Friday, August 27, 2010

The entrepreneur turns mobile

Saving On Time Proved To Be A Huge Business Opportunity For Mobicule.
artical PictureFor 30-year-old Siddharth Agarwal, the motivation to launch a start-up came by simply noticing one key trend in the large business enterprises in the country. 

“There is a certain way in which sales is done in India: the salesman goes to the store, receives the order and then comes back to the office to punch it. The time-lag is big. It struck me that this whole process can be simplified by using a mobile phone.”
For the computer science engineering graduate from the Sardar Patel College of Engineering in Mumbai, the mission was simple: to create a mobile application that would enable enterprises to streamline their sales process. With this in mind, he and his team in Mobicule worked together for six months to create Msales — their first product in the space.
“The product flow is quite simple. An application is installed onto a GPRS-enabled handset, which allows the sales person to make, update and cancel orders while he’s in the field, with the data shared with the sales back-office simultaneously,” he says.
Mr Agarwal’s experience at a start-up venture MyZus, incubated at IIT-Bombay, helped in working out this idea. He funded it with a loan of 50 lakh in September 2008.
As his product gained acceptance in the market, Mr Agarwal moved into a 40-seat office in Andheri East in Suburban Mumbai, and focused on building a team to drive sales. But this was a challenge for a cash-strapped start-up. 

To counter it, he adopted a unique tactic. “We got a whole number of interns on board. This brought down our costs, as they remained interns for six months before joining us,” he says.
After six months, when most of them joined as full-time employees, the company had a fully-trained motivated staff to hit the ground running. Soon enough, the Mobicule team had their next mobile application ready. This one was titled MWarehouse, a device that helps large retail chains such as Shoppers Stop carry out inventory audits and checks.
Typically, the startup ties up with large retail chains and provides them with an application that is installed within the hand-held mobile scanners used to take inventory checks. The device then uses Wi-Fi or a LAN connection to update the inventory onto the enterprise resource planning system (ERP) in the back-end. Shoppers Stop picked up the application first.
“At that point, we were looking for a way to automate our distribution centre. We were looking for multiple options. What impressed me about the Mobicule team was that they were willing to develop the product at no cost, and provide it to us — essentially put their money where they mouth is,” says Rajit Satyanath, CIO of Shoppers Stop, who signed on as Mobicule’s first client for this product.
The key to Mobicule’s rapid growth has been its ability to pick up customers at regular intervals, including marquee ones such as Unitech Constructions, Baxter Pharmaceuticals and Usha Electricals.
Similar to their flagship product Msales, Mobicule has also recently launched a software tilted M-CRM, a mobile application that helps companies stay on top of their pre-sales process — managing and updating of leads before the sales is carried out.
Across the various enterprise applications, Mobicule uses a licensing business model: one where companies pay a licensing fee of approximately 7,000 per user per year. With most companies having large sales forces, the average collection for Mobicule is 5 lakh and above per client per year.
Apart from its enterprise applications, Mobicule also has a consumer application titled Fonebackup, which allows users to back up their handsets. Majority of their revenues come from enterprise applications. Revenues, which are today pegged at 2 crore per year, are projected to increase to 7 crore by the end of 2014.
Despite the growth, Mr Agarwal has struggled to raise funding for his project so far. “The mobile enterprise space is a unique one. As it is relatively new, investors have difficulty in understanding the potential of the space. If we had raised funding earlier, with increase in marketing and sales, we could have been much bigger than what we are today,” he says. 

For now, the company is looking to build applications on new platforms such as iPhone and Android and to start hawking their products across new geographies such as the Middle East and the UK.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Use TD-LTE for wireless broadband service?

