Indian it and the Storm in the Measuring Cup



Ever taken a walk in the hills? Just when you think you have reached the top,
there is one more peak. The end point just keeps shifting. In one way, being in
the IT industry is like that experience. Just when you think you have it mapped,
it moves off in a new direction. The IT industry has grown both by internal
developments as well as by ‘acquiring’ other industries. It first acquired
calculating machines, then it acquired typewriters and in the recent past, it
has acquired the postal system…in future, it threatens to acquire the
television and entertainment industries. With increasingly seamless industry
associations, it is impossible to define where the IT industry ends. And with
the definitions changing frequently, the job of making comparisons is
precarious.

ITeS: The new buzzword
For IT in India, the big ‘acquired’ industry this year is ITeS. Should
services based on IT be a part of the IT industry? One argument is that
industries that are based significantly on IT should be included, while others
should not. The counter-argument is that there’ll be no industries that are
not significantly dependent on IT.

“IT has grown by it’s own development and by acquiring other industries. It first acquired calculators, then typewriters, then the postal system…will entertainment and television be next?”

 Shyam
Malhotra

For instance, travel. No ticketing on airlines is possible even today without
IT–so should travel be a part of IT? And tomorrow, if the entire sale of cars
from one manufacturer happen online, would that become a part of IT? Or if VoIP
becomes big, will all revenues of voice over the Internet be a part of the IT
industry?

What about revenues from Internet service providers? ISPs provide several
services and these will only increase with time. If e-mail becomes paid and
generates revenues, will it be a part of the IT industry–thereby competing
with the postal industry? What happens when composite devices like palmtops and
mobile phones become commonplace? Do they get added to IT or to telecom, or to
both? If you watch films on my portable downloaded from an application service
provider over a broadband network, are the revenues of that included in those of
the information technology industry? And, of course, if you start reading this
content online and pay us for it, are those revenues part of the IT industry?

The convergence of technologies and applications is logically leading to
questions about size and growth measurement practices for these converged
industry segments. The answers will evolve with time–as convergence happens,
new ways of measuring the size of industries, classifications and definitions
will emerge. That will be the job of analysts.

What comes first? ‘C’? Or ‘I’?
At the ground level, these will change the way of life of millions across
the planet. One trend that is very evident is that the ‘C’ of ICT will drive
IT growth and the ‘I’ will be the follower. In other words, computers will
not drive the growth of this industry. It will be the availability and
accessibility of communication that will drive the growth of computers. No
doubt, there will be other factors too.

But if you want to single out one, it would have to be this: the computer
density of a society will be important, but its tele-density will be the really
critical determinator. While the networked computer and its power to impact
society was always seen to be higher than the standalone machine, it is only in
the last couple of years that this vision has turned into concrete reality.

The importance of connectivity of telephones, mobiles, computers, networks
and other devices is the mantra of the moment.

Individuals, societies and countries that harness this power are already
emerging winners and will continue to do so.

Today there is a grave imbalance amongst countries–both in terms of
equipment and the usage that it is put to. There are 83 countries that have a
tele-density below 10% and 25 with a tele-density below 1%. That is a huge
difference. In other words, the revolutions of the past 50-100 years are
microscopic. The usage patterns are even more starkly different. High costs make
even the basic telephone call a rarity in some countries.

Missing out on the obvious
Just look around and you will find people around you who think twice before
making a telephone call! For those who have got used to a telephone being as
essential an attachment as the mouth, this would be a surprise. Not because they
do not know it. But because it just escapes their thought process. The Internet
connectivity spread is even more disparate. In the islands of bandwidth in
abundance, guzzling applications run without a stop. In other places, the
Internet with all its power just does not exist.

Today, the real poverty of a country lies in the paucity of its information
infrastructure. This will only increase as information oriented activities
increase as a percentage of total gross domestic product. Prosperous cities and
countries emerging as islands of information. Bangalore in India and Singapore
in Asia are examples. But surrounding these are oceans of information poverty.
This underscores why for next couple of decades the driver of growth will be
communications.

A parallel trend that is emerging is the slow down of innovation in
information technology–as we knew it. The argument is that future changes are
more of an evolutionary nature than revolutionary. Faster microprocessors,
bigger disk drives, mobiles with more features are enhancements that will add
convenience but may not be earthshaking in their impact. Today, there’s
sufficient evidence to suggest that hardware is now a commodity. There is no
mystery in the technology and the developments are predictable or even boring.
Product differentiation is not a technology issue but a marketing ploy. It may
not have reached the stage of the cola wars but the trend is clear.

Software has more variety but is so dominated by one set of products that the
excitement is missing. After the dotcom bust, finance is wary of information
technology and investments will remain stunted. This leads one to believe that
human endeavor will shift to advances in biotechnology or even biology. And the
silicon-dominated advances of the past 50 years may very much become history.

Deployment, not development
Not that IT or ICT are dead. But the challenge is now of deployment not
development. For many users in India–and across the world–the real
revolution is yet to happen. For them, the revolution will happen when
applications reach them. From the time a technology evolves to the time it
becomes ubiquitous is decreasing but it still spans generations. Television,
automobiles, electricity, telephones, healthcare have taken generations to
spread–not months or years.

The same is true of ICT. The Internet, which was touted as the super quick
opportunity creator has lost a bit of its sheen. It retains its potential but no
is sure how and when will it spread itself far and wide.

So what’s the bottomline? Is there no way by which these periods can be
shortened? It would be nice if there were a technology that could make that
happen! Or if at least, a part of the resources used in developing technologies
were diverted to spreading it.

The author is Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director of Cyber Media (India)
Ltd, the publishers of Dataquest.

He can be reached at shyamm@cmil.com

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