Indian Railways – Automatic Ticket Kiosks

It was 5:10 AM on 26th January when I reached Bangalore railway station and I was supposed to travel by general compartment. The ticketing counters open by 5 AM, and there was a long ‘hanuman tail’ queue in almost all counters. I was cursing myself for getting late by 10 minutes (normally I go sharp 5 AM and stand in the as the first person in the queue) and thinking whether I will get a place to sit in the 6:30 AM train to Chennai. Also our Indian junta was giving me ‘dhakka’ from all directions 🙁

All of a sudden I discovered a ATM like machine with touchscreen saying ‘Swipe your Credit/Debit card and get tickets to Chennai and Mysore’ and I was taken by surprise. In the past I have done some case studies about photo kiosks and with lots of excitement, I approached the kiosk. It had a simple touchscreen which had four different combinations for Chennai and Mysore. I selected ‘chennai’ and ‘super-fast’ combination and swiped my debit card in slot provided in the right hand side. Thats it! After about 30 seconds the ticket was automatically printed in the left side slot. All of a sudden people saw me getting my tickets printed and I gave a small demo to some of them before rushing into my train to catch my seat in general compartment. The kiosk picture shown below.

This kiosk is been launched not more than three weeks back and the experience was simply awesome! It was promoted by Canara Bank in association with Indian Railways with a meager service charge of Rs.5. It saved time of so many people and eased the queue for so many people as most of them were traveling to Chennai or Mysore. Being an embedded systems engineer I cannot stop appreciating this and I saw technology really making a difference in India. But the unfortunate point is people were not aware of this kiosk until I started printing the tickets for the first time that day.

This kiosk should be launched for any station to any station along with a touch screen in local language. Today almost all the government employees, farmers and students have debit cards which would definitely help them to get tickets quickly. In my blog about Indian railways, I briefly touched about the potential of Indian railways and how technology need to play a major role in that. Also last week I came across the article where Indian railway is becoming net-savvy by giving WiFi connections in railways. After my kiosk experience I really get the ‘aha’ experience of technology.

My experiences with the ‘chasm’

I started my career with a startup company, which failed eventually . After reading the ‘crossing the chasm’ book my Moore, I can map my observations to the chasm paradigm. I am not in a position to give out the company name, but the learnings are more important. Let me share my chasm experiences in this blog.

To start with, the company was a typical Silicon Valley based, venture funded startup. It had its engineering center in Bangalore with about 120 employees both in India and in the US. The company was into broadband gateway business, mainly focusing on home-gateways or Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) product. It raised about 9 million series-A and 13 million series-B venture funding apart from the initial angel funding. It was the year 1999 and everything looked so good at the beginning. Before this company the angel investor and the CEO has sold 14 startup companies to various huge corporations. In early 2000, the company was valued about 300 million USD.

From the technology standpoint, it had an excellent product called ‘Gateway-on-a-chip’ (GoC), which was a patented Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC). This custom designed hardware architecture for home-gateways will provide an integrated platform solution for Data (Internet browsing), Voice (Voice over packet) and security (Firewall and Virtual Private Networks or VPNs) and related applications. Following were the unique selling propositions (USP s) of the product:

  1. The platform provided customized hardware and software, suitable for home-gateway development. Since the software was customized for the hardware, the routing software was the best in terms of performance.
  2. The hardware was custom designed and it was very difficult to replicate it in a very small period of time. By having this high entry barrier, competitors were finding it hard to replicate it.
  3. The target customers were Original Equipment Manufactures (OEMs) and the integrated platform would reduce the time-to-market for them in a big way.
  4. The software was highly customizable and the features can be chosen in a plug-and-play fashion. Multiple combinations of data, voice and security products can be built by arranging them like ‘Lego boxes’.
  5. The company was mainly betting on Voice Over DSL (VoDSL) area and it was already inter-operating with almost all the major gateway vendors. The interoperability was proven in various trade shows.
  6. Apart from that, the .com bubble was bloating big time and high-speed Internet was the talk of the town. The GoC cutting edge product was competing with all big players and all set to take-off.

Mapping to the ‘chasm model’, (see the figure below) the company already has technically superior product, thereby attracting the ‘technology enthusiasts’. The VC community and telecommunication industry was betting big time on the VoDSL technology by looking into its bright future. The platform was already bought by some set of initial customers who were planning to ship the product in high volume. I could literally see the excitement in employees and Christmas parties, ping-pong tournaments, fashion shows were a common phenomenon. The ‘visionaries’ were all set to make it big. Unfortunately we were not aware of the ‘chasm’ we need to cross.