Technology may not be mature enough to satiate the needs of Indian telcos
artical Picture
As the telecom players who have bid huge amounts to win broadband wireless access spectrum make their technology choice, they have to balance the need to roll out the service fast, minimising the time taken to monetise the spectrum they have already paid for, and to adopt a technology that is future-proof and compatible with their inter-connect partners’ choice. The choice, essentially is between WiMax and the time division version of long-term evolution (LTE), which is yet to be fully validated. Prof Arogyaswami Paulraj of Stanford University, who has made significant contributions to developing MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) techniques used in mobile WiMAX, and was awarded the Padma Bhushan this year, offers his perspective. 
TD-LTE technology, which is one of the candidates for wireless broadband services in India, is being delayed. Now, it is time to seriously consider if TD-LTE is the best technology that can serve as growth driver for India, a country with a great potential for wireless broadband, and if the technology is worth waiting for until the ecosystem becomes mature. 
TD-LTE lies on the evolution path of TD-SCDMA (time division synchronous code division multiple access), a technology driven by the Chinese government, and is, therefore, widely known as a standard originating from China. Most patents related to TD-LTE are owned by Chinese vendors and top positions in the standards bodies related to TD-LTE are dominated by the Chinese, which means that standardisation can be delayed or specifications can be modified in their favour. 
If TD-LTE keeps growing this way, the whole telecommunication industry could end up relying on Chinese vendors. It is questionable if TD-LTE ecosystem formed by Chinese vendors is robust and sustainable enough to continue its technology development and widespread adoption. 
So far, only a few operators, including China Mobile, have expressed their will to adopt TDLTE technology. Considering the time needed to develop TD-LTE products, the earliest availability of commercial products in the market will be around 2012. 
Although China Mobile is the largest mobile operator by subscriber base, it is still doubtful how many subscribers they can have by 2012 when wireless broadband market enters into a mature stage. 
This state of affairs is a cause for worry and anxiety for Indian operators who have finally acquired BWA (Broadband Wireless Access) spectrum. A total of $8.2 billion was paid by the six winners of the BWA auction. According to a recent news report, they have to pay interest costs of about $36 million every month. Winners of BWA auction in India are eager to recover this huge amount of investment by launching their services as early as possible. 
The delay affects not just for the industry. Telecom being an infrastructure sector, this delay contributes to the national loss in terms of opportunity and development. 
It is a source of worry for the government as well. The government plans to raise India’s broadband subscriber base to 100 million from its current level of 7 million (penetration 0.6%) by 2014. 
By raising its broadband penetration rate, the government aims to boost the economy’s performance, as the plan is expected to invigorate the country’s telecommunication industry and create new jobs. The World Bank recently announced that a 10% growth of broadband penetration leads a 1.3% increase in the GDP of a nation. 
TD-LTE, currently at its initial stage of development, seems not mature enough to satiate the needs of Indian operators and the government. Even in China, some tests are underway but no commercial base stations or terminals are available at this point. 
India is one of the countries with the most potential for growth. Will India take a chance to leapfrog its economic status by expanding broadband coverage with mature wireless technology available today or continue to remain waiting for tomorrow for a new and untested technology and thus, lose the opportunity of faster economic growth? In my view, the former is the choice which this country needs and will go for.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Humor Of the Day.........Women are extremely determined

The FBI had an opening for an assassin. After all the background checks, 

interviews and testing were done, there were 3 finalists; two men and a 

woman. For the final test, the FBI agents took one of the men to a large 

metal door and handed him a gun. "We must know that you will follow our 

instructions no matter what the circumstances. Inside the room you will 

find your wife sitting in a chair . . . Kill her!!" 

The man said, "You can't be serious. I could never shoot my wife." The 

agent said, "Then you're not the right man for this job. Take your wife 

and go home." 

The second man was given the same instructions. He took the gun and went 

into the room. All was quiet for about 5 minutes. The man came out with 

tears in his eyes, "I tried, but I can't kill my wife." The agent said, 

"You don't have what it takes. Take your wife home." 

Finally, it was the woman's turn. She was given the same instructions, to 

kill her husband. She took the gun and went into the room. Shots were 

heard, one after another. They heard screaming, crashing, banging on the 

walls. After a few minutes, all was quiet. The door opened slowly and 

there stood the woman, wiping the sweat from her brow. "This gun was 

loaded with false bullets" she said. "I had to beat him to death with the 


MORAL: Women are extremely determined.. Don't mess with them?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Five Warning Signs Your Innovation Efforts Are Going Off the Rails

Vijay Govindarajan Vijay Govindarajan is the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. His most recent book is The Other Side of Innovation.

