and chairs the Innovation initiative of NASSCOM

Alvin Toffler once talked about people who "suffer from the dizzying disorientation caused by the premature arrival of the future," and it is not surprising to find that the rapid changes that technology is causing in many lifestyles and workplaces often happens at a pace that staggers even the most techno-savvy of communities and even countries.

Nothing epitomises this more than the telecommunications industry in India. In a land where a famous Harvard professor once said "half the population was waiting for a telephone while the other half was waiting for a dial tone", it is amusing, though not surprising, to find not just educated professionals but even farmers and milkmen making effective-and sometimes innovative-use of the mobile phone.

In fact, a few years ago, it seemed that the wireless revolution would catapult Asia ahead of the long-developed nations of the USA and the UK, where the traditional population were slow to adapt to the new trends in communications technology.

Not for long, though-passing through Denver airport on a recent trip to the US, I was amazed to see that almost all boarding gates have now become wireless 'hot spots'. Take out your computer, click your browser and you are on the Web faster than you can say 'PDA'!

With the number of hot spots expected to soar from a few hundred in 2003 to over a hundred thousand by the end of the decade, and cellular providers such as Sprint and Verizon boosting the capabilities of their wide area networks to facilitate high speed data transfer, the world is changing faster than many of us would imagine.

Picture three scenarios so eloquently described in Hemispheres Magazine and you will get the message: Wireless Point of Sale devices are beginning to augment, and in some cases replace, the traditional billing stations at major retailers such as Home Depot, Sears and K-Mart, with agents walking up customer checkout lines armed with handheld PCs and order scanners-a process that is being referred to as line busting.  Barton Marlow, a Michigan construction firm, is setting up wireless networks at all its construction sites to help engineers, financial analysts and other site and corporate office employees share architectural blueprints, project plans, spreadsheets and e-mails to speed up the construction process. And the third, Studio Pipelines of America, a Vancouver television production company, has given PDAs to all studio hands, producers and even actors on production sets, and connected them to a wireless network to enable set planning and even script updating to be done 'on the fly'.

What has been the sequence of events leading up to this movement of wireless technologies into the mainstream of business? The ill-fated Apple Newton, introduced in 1993, was probably the first attempt in this area, but it was the introduction of the Palm Pilot three years later that really set off the revolution in handheld computing.

And now, notebook computers with Intel's Centrino technology come with inbuilt wireless capabilities; PDAs provide wireless connectivity through national and international carriers; smartphones and pocket PCs are beginning to merge in terms of features and functionalities; and tight integration between computing and communications is enabling seamless handling of voice, data e-mail and text messages, with multimedia messaging services now being provided as well.

The ubiquitous Bluetooth will soon make seamless and cordless communication between smart devices a feature of all working environments. Public WiFi systems are becoming the order of the day, with more and more people slipping in a wireless LAN card in their computer and connecting at airports, bookstores and coffee shops. Airlines such as Lufthansa and SAS have introduced the service on their flights, and SBC plans to make countrywide access points a reality, starting with 13 states in the US.

The proliferation is being helped by the substantial reductions in costs with routers, access points, LAN cards, and other devices all witnessing dropping prices, and the cost of setting up and moving wireless networks now becoming a fraction of that associated with wired Ethernet. As the 802.11b standard yields to the more advanced standards with higher bandwidths and higher ranges, more advanced applications, such as video, will be enabled. The only concern that remains is one of security against hackers, but newer third-party software will result in industry-strength features in this area as well.

The concept of ubiquitous computing that makes wireless so attractive is also being extended to Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technologies, wireless cash registers, and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems. Logistics firms running delivery operations across vast geographies are able to schedule and service customer needs better and faster using GPS, while retailers and manufacturers can track supplies and inventory across the supply chain using RFID.

The day is not far when all these facilities will get fully integrated, and the science fiction dream of locating a restaurant, making a reservation, finding the lowest prices and paying without cash are all available to completely transform the day to day processes of working and living.

I remember writing in a column a couple of years ago about the modern man in a smart world leaving his office in a car that receives a message from the fridge at home that there is no milk and routing its journey via the grocer's store, where the order has already been placed and is ready for pickup. All that and more is waiting to happen in the very near future.

Will the wireless revolution transform this country soon? Of course it will, as some industry leaders such as RPG Retail, Hindustan Construction, Star TV, etc, begin to emulate the global best-in-class, and of course, use the software that would inevitably have been developed by Indian software companies.

If there is one area where Indians are already ahead of their US corporate brethren, it is SMS. Sitting in a plane at Newark airport in New Jersey one morning and busy sending and receiving messages to and from my office in Pune, it was wonderful to watch the amazement on the face of my American neighbour witnessing this wireless transaction happening across thousands of miles.

This technology transformation is not just restricted to the telecommunications arena-in field after field, from information to education to entertainment, the rapid proliferation of technology is enabling animated movies to be produced in just months instead of years. It is enabling educators to move from chalk and talk. From teachers to facilitators of computers and Internet-enabled learning, it is happening and spawning a new set of cartoons such as the recent one with the smug face of an American kid saying, "Thank God I've found a way to outsource my homework to India".

"The concept of ubiquitous computing that makes wireless so attractive is also being extended to GPS technologies, wireless cash registers, and RFID systems"

On a more serious note, though, the great Indian Software Industry, which has found the magic mantra of low cost and high quality to move huge quanta of IT and Business Process work to Indian centres, are themselves preparing for a new paradigm, when programs will be generated by technology rather than human programmers, and many professionals would have to learn new tricks to continue to be ahead of the world.

What does this mean for the Indian software industry? A generation of programmers for whom artistry in Java has been the path to the holy grail of dollar salaries will have to retool themselves to become true architects-a challenge akin to the humble bricklayer or plumber or mason who suddenly takes on the role of an architect. This will cause a true paradigm shift, where analysis of business problems and creation of efficient designs will enable automated code factories to be set up even in expensive countries, thereby bringing the entire Indian success model of large campuses in low-cost economies into question.

Is that, then, the end of the dream promised by even the finance minster P Chidambaram in his Budget speech, where he promised the creation of over 70 lakh jobs in the IT sector by the end of the decade?
Not really, because there is enough innovation in the Indian industry and India's youth to seek new opportunities to demonstrate the strength and quality of Indian initiative and intelligence.

In sector after sector, city after city and generation after generation, we have seized opportunities that have come our way and will continue to do so. It will definitely need a strong partnership between the industry, the academic institutions and all the State and Central governments to identify opportunities early and capitalise on them, and our technology-friendly youth will have enough openings to build their
own new global dreams.

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