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Monday, December 31, 2012

Mourning for Rape Victim Recasts New Year\'s Eve in India

As my colleague Sruthi Gottipati reports, thousands of protesters marched on Monday in New Delhi, pledging to “take back the night,” as India remained in mourning for the 23-year-old victim of a gang rape who died on Saturday.

Monday night's march in the capital was just the latest in a series of protests across India in recent days.

A video report from Britain's Channel 4 News on anti-rape protests in India.

The Indian news channel IBN Live reported that New Year's Eve celebrations were scaled back or canceled in many parts of the country, replaced with protests, candlelight vigils and marches expressing widespread outrage at the failure to hold rapists accountable.

A video report from IBN Live, an Indian affiliate of CNN, on mourning for a rape victim who died on Saturday.

The death of the gang-rape victim came just days after an 18-year-old woman in Punjab State committed suicide by drinking poison after being raped by two men and then humiliated by male police officers. In the wake of the tragedies, Indian women, long accustomed to “regular harassment and assault during the day and are fearful of leaving their homes alone after dark,” poured into the streets to demand protection from the mainly male police force.

Another Indian broadcaster, NDTV, also focused its coverage on the debate over sexual violence in the country on Monday, with a panel discussion of possible actions the government could take to address the crisis and an overview of the protests in recent days.

A video report from India's NDTV on anti-rape protests in recent days.

Big Data: Rise of the Machines

For a column that laid out some second thoughts on Big Data, one of the people I talked to was Thomas H. Davenport, who has worked in the fields of knowledge management and analytics for 15 years. Data analytics is the predecessor to Big Data. He knows the context - what's new and what's not with Big Data - as well as anyone.

Mr. Davenport, a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School (on leave from Babson College), has authored and co-authored several books on analytics, including “Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning” (with Jeanne G. Harris, Harvard Business School Press, 2007). Shortly after the Big Data phenomenon took off, Mr. Davenport said, only half-joking, that he considered simply substituting the term “Big Data” for “analytics” for updated versions of his books.

But as he looked more deeply, there really was something different in Big Data. Data volumes have been steadily increasing for decades, Mr. Davenport noted, though the pace has accelerated sharply in the Internet age. “More than the amount of data itself, the unstructured data from the Web and sensors is a much more salient feature of what is being called Big Data,” he said.

I also asked David B. Yoffie, a technology and competitive strategy expert at Harvard, who is not part of the Big Data crowd, what he thought. The Internet, he observed, has been a mainstream technology for 15 years, and so has the ability to monitor and mine Web browsing behavior and online communications, even if those skills are much improved now.

Still, Mr. Yoffie is most impressed by the rapid spread of low-cost sensors that make it possible to monitor all kinds of physical objects, from fruit shipments (sniffing for signs of spoilage) to jet engines (tracking wear to predict when maintenance is needed).

“The ubiquity of sensors is new,” Mr. Yoffie said. “The sensors make it possible to get data we never had before.”

Machine-generated sensor data will be become a far larger portion of the Big Data world, according to a recent report by IDC. The research report, “The Digital Universe in 2020,” published in December, traces data trends from 2005-20. One of its forecasts is that machine-generated data will increase to 42 percent of all data by 2020, up from 11 percent in 2005.

“It's all those sensors, the Internet of Things data,” said Jeremy Burton, an executive vice president at EMC, which sponsored the IDC report.

The implication is that Big Data technology will steadily move beyond the consumer Internet. Industrial companies like General Electric are a lready making big bets on the payoff. The IDC forecast also suggests that there is a lot of substance to the vision of machine-to-machine communication and intelligence that W. Brian Arthur terms “the second economy.”

A Conversation With Suneet Singh Tuli of DataWind

Suneet Singh Tuli.Stan Honda/Agence France-Presse - Getty ImagesSuneet Singh Tuli.

Suneet Singh Tuli, the chief executive of DataWind, the company behind the $40 Aakash tablet, spoke to The New York Times in New York on Nov. 29, a day after the world's cheapest computer was unveiled by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, at the United Nations headquarters.  