For the past ten years, my colleague, Chris Trimble, and I have studied one critical question: What are the best practices for executing an innovation initiative?
Execution is the poor stepchild of the innovation challenge. People love to engage in the hunt for the big ideas, but, let's face it, without execution capability, an idea on paper is....just an idea on paper.
Having conducted research in more than 25 of the Fortune 500 companies, including Deere, Hasbro, Thomson Reuters, GE, IBM, and Corning, we have found that when they want to bring an innovation alive, companies typically commit one of two cardinal sins. Either they ask the core business to do the innovation, or they create skunkworks. Both approaches are fatally flawed. Asking the core business to do innovation won't work because the core is built for efficiency — to make every task repeatable and predictable. Innovation requires actions that are incompatible with what core business can do, actions that are non-routine and unpredictable. On the other hand, isolating innovation in skunkworks far away from the core business is not a good solution either, since innovation must leverage some assets from the core. Otherwise the skunkworks has no advantage over a Silicon Valley start up.
Businesses need a distinct-but-linked organizational model: a dedicated team for the innovation initiative that partners rather than fights with the core business.
Once it has that partnership in place, a company must keep it on track. We have observed five danger signs that signals that the partnership has gone awry:

  1. The members of the dedicated team frequently use words like "rebellion" and "conspiracy."
  2. The dedicated team members act as though they are the company's saviors.
  3. Those assigned to the dedicated team feel like winners and those that aren't feel like losers, or vice versa.
  4. Core-business employees are obsessed with the dedicated team's special treatment, such as performance standards or compensation formulas that depart from the company's norms.
  5. Core business leaders go out of their way to argue that the innovation initiative is failing by highlighting its shortfalls against the company's typical performance expectations.
How frequently have you observed one or more of these de-railers? How have you overcome them?

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Not a day goes by in which we don't hear about some major organisation laying off thousands of employees. One of our salespeople recently followed up on a prospective client who had contacted us with strong interest in our idea management product. When the salesperson called the client, he was told that the client company had just laid off 15,000 people and needed to adjust to the changes before going forward. We certainly couldn't feel sorry for ourselves over the delayed sale in view of the far less pleasant prospects that faced those 15,000 people.
Downsizing is not nice. No one likes to have to dismiss large numbers of employees and victims of downsizing are generally even less happy about the situation. Unfortunately, in a recession many companies face an unpleasant choice: downsize or die. Understandably, management usually choose the former.
To make matters worse, downsizing is usually detrimental to innovation. Yet in a recession companies really need to innovate in order to survive.
There are two key reasons why downsizing is bad for innovation. Neither is immediately obvious.

Strategic Linking

As you know, business innovation – and especially new product innovation – is almost never the result of one creative genius who sits in a laboratory inventing things. Rather, innovations are developed from the first germ of an idea, through to a developed concept and eventual product, service or process via collaboration.
Colleagues in an organisation share ideas on how to solve problems. As good ideas are identified, they are built upon in conversations, team meetings, e-mail exchanges and by using collaborative tools. Creative people seek feedback on ideas from their more analytical colleagues. Marketing people might be asked to review product ideas. Research people build and test prototypes and so on.
According to research by Dougherty and Bowman (1), new product innovation relies on “strategic linking”. People need to link not only to other innovators, but to managers who can champion their ideas, sales people who can sell the resulting products and others. Keith Sawyer uses the term “collaborative web”(2) to describe the network of links. When collaborative webs break down owing to lay-offs, employees have to start all over in building up new links.
In their study of a dozen firms, Dougherty and Bowman found a direct correlation with the extent of a firm's downsizing and the inability of people to solve strategic linking problems. The firms with the least downsizing solved 48% of strategic linking problems; the ones with the most solved only 23%.
They found that in most firms in which large numbers of employees were dismissed, management paid almost no attention to product innovation. Their advice: “To overcome the negative consequences of downsizing on product innovation, managers should support innovation sponsors and champions, and retain "old timers" who constitute the network. They should also bolster the network by building more connections among departments, and between new and established businesses. Finally, they should incorporate innovation directly into their firm's strategy. ”
I would add that management also needs to help employees build new collaborative webs. This can be done through internal networking activities; building the equivalent of marketplaces where employees can learn about other divisions and how to work with them; and bringing diverse people into meetings. Activities such as these bring people into contact with colleagues they might otherwise never meet and thus facilitates building new collaborative webs.
Unfortunately, these activities, while having substantial long term pay-off, are unlikely to be seen as productive in the short term. Employees themselves will be reluctant to do anything that might be perceived as non-productive and middle managers will be equally unenthusiastic about sponsoring such activities. Thus senior managers must make clear the long term benefits of networking to build new collaborative webs.
Indeed, as a senior manager, it is absolutely critical that you minimise disruption of the creative web, provide methods for rebuilding webs and stress the value of those webs as well as the importance of time spent on networking. Your company's innovativeness depends on it!

