Work Anywhere

Imagine an office with no cubicles. Just tables with network
nodes. Employees without any fixed working place. They come in, log on to the
network, finish work and move on. Alternatively they just work from the comforts
of their homes. Perhaps difficult for Adam Scott, creator of the popular comic
character, Dilbert, to imagine such a scenario (because Dilbert’s world is
confined to a cubicle). Also, hooking on to the Internet would be via the mobile
phone at a data transfer rate of 386Kbps (10 — 15 times faster than what
Indian Internet users get on their home PCs through dial-up modems). This speed
could increase up to 2Mbps as and when Indian cell operators offer full-blown
‘third generation’ (3G) services to their customers. Colleagues in the same
‘office’ would communicate via e-mails, with chances that they don’t even
meet each other.

Sounds futuristic, a scene straight out of a sci-fi Hollywood
movie–at least for India. Well, but it can be a reality, much earlier than one
thinks. Work environments mentioned above are already commonplace in Sweden and
Finland. NTT Docomo, the biggest cellular service provider in Japan and the
third largest in the world, intends to offer its 3G services by April 2001,
offering its subscribers 386Kbps data transfer rates.

The question from the Indian perspective–when can it become
a reality here? The answer depends on India’s ability to manage its bandwidth
problems. Currently, local and international bandwidths are a big problem area.
Lack of a good local Internet backbone has compounded the international
bandwidth problem further. Most of the corporate servers are based outside
India, so an e-mail sent from Delhi to Mumbai is routed through the US server
(this requires international bandwidth) before being routed back to the mailbox
in India. The lack of local infrastructure and bandwidth has impeded the growth
of corporate interest in intranets and virtual private networks.

However, all this could change if India is able to get 10Gbps
by 2000 and meet future bandwidth targets. At the same time, it will also need
to ramp up its local Internet infrastructure by setting up the national Internet
backbone and inter-connecting it to strong regional networks being set up by
private players like Reliance, Hughes and Bharti. It could bring in a paradigm
shift (still seems sci-fi) in the work pattern of corporate employees. Agrees
Pran Mehra, CEO, Band-X, India, "Definitely it will allow them to
benefit tremendously on aspects like data exchange and access, virtual private
networks (VPNs), voice over IP, interactive chats and other issues."

The impact

The biggest impact of an expanded bandwidth will be on
corporate deployments of ‘anywhere, anytime’ applications like VPNs and
intranet access over the Internet. All the data will be stored on servers, which
employees could access at any time, from any place across the country. Such
applications are already in place in a few corporates. For instance, there is a
lot of mobile computing in multinationals like Citrix. On an average, 40% of the
staff is travelling and accessing the corporate network through dial-up from
hotel rooms.

However, with bandwidth and remote connectivity not issues
any more, deployment of applications could become a mass movement. Says Sanjay
Nayak, CEO, Tejas Networks, "Moving from a situation of ‘bandwidth
scarcity’ to ‘bandwidth abundance’ will drive significant changes."
With such applications in place, it will be a matter of time before
telecommuting becomes a norm. Says Shymol Banerjee, director, DSP Development
Center, Texas Instruments (India), "It started with the need to provide
nursing mothers to access (to the corporate intranet) from home. However, this
is now becoming an alternative work model allowing for more flexibility." A
major change in work culture will be the emphasis on collaboration. The cycle
time between order and delivery will be substantially reduced and enterprises
will allow customers to order on the Web. Says V Venkatraman, senior manager,
channels, Nortel Networks (India), "This means that, where earlier
connectivity was ensured only for critical systems, now it will be for a
corporate-wide collaborative work culture. Access to resources from anywhere
will not be an issue."

The impact on such working environments is already evident–in
IT companies with development centers spanning the globe which work on projects
on 24-hour cycles. Adds Venkatraman, "Teleworking will come into play at
least in new-economy companies. Even in the old-economy companies like FMCG,
there will be an increase in part-time off-site workers."

Collaboration will be the new buzzword and will move across
the length and breadth of the Indian corporate grid. Sales professionals need
not bother about going to their offices but can instead concentrate at meeting
targets, as information on the latest product developments in terms of price
changes and new dealers would be available on the Net. They could request
holidays by logging on to the company’s intranet and mail the leave
application to their superior or the HR department. If they want interactive
meetings, they could simply use the video conferencing facility rather than
spend hours travelling to a designated place. Though e-mail is already an
established corporate communications tool, with adequate bandwidth, it could
take on a new meaning of facilitating collaboration.

The same could apply to other functions like HR, accounts and
systems that make the presence in the office mandatory, at present. This will
reduce the need for administrative staff and also change the distribution value
chain dramatically.

The first to take off the block will be the metro employees
as problems of traffic and travelling time rise. Agrees Nayak, "In general,
telecommuting will increase, specially when traffic situations in large metros
are worsening."

Mobile computing

The cell phone and other wireless handheld devices could be
the preferred mode of communication in the corporate world. The prices of basic
services, including Internet access, would come down, so that they would be well
within the reach of corporate employees, due to adequate bandwidth availability
and low prices of equipment. Also, because of similar reasons, there would be a
spur in the growth and usage of mobile computing in the country. Employees
sitting in some remote part of the country and accessing the Net through cell
phones or handheld devices would also become a common corporate feature. As the
storage technology matures to store higher volumes in smaller disks, laptops
could see a serious threat from mobile devices.

Security perspective

However, another serious implication of non-PC devices
gaining prominence would be from the security perspective. Devices like palmtops
would access information from any PC without even connecting to it. Now, this
capability is being built into mobile phones too. For example, the new Samsung
mobile SGH-A100 uses infrared to exchange information with your colleague’s
computers. Security will become a big issue when employees migrate into a space
where many devices other than PCs start participating in the computing
environment of the enterprise. Agrees Banerjee, "The technology to transfer
information electronically (wired and wireless) has been around for some
time."

In fact, mobile computing devices including handheld devices,
laptops and mobile phones, could only accelerate the death of the cubicle.
However, the upside to the bandwidth cost coming down would be that IT managers
would be able to focus more on setting up secure networks rather than rationing
bandwidth to critical applications. Says Venkatraman, "From a corporate IT
budget point, as bandwidth becomes cheaper, it will free up that much more money
to do a foolproof and secure network."

Will we have it?

With India emerging as one of the hottest markets in the
coming years, any service provider, MNC or local, will make sure that services
are internationally benchmarked. The problem will occur if the government
continues to dilly-dally on the bandwidth issue. In that case, the majority of
corporate houses will still have to wait.

YOGRAJ VARMA
in New Delhi

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