Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Incredibly Shrinking Printed Word
The printing industry, once the victim of powerful resistance, is today itself resisting change.

This sounds a bit like another of those apocalyptic predictions of doom / gloom that we see all too often, but the demise of the printed word appears to be at hand (or at least, visible on the distant horizon). Amazon has introduced Amazon Upgrade which enables online access to a book that is purchased. Microsoft is helping the British Library to digitize and make available via MSN Book Search, 25 million pages (roughly 100,000 books) from the British Library’s collection over the next year. The most well-known - and widely feared - initiative on this front is of course, the Google Print (now Google Book Search) initiative.

Why is it happening now? Because the technological capability is only now beginning to become available - to scan, store, index, and deliver online the humongous content locked up in the world's books would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

This flurry of digitization of content is shaking the foundations of publishing as we have known it for the last couple of centuries. Will this mean that authors and publishers will no longer be able to control who accesses their creations? How will revenue be earned on published content? The economics of the publishing industry, and also the very concept of copyrights and ownership of Intellectual Property rights to published content, are being threatened.

There is, of course, huge resistance from the publishing industry, which can hardly be expected to take such a threat to its revenues, and its very future, lying down. Ironically, this is a throwback to the resistance that emanated, particularly from the Church, to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. The irony is that this time around, the resistance comes not from the those who are afraid of printing, but the printing industry itself! So the printing industry has come full circle, from being the fugitives to the entrenched interests resisting change.

It is widely expected that all the resistance is going to see some scaling back of most of these initiatives.

Overall, the horse sense view on this would be that, any initiative that helps information flow more freely, and releases knowledge from its silos is to be lauded. After all, history teaches us that the darkest ages were those where knowledge was the most monopolised by powerful interests. And I'm sure most of us have had the disconcerting experience of searching for a term or a concept on the internet, only to find that the precise information we want is locked up in some printed book or journal. An added benefit is that we no longer need fear that the priceless works of ancient and medieval authors will be forever lost one day.

I guess those of us in the technology industry should also see this as further proof of how, as technology advances, it inexorably impacts the social and cultural fabric of life too.

It's going to be a big, game-changing battle. But what it is, at the bottom of it all, is Power to the People. And one can scarcely argue with that!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

VoIP and Valhalla
A true "killer-app" in the making

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) has already been hailed as the death knell for POTS (Plain Old Telephone Services). But there is another application of VoIP that makes simple, one-to-one voice communication seem pale in comparison. And that is, web-based collaboration using VoIP.

Ok, what's so life-enhancing about web-based collaboration, and what does VoIP have to do with it anyway? Web-based collaboration is, of course, groups of people located at geographically separate distances working as a team to achieve a common goal. It's happening now, but a big barrier is the cost of communication. And that's where VoIP comes in - by reducing the cost of voice communication to almost nothing, it's going to open up a great deal of new areas. Imagine the possibilities - medicine-at-a-distance (the services of expert surgeons can be utlised anywhere in the world); learning (likewise the services of tutors); leisure (family and friends can be virtually together for as long as they want to be); after-sales service; consultancy and advisory services of various kinds short, it will be a giant leap towards the long-proclaimed 'death of distance'.

What the lowered cost does is, it allows these things, which may be happening in pockets now, to happen on a really large scale, and render distance almost irrelevant. Of course, it will take a while for VoIP to really become free, and another void to be filled is that collaboration software needs improvements. But we can really begin to see these things in 2-3 years' time.

It is, at least partly, for this reason that VoIP companies have become the hottest property on the planet. No wonder eBay paid an astronomical price (up to $ 4 Billion) for Skype. Microsoft too is acquiring VoIP companies by the handful.

In a lighter vein, with all the talk of killer-apps and VoIP-induced death, one can't help feeling that Valhalla, that great hall in the sky where the glorious dead feast all night, had better start thinking about expansion plans.