Broken Trust

Research on innovative companies often demonstrates that trust is a critical ingredient. If employees trust each other, trust their managers and trust their brand, they are more than willing to risk being creative and building ideas that can turn into innovations. They do not fear that they will be reprimanded if an idea does not pan out. They are not worried about managers stealing credit for their ideas and they know they will not be laughed at for making an outrageous suggestion.
Unfortunately, lay-offs have an unpleasant tendency to destroy trust. Employees are no longer sure if they have a future in their company. They begin to worry that time devoted to developing a creative idea might be perceived as time wasted. They worry that if they do not demonstrate productivity, they will be in the next batch of dismissed colleagues. They worry that more desperate colleagues might steal their ideas. And that all kills trust.
And once this trust dies, people spend less time trying to be more innovative. They keep ideas to themselves and avoid rocking the boat. And that is not good for innovation.
Again, it is up to management to stress the increased importance of innovation to the firm and encourage time spent on innovative projects. Indeed, management should explicitly state that time spent on innovative projects is considered productive time.
It is also important to bear in mind that if the focus of your company's innovation strategy is going to change, this should also be communicated to employees. It is understandable that management may want to focus innovation on quick to market ideas rather than long term projects that might not pay off in five years. If so, employees need to understand this new focus so they can support it.

The Best Solution

Of course, the best thing you can do for the innovative future of your firm is not to downsize. But when you have no other option, then it is critical to keep innovation in mind when planning your downsizing.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

US visa fee hike to cost Indian cos $200m - A Big Impact

Terming a US proposal to increase visa fees as discriminatory, Commerce and industry ministerAnand Sharma on Tuesday said the increase would cost Indian firms $200 million extra a year and make them less competitive.

"The Bill will have an (estimated) additional cost implication of over $200 million annually and an adverse impact on the competitiveness and commercial interests of Indian companies....," Sharma said in a letter to US trade representative Ron Kirk.

The US Senate on August 5 had approved a substantial increase in application fees for H1 B and L visas, the most sought after Indian IT professionals. The hike is proposed to fund a $600 million emergency package to improve security along the porous Mexican border.

The Senate measure increases the visa fee to $2,000 per application on those companies that have less than 50 per cent of their employees as American citizens.

In his letter, Sharma conveyed the concerns of the Indian software industry that the the increase in US visa fee would adversely impact companies of Indian origin, which account for about 12% of the total number of visas issued by the US.

Sharma said though the need of the US Government to strengthen their border security is understandable, "it is inexplicable to our companies to bear the cost of such a highly discriminatory law".

While the US companies use H-1B and L visas in larger numbers, they will not be liable for the increased fees but Indian companies will be affected as they are likely to have more than 50% of the their employees on these visas.

Sharma further said that the Indian software industry is already deeply burdened in the absence of a Totalisation Agreement, requiring them to pay more than $1 billion every year to the US government in the form of social security, with no benefit or prospect of refund.

The proposed massive increase in visa application fee would primarily affect the top Indian IT companies, who rely majorly on these categories of visas to continue with their work in the US.

Kindly share your comments and views on how this effects you and your business with US.

Monday, August 16, 2010

'Cos investing in future will gain'

NASDAQ-listed Cognizant competes with domestic software companies such as TCS, Infosys and Wipro, and has been growing faster than the industry in the last few years. The last quarter was no different, where the company beat its own estimates by a wide margin and also raised revenue growth guidance for calendar 2010 to 36% from 25%. While Cognizant has historically outperformed the industry, its results have underlined the resurgence of optimism in the IT industry that went through a rough patch after the recession in the US, its biggest technology market. Is the optimism sustainable? Lakshmi Narayanan, vice-chairman of the company, who was earlier the chairman of software lobby Nasscom, shares his insight on the $70-billion IT-BPO industry.
artical Picture “If you look at the data, all companies have given good growth guidance for the next quarter. Many of them have increased their guidance for the full year that clearly indicates that growth is back. The quality of growth is also good because it is broad-based, in multiple geographies and across industry verticals.

