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July 14, 1998


N Vittal

Loosen those tongues

IT can help generators and users of technology do some fast-talking

Email this story to a friend. When it comes to taking a product to the market, the early bird advantage is increasingly spelling the difference between life and death.

The story of a product's journey from being a concept to a package on the store shelf involves designing, manufacturing and marketing.

Throughout, the focus stays on the consumer of the product. Is the price right? And are the design features good enough?

Earlier, questions like these meant anticipating the user's reaction and building a prototype first. Then test-marketing products based on it. After collecting feedback from the test, designers had to often go back to the drawing board. And a price correction could mean rethinking the whole project.

All this took up a lot of time and delayed entry into the market.

But modern information technology can cut all that delay dramatically by helping the generators and users of technology communicate better and faster.

This little help from IT is so essential to a nation's competitiveness in the global market that it cannot be ignored in the technological policy of any government.

Sony, the Japanese multinational, has demonstrated the IT advantage again and again. Take the case of Handycam, its ultra-small video camera. It took only 18 months to take Handycam from a concept to the market!

The terrific speed was achieved due to fewer corrections required in the design and marketing plans of the product. This, in turn, was possible because of the close interaction between the user of the technology and its generator.

Management experts contrast the Japanese way of doing things with business practices in the United States. It helps demonstrate how important it is to ensure fast communication between users and generators of technology.

In the United States, the parameters of the product are decided first. The product is then designed accordingly. A prototype is prepared and the initial products are marketed. Depending on the market feedback on price and design, they go back to the drawing board.

In Japan, right from the stage of designing the product, consumer expectations from the product and the acceptable price are kept in mind. There is continuous modification of the design so that the time taken to reach the market is reduced and one can be sure that when the product does hit the market, it is successful.

A continuous relationship between the technology generator and the user becomes all the more important for high-tech products. Today it is possible to build systems that can a detect malfunction, like a computer virus infection, and fix it.

How can Indian generators of technology leverage the information technology advantage and optimise their productivity and profitability?

We can look at the entire issue from points of view of hardware software.

The hardware view is about developing of a 'national information infrastructure' or the NII. We have to design a system that will satisfy the four critical requirements for successful communication: accessibility, affordability, connectivity and reliability. The software view I am talking about is concerning a change in government policy.

The hardware problem is easier to handle. In fact, it is a healthy sign that the government seems to have realised the significance of information technology and is already working on it.

The high-level National Taskforce for Information Technology has already submitted to the government the first list of recommendations to clear the bottleneck in IT's way.

But providing for a National Information Infrastructure would call for immediate policy measures like:

  1. The Internet policy, which has already been announced by the government, must be further expanded to cover and permit all new technologies like Internet telephony. The idea is to make Internet service providing so profitable that it attracts large investment.
  2. Any agency of government or any private company must be of allowed to compete for building any part of the national Internet backbone.
  3. The present restrictions on networks linking to each other directly and the insistence that they connect with each other only through the Department of Telecommunications' network should be scrapped immediately.
  4. New technologies for building infrastructure must be permitted. For instance, cable TV can now play a role in building the infrastructure. If this new technology were permitted, several small entrepreneurs would be able to play a role in building the NII. Ubiquitous electric power lines, themselves, are capable of transmitting data. Such technologies have to be encouraged.
  5. To ensure that there is no policeman, whose approval would be necessary for building the NII, we must announce that any agency is free to join the effort to build the NII and banks and other financial institutions may encourage them. As no communication system can succeed unless it is able to meet the customer's requirement of being able to talk from point 'A' to point 'B', there is no danger of any chaos. These technologies will automatically jell into an NII.
  6. When it comes to technology, there seems to be a compulsion for adopting the latest advances. But let us not forget that in India we have bullock carts in the same lanes as the most modern cars. We should, therefore, adopt an eclectic approach to technology and leave it to the market forces to decide what technology is best suitable. Over-regulation could kill the NII initiative.
  7. The legal framework will have to be strengthened by amending laws so that what requires a paper document today can also be equally served by an electronic one. The report of the secretary, DoE, which is already before the government, should be implemented within a month, if necessary, by issuing an ordinance.
  8. The Income Tax Act must allow for 100 per cent depreciation in the first year itself for all investment made in information technology. This would automatically encourage leasing activities. A Rs 40,000 computer can then be leased for Rs 400 a month.
  9. In order to encourage greater use of computers in the economy, bar coding must be made mandatory for all items attracting excise and sales tax.
  10. We cannot expect massive use of computers and information technology in the country if the government does not adopt modern methods itself. This is possible only if at least 2 per cent of the budget of every ministry or department is earmarked for application of information technology in the department. The funds can be utilised for not only investment in machines but also training.
  11. Optimum use must be made of the existing investments in networks. Restrictions like not allowing voice telephony over VSAT networks or not allowing telephony in Internet should be removed.
  12. The DoT monopoly must be removed by splitting DoT into four corporations as was suggested by the Telecom Commission in 1993.
  13. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India must be strengthened by transferring work relating to spectrum management as well as licensing to it. This will ensure that the present difficulties faced by the every operator in the telecom services will be removed.
  14. The ultimate success of the Internet's proliferation in the country will depend upon connectivity, affordability, accessibility and reliability. For example, in order to ensure reliability, alternative modes of communication must be permitted. The Insat 2D failure highlighted how because DoT did not permit the VSAT users to have leased lines, the NSE had to go out of commission for about a week till alternative arrangements could be made. Reliability comes from redundancy and this should be encouraged. The present policy restrictions must be removed forthwith.
  15. The report on cyber laws by the committee headed by the secretary, DoE, which is already before the government should be implemented immediately. As regards intellectual property rights, there is need to amend the Patent Act and also improve the systems and procedures so that the present delays in getting patents are eliminated. Till our systems are amended, a fund of Rs 1 billion could be created whose purpose would be to see that in the US and the other developed countries, Indian technologies are patented so that they can be marketed worldwide.
Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis | Global Slum | Rebooting democracy | Catalysts of change | Educational emergency | A card for all seasons | Moore, Metcalf & Gelder | Heads I win, tails you lose!

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