Fundamentally VoDSL technology is all about running a single copper wire to the Small-Office-Home-Office (SOHO) which would provide up to 16 telephone connections and Internet connectivity. The SOHO market was very hot in the pre-2000 time frame as ‘get-rich-quick’ dot com companies were mushrooming like anything. Having a single VoDSL would reduce investment costs for these SOHO customers. But the fundamental problem with this technology was, its was cannibalizing land line business of telephone operators. If any service provider (say AT & T) provides this VoDSL service, they may end up loosing their long distance land line business. So put in the chasm model, the ‘pragmatists’ like AT & T were not ready to adapt this technology. Because of this simple reason they stopped investing in VoDSL deployment in large scale and the VoDSL gateway companies started shutting down one by one. Now what do we do with our VoDSL home gateway? Simple! Its of no use. Whats the point in using a device at my home, where there is no support from the service provider side. The company was in deep shit.

As the company also had data solution (router, firewall, VPN) it started pushing for it big time. Since the company’s main bet (VoDSL) is no more, it brought in huge amount of work pressure to R & D teams slogging day and night. Every time the marketing and sales folks would give wonderful presentations about design wins but nothing got into the main production. As the company was operating in the OEM model, shipping units in large scale was very vital point which we missed big time. No doubting any more! We have become victims of the chasm.

Its really amazing how valuation of the company drops like droplets during the chasm period. Other events like telecom melt-down. .COM bubble burst, 9/11 attack fueled the company fall even further. One of the semi-conductor major took 51% stake of the company for just 25 million USD, which valued about 150 million USD before the chasm period. In spite of the huge corporation support, the company didn’t take off from there. Ultimately the company filed for bankruptcy and rest is history now. After knowing the ‘chasm’ model, I am able to co-relate and understand the failure my previous company much better now. At the same time the excitement and thrill that the high tech venture offers is mind-blowing. It should be experienced than writing or talking about it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crossing the chasm

Author: Geoffrey A Moore

Price: 17.95 USD

ISBN: 0-06-051712-3

This book is one of the all time classics in the high tech product marketing and Innovation. Its been in my ‘reading list’ for years together and one of my colleagues literally forced me to read this book in order to have interesting ‘coffee-table’ discussions. As a matter of fact we had multiple discussions and I got ample amount of insights into technology product marketing. This book provides a basic frame-work, where any technology and its growth can be fitted in.

To start with, what does it take to build great technology product and how to measure the success of any technology? The author introduces two key terms ‘fad’ and ‘trend’ to understand the consumer behavior, which is very key in innovating and marketing any technology product. The former (fad) is seen only among the small segment of people who are technology enthusiasts or special interest groups. These are the people who hook themselves to the latest gadget and start admiring its technology. They try out all the features and options given in the product. The later(trend) is when any particular product or technology is widely accepted by large pool of customers and it creates sustainable business around it. The success of any high tech product venture depends on how quickly and successfully it is able to change the ‘fad’ to a ‘trend’ and sustain it. In order to achieve this transformation, one should understand how the new technology is adopted by the customers. In order to do that, the author introduces the terminology ‘Technology adaptation life cycle’. This is all about understanding how the technology would be adapted by various types of customers. This categorization is based on the psychological nature of various customers.

Before getting into the categorization, the author classifies the high tech innovation into continuous and discontinuous innovation. The continuous are the ones which bring incremental changes to the existing product or service. Whereas the discontinuous innovations brings in big leap changes, which totally change the way we do things. For example the Google’s gmail is a continuous innovation, which brought excellent new features like unlimited storage, excellent user interface, labeling the email etc. Whereas hotmail is a discontinuous innovation, by bringing in mail access to via the Internet. The challenge in high tech marketing brings in huge amount as marketing these discontinuous innovations require change in the customer behavior. So the main objective of the marketing is to bring in a ‘compelling reason’ to buy the product. In order to bring in that compelling reason it is important to understand the various customers.

