Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Re... tail

For a change, this post is less of my typical spur-of-the-moment spinning-wheels in the rooms upstairs. This post is about reasons I believe responsible for the fact that the local software product market is still in it's infancy. A subject I frequently ponder about; more frequently of late, and is prompted by something I read on here.

Since India started on the path to a free-market economy back in the early 1990s, it's software industry has acquired a name for itself. The population on the subcontinent has frequently been the subject of jokes on topics of family planning; but apart from China and countries in Africa, the subcontinent is probably the world's last underexploited market. In addition, the longitudes also work to the advantage of the sub-continent in providing the facility for a 24/7 work-cycle to industries in the far-east, and in America. Longitudes apart [pun intended!] the rupee is sufficiently weak for an indian workforce to be viable economically, even at the cost of training them.

Indians, outside the subcontinent, have by-and-large done well; contributed to their adoptive country, and gone on to positions of responsibility. But I admit to prejudice on this point. Anyway, the thing is that companies from the sub-continent have an advantage in being able to bid _very_ competitively for projects from firms located outside the subcontinent. Unflattering as it may seem, even a child can learn to throw instructions together and write a program. To write compact, maintainable code, something for an evolving _product_, one needs knowledge of algorithms, design strategies, and knowledge of technologies. Some of these may be learnt from books, the others must be learnt by hard experience.

Similar to the case of an individual, a firm too must earn to survive. In the latter case, the earning is termed 'profit'. A product, until it is established in the markets, remains a red-line on the profit-charts. Few software firms in India cater to a product for the local businesses, and professionals. Businesses in India are, for the most part, still in the small business stage. These are usually owned by a family for generations at a time. This is not to say there are no manufacturer owned outlets; there are, but such outlets are heavily outnumbered by the smaller businesses which cater across brands, and across price segments. Similarly there are small supermarkets, mostly managed by various consumer cooperatives, and some small chains. Business, by and large, is computation intensive but small stores here rarely own a computer, let alone use a computer for inventories/billing. Both are managed on paper, if at all.

Lately, small businesses are beginning to make the switch to a computer but there is an established mindset which must change, before the potential of the market can be realized. A few arguments I believe that need to be factored in by firms aiming to tap this market are -

First, there are few, if any, retail chains; as a result one big selling point in favour of computers - networking/communication - does not carry quite the weight it should.

Second [as a consequence of independent retail stores], the owner of the store down the street _will_ think atleast twice before putting his data into a server he himself does not control; no matter that the advantages of a remote server - daily backups, encrypted data storage [(+; the freedom to sue, if there's a problem ]

Third, Computers require a power-supply. As much as a third of the electricity generated by the Electricity companies in India is lost in the accounting [to what are euphemistically termed as Transmission & Distribution Losses]. There are places [my city of Nagpur with population > 4M] where the power companies shutdown distribution [it's called load-shedding] for as long as 4-hours during the working day. I've heard of places in the interior who experience power-outages upto 8 hours a day. This has improved in recent days, but the point is this - power supply can be ... capricious. The spiraling cost of fuel all but precludes purchase of a Generator. From the point of view of the store-owner - "Invest in a computer, Invest in the software for the computer, invest in a generator, purchase fuel time-and-again, and _then_ pay the auditor? I think not".

Thursday, March 08, 2007


I like to hang around in the c++ forum on the IRC networks. The discussion is not always about the language, it's features, IDE idiosyncrasies and the like; it may be about the mundane too. This post is about a discussion we got into about personal ownership of vehicles. At first, the need for a discussion may appear pointless. After all ever since we were able to, we have attempted to domesticate animals for the purpose of transport. So why, after all these millenia(?), do we have this debate? Not, of-course, that we know whether the debate was there earlier.

Going by what little we know of the past, the concept of governance was pretty much limited to a pack-leader. The concept of society, & societal welfare didn't appear in the picture until much later. On the other hand, the idea of each person looking out for himself is almost hard-wired into us. A private vehicle is an extension of our own self. One which may open up the boundaries beyond the nearest visible horizon. To restrict private ownership is almost akin to putting bounds on how much a person may grow. The word 'almost' appears because the usage of a personal vehicle may vary from the apparently frivolous to deadly serious.

The primary reason for the debate rises apparently because of the frivolous usage of so many vehicles. The use we put our vehicle to results in the obvious consumption of so much fuel. But that's the obvious purpose. In the same manner by which a horse cannot outrun a racing camel in the desert, a man-made vehicle requires a certain terrain too; the roads. Our roads are constructed to be able to transport only so much traffic at a time. If the limited capacity of a road is exceeded, the least that may happen is an apparently interminable delay... the worst may be extreme road-rage.

Public ownership of vehicles may help keep the number of vehicles on roads limited to as many as are necessary. The bottle-necks will move from the road, to queues at the point of embarkation. The priority may be decided at-least partially upon old-fashioned courtesy, rather than upon BHP aka Brute Horsepower. That sounds wonderful ... until we realize it does nothing to actually increase the traffic-bearing capacity of a road. This is only a thought, but if all drivers decide to switch to public-transport, public transport systems - bus, rail-road, ferry, pavements will face the same congestion problems soon enough. Couple this with the fact that the elderly, and infirm need some degree of insulation from the more brisk commuters. Also, factor in the knowledge that a person should typically get to a point within about 10 minutes walking distance of their destination. Remember that all neighbourhoods are not necessarily safe for a stranger. Add also the knowledge that transport is not merely persons, but also material goods; the backbone of economics.
Our transport systems may be chaotic where they are congested. Transport systems - road, railroad, water, and air are not universally equally congested. Beyond the city, beyond the railway junction, out at the fringe of the sea/air lanes, there is still open space.