The project, spearheaded by the Indian government, has encountered some setbacks. Mr. Tuli's company will miss its first deadline of Dec. 31 to deliver an order of 100,000 tablets, meant for colleg e and graduate school students, to the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, the engineering institution in charge of the Aakash project. Datawind has delivered only about 14,000 tablets so far, and it recently received an extension until March 31 to supply the remaining tablets.

The 44-year-old Mr. Tuli, who pledged to make the tablet in India, talked about the difficulties in keeping up with the scale of the project and how his company can beat the prices of Chinese manufacturers in the tablet market. He also addressed recent news that Datawind shipped a batch of 10,000 tablets from China.

Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:


You had to ship 100,000 tablets to the government of India by Dec. 31. Are you on track to meet that deadline?


No. Look , the project is not going to die if all 100,000 will not be there by the end of December. If we miss it by some quantity, they [the government] will decide how much they want. Their next stage in this project is five million units. Their target is to do 220 million units over five or six years to make sure every student in that country has a computing Internet device.

They are going to put out tenders, similar to what they did here. They put out a 100,000-unit tender, we won that tender and we are supplying that product.
There is version one and version two, and lots of muck in between. But they have held steadfast to the belief that they want a low-cost device and that they will bring their financial muscle to the table to procure and get pricing down to the level they want.


You got a warning note from the I.I.T. Bombay about the Dec. 31 delivery deadline. What are you doing about it?


We are do ing the best we can.


What do you think realistically is the number you can deliver to them?


I will have to see. This is not a sort of cliff that the project stops. Yes, they want it done as fast as possible. The ramifications of it should not be blown out of proportion. It is an artificial number, not relevant to the contract or terms of agreement or anything else. They wanted the 20,000 by the time they did the launch. Unfortunately, we were able to deliver only 12 or 13 [thousand].

One can jump up and down and get upset and say, “Oh, my God, they had to do 20 and they did only 13. These got kitted in China, oh, my God.”

It doesn't impact the reality on the ground. We are proud that these concepts started in India and they are going to use it to educate their kids. And we are adding as much Indian value-add as we reasonably can.

Except we are the only one in that whole realm who is pus hing for a made-in-India product. It is not a government requirement that it be a made-in-India product. Instead, it's something we have requested the government to specify in future tenders. They should specify an Indian value-addâ€"at least 25 percent is made in India, or at least 30 percent. That wasn't part of the specs and still is not.

The government's response to the recent three days' worth of brouhaha is: We placed an order on a vendor to supply a product - beyond that we don't care.


How are you able to make the product so cheaply?


When you look at our bill of materials, we work at very low margins. No one else is in the industry is doing that. We have openly said what our business model is, focus on the recurring revenue stream: content, apps and so on. We are after a price-sensitive consumer, and to get to that we forgo most of our hardware margins.
It takes the Chinese supplier $42.85 to make it. I am telling you that I have a 5 percent margin and I make it for under $38, including the transportation, a 12-month warranty and the rest of it.


How is this possible?


The only money left in this for us is the LCD and touchscreen. We make the touchscreen in Canada, and the LCD is packaged for us in South Korea. That's the margins we squeeze.

We tweak the reference design that is used in the industry for power management that's better for usâ€" we can use this chip that's cheaper and that chip that's cheaper and it meets our requirement, and we save a $1 or $1.50 in that area.

We make the touchscreen for $2. The Chinese also make it for $2 and sell it for $10.

Instead of us bringing 800 parts from 60 vendors, and doing the boards [motherboards] in India - which is what we did for the Aakash-1 and the Aakash-1.5 - for the sake of expediency for Aakash-2, getting those through lo gistics in India takes a lot of efforts. In China, they do the boards for 30-cent margins. I reduced the whole thing down to 12 parts and I kit it.

I told them, “I don't want you to assemble these.” I told them, “Some of these are going to the Indian government. For those, I want you to put them in a kit form in a box and I am going to bring it in that manner and process it. Later on, I will do more of it.” Contractually, legally, morally, it has no implication.

I am setting up a fab [fabrication unit] for making touch panels in Amritsar, India's first fab. Except for the fact that I am the one who has been wrapping myself around the Indian flag and saying this should be done, no one is asking for it. The government is not asking for it; the consumer is not saying, “I will only buy a made-in-India product.”


You talked up about setting up a fabrication unit - that's a large investment. What is the cost?