To start with, the ‘technology enthusiasts’ are the first set of folks who deal with any new technology or product who create the ‘fad’. As I said in the beginning of this blog, these people are ‘geeks’ who always shop for the latest equipment or software and try it out. They build the product with the technical expertise and the are only interested in ‘how’ the new technology works. But these enthusiasts contribute only to very thin portion of the total customer base. Followed by them are the ‘visionaries’ who foresee the the advantage of the product by bringing in huge order of improvement. They are good at the ‘productizing’ a technology idea by intuitively predicting the future. For any entrepreneurial venture these two are generally achieved pretty easily as they have got visibility up to this point. But the real challenge is to move to the next phase by selling the product to ‘pragmatists’ who belong to the major portion of the customer base. They are also called as ‘early majorities’ and they are pretty skeptical in adapting to the new product as they are low-risk takers. Majority of the technology firms fail in this phase because they fail to convince the pragmatists. When the organization in transitioning between the visionaries and pragmatists it is in the ‘chasm’ phase. Crossing the chasm successfully determine the success of the organization and the focus of this book. Followed by the pragmatists are ‘late majority’ conservatives who are the volume players. They enter in when the market is matured but take advantage of their existing vast customer base. Followed by them are the ‘laggards’ who are very conservatives. All these types are shown in the diagram below.

Now let us come to crossing the chasm. How can the firm convince the ‘pragmatists’ and make them adapt to the new product? This is similar to capturing a new land with the help of the army. In order to do that the niche market (or the beachhead) needs to be captured. This starts with addressing the pain points of the niche market customers. Creating a competition and showing a value proposition is the key for making the pragmatists to buy. This gives them the signal that the product is matured. Now what about winning the competition? This is where the positioning of the product comes into picture. The positioning needs to be done depending on what phase of the technology adaptation cycle the product is in and the author suggests the following approach:

  1. Technology-enthusiasts: Name-it-frame-it
  2. Visionaries: Who-for-what-for
  3. Pragmatists: Competition and differentiation
  4. Conservatives: Brand and trust

After the positioning the product properly, distribution and pricing comes into picture. In this phase we can say the product has successfully crossed the chasm. After that the organization moves into altogether a different phase. In this time the financial and people aspects needs are totally different and the author gives some more details in these areas. In the end the author describes about product management and product marketing management roles which emerges after crossing the chasm. The author has given multiple examples while explaining the concept. Unfortunately these examples belong to the 1990s time-frame and I found pretty hard to co-relate with today’s world.

More than anything, this book has given a ‘structured framework’ for individuals to think about high-tech innovation and product marketing. Working in the ‘engineering’ world we tend to believe coding and bug fixing are the only part of the product. In reality they are just the tip of the iceberg and there is much more things happen after the engineering releases the product. As a matter of fact no organization fails because of its technical competence as most of them become victims of the ‘chasm’ as they fail to market to product by showing a ‘compelling’ reason to buy.

Overall this book is one of the all time classics, which is a must read for technology professionals. After reading this book I am able to think why my previous organization (a technology startup) failed. I will write a separate blog about my ‘chasm’ experiences.

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Reflections on Innovation

The word ‘Innovation’ seems to be the latest buzzword in the tech industry. Last week Steve Ballmer (CEO Microsoft Corporation) visited India and re-iterated the need for innovation in Indian software companies. From my personal point of view I have been struggling hard to do innovation at my workplace and finally able to see some light at the end of the tunnel. In this blog I am going to share my reflections on Innovation.

Even though the word ‘Innovation’ sounds very flashy, it’s very difficult to innovate in Indian software companies because of the following reasons:

  1. Most of the projects we get to do in India are more of maintenance and enhancement type. Since the technology is already matured, there is little room to innovate.
  2. Since most of the companies are operating in the ‘offshore’ model, engineers are completely kept away from customers. We don’t get to see how exactly the customer is going to use a particular product or service. This also means that we don’t understand customer problems.
  3. Because of the nature of the work we do, the ‘technical career path’ concept is really not taken off in India. Even though all companies are advertising that they provide technical path, many of the senior techies are moved to techno-business kind of role or people managers as they are becoming overheads to organizations today. I might sound rude but that’s the reality. In the part five years I have never seen a technical expert who can design a complete product.
  4. Our education system doesn’t promote ‘learning-by-doing’ and most of us end up mugging up things rather than a hands-on approach.
  5. In India there is no proper industry-academia relationship. Computer science professors keep teaching the same old syllabus with their ‘ego’ on their shoulders and Industry people never bother to make a trip to colleges and giving them industry exposure. Except for IIITs I haven’t seen any other educational institutions actively tied up with the industry.