However, going forward, do we see the same level of growth that a company like Cognizant posted? Unlikely. There is a part of the growth that can be attributed to the pent-up demand that is specific to this quarter as far as Cognizant is concerned. Maybe other companies may have part of that pent-up demand coming in the subsequent quarters.”
Resentment has risen among domestic IT firms after the US Congress passed the Border Security Bill where it will augment funds for border security by hiking the application fee for H-1B and L-1 visas. This would directly hit IT firms as they use these visas when they send employees to US for projects.

But Mr Narayanan believes that it is unlikely that any policy action or regulation will have a significant impact because clients continue to invest in growth, trying out new products and dabbling in innovations. This only underscores consulting and research firm Forrester’s upbeat forecast for the technology market in 2010. While it expects the global IT market to grow 8%, the US IT market will grow faster, by 10%.
“If you look at it from the demand perspective, companies that are partnering with outsourcers say it’s something that you have to deal with, so deal with it. The promise that we make to them is, we bring the best global talent wherever it is available to make a difference to them. So, as long as we do that, the corporations, the customers will not be worried about it.”
Apart from the Border Security Bill, Senator Charles E Schumer’s acerbic comments on Infosys have evoked sharp reaction from the industry. Senator Schumer had said that companies like Infosys are ‘chop shops’ that take away high-paying American technology jobs.

The politically-charged tirade raises worries for a sector that’s just limping back to recovery and also fuels a larger concern about the perception that the developed world has about the industry.
“By and large, there is no perception issue. The Indian IT industry is considered to have top technology and leadership talent. You go to any country and people talk about India being an IT centre. Occasional remarks about comments are just an opportunistic way of looking at a situation. It doesn’t matter who calls us what, we will continue our job and we hold our heads high because we make a difference with technology globally.”
Encouraged by the blistering growth the Indian IT-BPO industry has seen in the last decade, a Nasscom-McKinsey study, Perspective 2020: Transform business, transform India, has set an ambitious export target of $175 billion by 2020. The challenge to meet this target doesn’t lie in the demand but the delivery model that will transform dramatically to keep pace with technology, reckons Mr Narayanan.
“The way devices are changing, the future of work, the future of worker and the future of an IT workplace is all going to evolve and transform. Companies that are investing in understanding that future will be successful.

With the availability of bandwidth and high-performance devices such as iPad, there is a huge opportunity for businesses in India. I don’t know if new buildings will be constructed where all people congregate in one single location — that might change in future.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Humor of the day----Strange woman answers

A guy dials his home phone from work. A strange woman answers.

The guy says, "Who is this?"

"This is the maid," answered the woman.

"We don't have a maid!"

"I was just hired this morning by the lady of the house."

"Well, this is her husband. Is she there?"

"Um...she's upstairs in the bedroom with someone who I just figured was her husband."

The guy is fuming. He says to the maid, "Listen, would you like to make 25,000 bucks?"

"What do I have to do?"

"I want you to get my gun from my desk in the den and shoot that witch and the jerk she is with."

The maid puts down the phone. The guy hears footsteps, followed by two gunshots.The maid comes back to the phone.

"What should I do with the bodies?"

"Throw them in the swimming pool!"

"What! There's no pool here?" "Uh... is this 2263841?"

Monday, August 9, 2010

HP CEO resigns amidst charges of sexual harassment

San Francisco: Mark Hurd, Chief Executive of computer giant Hewlett Packard (HP), has resigned following an investigation into charges of sexual harassment, the company announced Friday.

HP said the investigation determined there was no violation of HP's sexual harassment policy but did find violations of HP's Standards of Business Conduct.

According to a company statement, the investigation revolved around sexual harassment allegations made by an outside contractor with HP. It said that Hurd "with the board of directors" had decided to resign immediately, a signal that the chief executive who had revitalised HP since taking over in 2005 was forced to fall on his sword.

"As the investigation progressed, I realized there were instances in which I did not live up to the standards and principles of trust, respect and integrity that I have espoused at HP and which have guided me throughout my career," said Hurd. "After a number of discussions with members of the board, I will move aside, and the board will search for new leadership."

Chief Financial Officer, Cathie Lesjak, 51, will take over as interim Chief Executive while the company searches for a permanent replacement, HP said.