Huge! Under 10 million [dollars]. It will make touchscreens. What we do with LCDs - we have guys in South Korea to package it for us.  They come in and do what they need to do and it goes in. We save $3 here. We maintain ourselves a 5 percent margin.


How are you able to finance this? There must be a lot of upfront cost.


There are two aspects to it, the consumer side of it and the government side of it. When we did this originally, the government was trying to get a sub-$50 product. They put out two sets of tenders, then canceled those, but couldn't get a sub-$50 product. After setting standards for eligibility criteria that would only get the multinationals in, they said the multinationals are not willing to bid. So, they said, “Why don't we go out and put a tender where we reduce the criteria and say the company only had to be $5 million in revenue.”

All these little companies like us said this is an opportunity for us. We bid; we were significantly lower than the next guy.

On the government side, they give a letter of credit that gets transferred to factories and so on - that's how it gets funded.

When the publicity started, we put out a form for selling the commercial product online. In April-end, when we launched commercially, we had three million pre-bookings. Now we are at little over four million units. We said we'll deliver against whenever the product is ready. We are getting 600 to 1,000 pre-bookings every day. We deliver 2,500 to 3,000 a day, and we are still trying to catch up.

In the middle of that, we thought, if there are consumers that want to pay and are willing to pay, let's do that. Some started paying. Unfortunately, the scale of everything here has been beyond our imagination. In India, setting up an e-commerce facility takes time, so we thought we would have people sending us checks. Big mistake!

The po st office calls us up three, four days later. They said, “You have four boxes of checks.” Then we stopped it. We prioritize orders as they come in. We deal with our pre-bookings. We deliver them.

Some get extra upset that they weren't delivering on time. We offer refunds for those who don't want to wait. They will get a world-class product, I think, at a fraction of the price they would get otherwise.


What is your manufacturing experience like? Most of your team hasn't had experience making  tablets. Does that make it kind of challenging?


What's given you the impression that our team doesn't have experience?  Let me explain our team: my brother alone has 78 patents. In the last 22 years, we have launched over 20 new electronic products. We were making the equivalent of a tablet with a 5-inch screen in 2002. For 10 years, we've been making devices in and around the tablet. We have made a series of netbooks and so on. Look up the product called PocketSurfer and see how far that goes.

Android tablets we may have been doing for only 18 months. We have experience making it. I challenge you to find somebody outside Samsung and LG, the large companies, in the same ballpark with the same depth of expertise that we do. Find me a guy who has a touchscreen facility and is making tablets on their own. The only one who is doing it is Samsung. None of my competitors in India do, Amazon doesn't, Apple doesn't.


What do you think India needs to do to improve its manufacturing of electronics?


Reduce bureaucracy. Get some pride in what they do. India is a country where garment stores have a sign that says “export quality”â€"in every other country in the world that would be insulting. If foreigners need to buy it, it has to be good quality. Export quality is a sales pitch in India.  For them to make it in In dia, there should be an incentive for them to make it in India. If nothing else, local pride that it's made in India.


What have been the biggest hurdles with shipping the tablets to the government?  What would you have done differently in retrospect?


It is a politically charged project that people take glee in demeaning. I don't know in the last 18 months what I could have done differently. The first contract stalled when I delivered 7,000 units and they said it couldn't sustain four inches of rain. Until today I haven't gotten paid.

I am creating a product at a lower price than anyone else in the world with the hope that it impacts people's lives and I make money out of it. I am not a charity. Nobody else in world is able to do it. I am getting crucified because they got kitted there [in China]. You know whatâ€"the brouhaha will be over in 48 hours and we will keep delivering the product.


At such low costs and low margins, are you running into any quality issues?


Forty-dollar devices are not going to have Apple quality in there.  The Apple customer insists on a certain level of quality. To us, cost matters most than the balance.

Ryan Block: Why I\'m Quitting Instagram

The flap over Instagram's changing its terms of service has not died down even weeks after its announcement and subsequent partial reversal. People are still arguing whether Instagram's photographers will stay loyal to the service. Ryan Block, former editor in chief of AOL's Engadget and the co-founder of the popular tech community site gdgt.com, writes in a guest post for Bits about his reasons for quitting the Facebook-owned service.

