Thursday, February 23, 2012

Big Data = New Class of Economic Asset

In a single week, a small-scale farmer in rural Kenya may use his mobile phone to pay for seeds, search for co-ops offering the best prices for sorghum, and text his expatriate brother asking for money for school fees or medicine for a sick child. This farmer’s mobile phone usage may be of interest to a sociologist or cultural anthropologist. But when combined with usage information from 27 million other mobile subscribers in Kenya, the data paint a unique, unprecedented image of public behaviors, preferences, and needs. According to IBM, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated worldwide every 24 hours. Interest in the collection and use of this so-called "big data" is gathering steam. It is new class of economic asset, like currency or gold.

Yet, there is an important difference between developed and developing countries in terms of data creation. In the developed world, data is produced by a wide variety of sources - Internet-enabled computers and mobile devices, ATMs, cash registers, GPSs, cell phones, RFID tags, and many others. In urban areas of developing countries, the variety of data sources is beginning to rival mature-market cities. However, in the remote areas of many countries, mobile phones are by far the dominant source of data. This presents a unique opportunity for private companies, governments, academic institutions, and development organizations. Data from mobile phones can be used by companies to support new product definition, market segmentation, and ongoing product and service development. Governments and NGOs can use big data to allocate resources, evaluate and improve social programs, and quickly identify (and respond to) health and environmental crises.

In a recent report for the World Economic Forum, Vital Wave Consulting showed that momentum is growing for a centralized "data commons" that will guide public and private sector efforts to gather, clean, protect, and share data. This work is being advanced by the UN, NGOs, academic institutions, and innovative organizations like Kenya’s Ushahidi and San Francisco’s Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. These groups foresee the application of big data to persistent challenges in the areas of health, public services, agriculture, financial services for the poor, and disaster relief. To be sure, there are obstacles to overcome - privacy and security, data quality, incentivizing private companies to share data, and a dearth of data mining and analysis expertise. But the singular importance of mobile phone-generated data throughout the developing world presents a clearer path to data gathering and usage. And the potential benefits to sharing and aggregating data are becoming more evident each day.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Low-Cost Tablets Fuel "Post-PC" Debate

A technophile walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Have you heard the one about the new laptop that costs a fraction of the price of the real thing, but with all the bells an' whistles?" The techie chuckles and says, "Yeah, I've heard it - it's a good one. In fact, I hear it every year."

One recent installment in the cheap, revolutionary laptop field comes from India, where Datawind announced a $35 tablet with Android 2.2, 256 MB of RAM and 2 GB of flash memory. The announcement followed the established pattern - developers stoke demand by unveiling a prototype that looks and behaves just like higher priced machines. Tech blogs dutifully report the announcement, then pose questions and comments about the fate of the PC in a world full of handhelds, smart phones and tablet PCs that anybody can afford. One tech observer went so far as to suggest that the device will make India the first true "post-PC" country - borrowing a term from the ongoing debate everywhere from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to the Economist over whether PCs have been effectively replaced by smart phones, tablets and laptops.

But the technophile in the bar knows that the devil is in the details. According to Datawind's CEO, Suneet Tuli, the $35 price can only be reached when annual volume reaches 2-3 million units. In the meantime, the Indian government's initial order costs $50 per unit. And Datawind is hoping to save money by "componentizing" the manufacturing process, and make money from their own app store. The company should be commended for re-tooling the standard business model, but multinational technology firms are not obliged to take the "post-PC" bait. While it's true that iPads outsold top-selling traditional computers last quarter, and a fully loaded PC isn't needed just to send emails or surf the Web, students and office workers will balk at creating reports with a 7" digital keypad. Consumers (and many common software applications) demand more processing power and memory than most low-cost machines can offer.

The only tech companies that should worry about a "post-PC" world are those that have not diversified to feed the insatiable global demand for mobile devices - and there are few of those (though their mobile market share may be smaller and less defensible). The rise of cheap tablets and app-filled smart phones is an opportunity for traditional hardware, software and component companies. The "Annual Low-cost Challenger" will need more than just large government orders; they will need distribution channels, marketing savvy, production partners and many other advantages to sustain their business. Supporting new entrants (formally or informally) may bring more customers into the technology market, leading them along the path to more sophisticated devices. And that's no joke.