Friday, August 6, 2010

'Educating consumers is crucial'

The spread of affordable healthcare across communities is being linked to availability of customised insurance solutions for consumers. Vaatsalya Healthcare Solutions, a start-up company that operates a chain of low-cost hospitals across tier-II and III cities in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, has devised a microinsurance scheme for which they are seeking a grant from the Microinsurance Innovation facility, ILO, Switzerland. In a conversation with ET, V Renganathan, co-founder and vice-president (alliances) of Vaatsalya, explained why low-income consumers need a scheme that covers both hospital care as well as out patient consultation costs.

artical Picture What are the main points that you are proposing in the microinsurance scheme?
Health insurance in India generally covers only in-patient hospitalisation. Any out-patient (OP) services such as doctor consultation, drugs, and diagnostics are not covered and they are all “out of pocket expenditure”. According to one study, the urban poor might be spending as much 2,400 a year on out-patient services.
So they can really benefit from OP coverage. Vaatsalya is proposing that when people buy insurance, they also get a fixed number of coupons that they can exchange for medical consultation. We will price the product around 600-700 with an insured sum of 30,000 for a family of 4-5.

What were the factors that influenced the design of this scheme ?
In the semi-urban and rural areas where Vaatsalya operates, very few people are insured (for healthcare). Microfinance institutions took a lead in designing and marketing health insurance, but they have not been highly successful because of the inability to get quality providers; cost of insurance marketing and servicing the insurance product; and also fraud.
We believe Vaatsalya can learn from these experiments to design a plan that meets the interests of all stakeholders including insurance companies.

What impact will this scheme have on improving access to healthcare for lowincome consumers?
Currently, people pay out of pocket. Hospitalisation requires thousands of rupees, which they usually borrow (probably at high rate of interest) or by selling their assets. If we could educate our customers about insurance and they pay the premiums regularly, then they will be protected.
We also should know that they have limited budgets, so the insurance must come with certain OP benefits, which will reduce the overall burden for the low-income groups.

What role do insurers play in rolling out low-budget health care facilities?
Insurers want low-budget healthcare but they are not building or helping to these facilities. However, there are examples of hospitals created to serve insurer’s clients, such as Kaiser-Permenante in USA. Insurers can collaborate with hospitals like Vaatsalya, which provide affordable healthcare, to create such an environment.

What is the status of your application for a grant?
We have just submitted an application for a grant to the Microinsurance Innovation facility, ILO, Switzerland. In order to be funded, the idea has to innovative; replicable by others; and at the same time economical to low income groups. Our scheme offers both in-patient and limited out-patient services for less than 2 a day for a family of 4-5 members.

Humor of the day----Wash it Again

My mother had decided to trim the household budget wherever possible, so instead of having a dress dry-cleaned she washed it by hand. Proud of her savings, she boasted to my father, 'Just think, Ivor, we are five dollars richer because I washed this dress by hand.'

'Good', my dad quickly replied. 'Wash it again.'

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Will Smartphones replace Credit & Debit cards??

Smartphones may soon displace some of the estimated 1 billion credit and debit cards in American wallets. And the soon may replicate in India as well,  AT&T (T), Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile are planning a venture to develop a mobile payment system that works with smartphones, posing a new threat to Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA), three people with direct knowledge of the plan say. The partners aim to test the system at stores in Atlanta and three other U.S. cities, the people say, though they didn't provide a timetable. The trial would be the carriers' biggest effort to spur mobile payments in the U.S. "This is definitely a game changer"
Also with Mobile banking taking shape in India, soon Mobile payments will become all the more reality very soon with smartphones coming for really cheap prices, Credit and Debit cards are facing stiff competition than ever..