This month, surely to the chagrin of family members and friends with whom I haven't spoken face to face for over a decade, I quit Facebook. I also suspended posting photos to Instagram, the photo sharing service that Facebook recently acquired for $715 million and where I have almost 9,000 followers. But probably not for the reasons you might think.

Facebook's legendarily fast and loose approach to user privacy has long been something of a cliché, which is why deleting one's account is now something of a hollow techno-poli tical statement â€" the Internet equivalent to moving off the grid to a cabin in the mountains. And it's certainly not as if Facebook has much to worry about, as no number of high-profile abandoners over the last two years have slowed the company's ballooning growth, now at over a billion active users.

So few Facebook users took part in Facebook's last site-governance voting, in which users were asked to approve or disapprove a number of workaday changes to its policy, that it resulted in the eventual shutdown of the site-governance balloting itself.

I also suspect that most Instagram users won't go to the mat over the company's proposed terms of service changes, which provided Facebook the ability to sell users' photos. (Instagram has since backpedaled on these changes, smartly.)

Despite any nefarious behavior, real or perceived, my decision to quit was actually far less sophisticated. In the case of Facebook, I've simply never been fond of the service and intended to remove my largely inactive account for years. In the case of Instagram, I've fallen out of love with highly filtered square photos of sunsets and (often delicious-looking) plates of food.

In my search for technology products and services that somehow enrich or add value to my life, Facebook and Instagram have been a net negative not only in their usefulness, but also in other, subtle ways most people don't often consider.

The longer users keep any of their accounts alive â€" even if dormant â€" on the dozens or hundreds of sites, services and apps registered with over the years, the greater the chances are of that data's being used in ways we may not approve. This isn't anything new, but as privacy policies shift and companies change hands, data we may think of as being rather personal c an become highly liquid.

A decade ago, I joined one of the early social networking sites, Friendster, which struggled to find a business model and eventually collapsed as users migrated to MySpace. In the intervening years, Friendster's brand, intellectual property (including some seminal social networking patents), and most important, user data from millions of people, were broken up or changed hands.

Now, eons later (in Internet time), Friendster lives on as an online gaming company aimed at Southeast Asian youth. I might have eventually discovered this fact by keeping up on technology news, but it turns out there was no need: one day last year, my inbox started to fill up with Friendster marketing messages for the first time in years, and I realized that my long-forgotten decade-old profile data had been sold, without my knowledge or permission, to a company I'd never heard of in Asia. And I could do nothing about it.

As technology companies work overtim e to make it easier to sign up and maintain accounts, little regard is given to the long-term ownership and use of our data. After all, it's far easier for each of us to simply forget and neglect all the random sites and services we've signed up for than to keep up with the innumerable changes to opaque terms of service and privacy policy documents, or monitor every merger and acquisition of every company that makes something we use. In fact, to do so would basically be a full-time job, and an excruciatingly tedious one at that.

There are other costs to letting accounts go dormant, too. The final time I loaded Facebook to click the delete button, I noticed weeks-old friend requests from my grandmother and one of my cousins. Since I long ago configured my Facebook profile to automatically ingest and posts my tweets, I'm sure it outwardly seemed as if I'm an active Facebook user. Which, of course, would make me a huge jerk for not responding to their friend requests.

I've also been on the other side of the same situation, having sent unrequited friend requests on other social networks like Path, never knowing whether I've been spurned, or whether the other party just doesn't use the service very often.

Perhaps worst of all, in an era where we meticulously prune our online personae, services like Facebook require constant diligence and maintenance. On Twitter accounts, About.me profiles, or LinkedIn bios, at the very least users are empowered by complete control in their outward appearance. This is in contrast to Facebook and any other social tool that allows any user in its social graph to associate you with all manner of unrelated career- (or even potentially life-) changing posts or images.

We'd all be much better off simplifying our technological footprints and consolidating our trust in the few services that provide us the greatest value with the fewest unintended side effects. In the end, I'm not afraid to admit it. I 'm a quitter.

And you should be, too. People wondering what there is to gain by thinning their online accounts sometimes ask: “Why quit?” Instead, I think every once in a while we should all ask ourselves: “Why stay?”