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Avoid mindless ban on technology

The morbid threat of terrorism has paranoid governments banning several ‘dual-use’ technologies and treading on citizens’ rights under the pretext of protecting them.
artical Picture
Despite the growing tendency to see the world as black or white — the with-me-oragainst-me syndrome, echoed by an important Indian cal leader too — most people do recognise the many sides to an issue: not just shades of grey but, indeed, a spectrum of colours. One area where this has long been manifest is technology. Whether the technology is good or bad, evil or a godsend, depends on context, perspective and use. A knife can kill, and the surgeon’s knife can save a life. Ultimately, it is not the technology or the weapon that takes lives, but the finger that pulls the trigger, the mind that conceives the crime; as the Unesco Charter states, ‘wars begin in the minds of men’. 
It may be well to remember this as the country — and the world — faces new challenges. For the first time in the history of the modern nation-state, it is seriously threatened not by another nation-state but by small organised groups. Thanks to technology, a band of highlymotivated individuals can hold a powerful nation to ransom or cause mayhem on an unprecedented scale. The world saw this — literally, thanks to real-time TV coverage — on September 11, 2001, in the US and, in a different way, on November 26, 2008, in Mumbai. In the latter case, destruction entailed the use of standard weapons: guns and explosives. In the former instance, the weapon was a civilian aircraft. 
Explosives have long been used to clear obstacles while building roads or for other construction-related purposes. As such, the technology itself can hardly be faulted for how it is used. The argument in the case of civil aircraft is even more obvious. Around the world, means of transport — trucks, cars, motorcycles and, in India, even bicycles — have been used as carriers of explosives, to create chaos and cause destruction. 
No sane person has yet suggested a ban on aeroplanes, motorcycles, cars or bicycles, but, in a shoot-the-messenger reaction, mobile phones were long banned in parts of the country. There is also a general ban on the use of satellite phones across the country. Of course, it is well known that mobile phones are sometimes used to trigger an explosion, and that people — including terrorists — talk to each other by satellite phones. 
Do we, then, consider mobile telephony a dangerous dual-use technology and impose curbs on its use? The Commonwealth Games in Delhi are likely to face security threats — should all mobile phone connections be cut off in the city during those two weeks? 
In the telecom sphere itself, there is now much controversy regarding email services like Blackberry and about telecom equipment itself. There are proposals to impose conditions regarding imported equipment and software that are so onerous that few manufacturers will agree to them — unless they intend to flout them through some clever subterfuge. 
The aim, apparently, was to keep out Chinese equipment — without an explicit ban — for reasons of security (possibly instigated by rival equipment suppliers from other countries who are now, doubtless, ruing being hoist with their own petard!). Ironically, the only ones who may willingly agree to all the conditions are the Chinese vendors. 
Meanwhile, there are technologies that track eye movement and other body parameters; with these inputs and appropriate software, psychologists are able to detect nervousness. It is proposed to use this to identify potential terrorists by putting cameras and sensors at the back of every aircraft seat to monitor each passenger. 
New technologies will soon monitor thought through electroencephalograms or other means. It will not be long before we have, as in science-fiction films, mind cops who arrest people before they commit a crime. Of course, these systems will not be perfect, but — it will be argued — it is better to have 10 innocents in jail than one criminal free to cause mayhem. 
It was probably on similar considerations that, according to media reports, one country wanted to ban the export of pencils to Iraq some years ago. Pencils contain graphite that happens to be the material used as moderator in nuclear reactors. A case of dual-use materials, or an instance of fearing that — quite literally — the pen (pencil) may be mightier than the sword! 
In a world of growing terrorism, many of the concerns are understandable. Quite rightly, few want to take chances, and officials least of all. Any possible security hazard — even a farfetched one — results in some kind of ban, and its revocation is a slow process. A case in point is the ban on metal cutlery on flights, imposed in the US at the height of its security paranoia. Most countries dutifully followed suit, and it was months before silverware finally reappeared. Of course, metal cutlery is more prone to dual use than pencils. 
The line between the state’s responsibility for public safety and the individual’s right to privacy is not only getting fuzzy, but is being redrawn. The list of technologies that are sought to be regulated and controlled — for public safety — is growing. Few would argue against controls on guns — even in the US, the ‘gun lobby’ is slowly losing dominance — but should the concept of dangerous ‘weapons’ extend to mobile telephones? Can technologies be controlled? Is it all right for government to tap into any telephone conversation and monitor all internet traffic? Will laws permitting preventive detention be revived to arrest people on the basis of psychological indicators that could be construed as pointing towards criminal intent? 
The combination of an adverse security environment and new technologies throw up these and a host of difficult questions. There is too little discussion on these, and it seems that decisions are being driven by a few forceful individuals who see the issue as black and white. It is time that responsible corporate bodies and civil society organisations initiated an informed discussion on this. Our security is, doubtless, at stake — but so is our way of life, our freedom.