Cribs apart, let me put some serious thought. According to me innovation can be classified as ‘fundamental’ and ‘problem oriented’. The best example for the fundamental innovation is Boolean algebra. Bool invented this algebra in 18th century but no body thought about its real impact till digital electronics was invented couple of centuries later. Today Boolean algebra (manipulation of 1s and 0s) is the blood of ‘binary computing’. So by nature fundamental innovations are very different and it takes very long time feel the impact.

The ‘problem oriented’ innovation can be best explained with ‘lateral thinking’. In my blog about ‘Lateral thinking’, I have mentioned how an accident caused the invention of thermal inkjet. From the industry perspective this ‘problem oriented’ innovation is the way to go and the same method needs to be applied for innovating from India. I would say innovation is all about finding a customer problem and finding out a solution. These two phases are explained below:

The first phase is all about identifying the problem and validating it. This is also the most difficult phase, which answers the following ‘Why?’ questions.

1. Why this is a problem?

2.Why it is important to solve the problem for my organization?

In fact if the proper problem is identified 50% of the task is over. In the software world, the problem can be identified from the User Interface (UI) to the hardware resister value and every problem has equal value. After identifying the problem it needs to answer a simple question ‘Does this problem makes business sense?’ and this is where the subjective and objective aspects come in. It’s extremely important to validate the problem in a ‘subjective’ fashion rather than objectively. If the problem doesn’t make business sense from the organization’s point of view, it doesn’t make sense to proceed. In fact it’s always better to focus on the problem area that is related to the work or technology or domain we work with.

The second phase is more about solution design and implementation. To put in other words, it answers the following ‘How’ and ‘What’ questions.

  1. How am I going to solve the problem?
  2. How well my solution is going to address the problem statement?
  3. How can I reuse the existing pieces of software?
  4. What are the technologies or software components that are required?
  5. What is the solution design?

This is the phase where the ‘engineering’ aspects of the solution need to be decided. Once it is decided the solution implementation follows the typical design, coding and testing cycles. The above mentioned phases are totally different in nature. This is because in the first phase we use the ‘right’ side of the brain (intuitive part) and in the second part the ‘left’ side (analytical part). The first phase is ‘chaotic’ thinking; second phase is ‘organized’ thinking. In a way I can say innovation is nothing but an ‘organized chaos’.

I have been going through this ‘innovation’ journey for the past one year and it’s been very interesting. I am very much in the initial learning phase but I am enjoying every moment of it. If Dr. APJ Abdul Kalaam and Dr.Varghese Kurian can achieve ‘innovation’ in defence and milk production areas, the post-reform IT industry people don’t have any excuses for not doing innovation. All it takes is passion, purpose and a strong urge to see a meaning for life.

Innovation by accident ?

Famous Author Edward De Bono, in his book ‘Six thinking hats’ talks about the ‘lateral thinking’ concept. This new way of lateral thinking is commonly known as ‘out of the box’ thinking and our right side of the brain (which is intuitive in nature) is responsible for this. The author argues that the lateral thinking can be cultivated in any individual or organization by ‘connecting’ things. What is this connecting is all about? How different this lateral thinking is from ‘sequential’ or ‘normal’ thinking? Can we cultivate innovation by connecting things? Yes. It is possible with ‘De Bono’ style thinking.

De Bono suggests choosing two random page numbers in English dictionary and pickup words in the right hand bottom of each of those pages. Now try to connect these two words. Say for example if my words are ‘programming’ and ‘desert’ then I can think of ‘writing a computer program to measure temperature of remote desert’. This will open up new opportunities and the ‘sequential’ thinking needs to be applied to execute the lateral thinking idea. This is also called as ‘blue ocean strategy’ in business world, where the culmination of two different ideas from different industries forms a new ‘killer’ business idea.

This lateral thinking is widely used in the industry to make the decision making faster and promote innovation. Recently Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has given training to Indian cricket team for innovating new ideas in the game. Also in his famous speech at Stanford University Apple CEO Steve Jobs talks about the importance of ‘connecting the dots’. Leaving them apart, can an accident become ‘innovation’? If yes how it is?

In the year 1978 the Hewlett-Packard (HP) company, formed their ‘HP-labs’ for nurturing innovation in Palo Alto, California. An engineer working on developing thin film technology for the hardware chips was testing the response of thin film to electrical stimulations. The electricity superheated the medium, and the fluid under the thin film was expelled. This particular accident caused the engineer to think more: ‘what if the jets of fluid can be controlled?’ Instead of heating the thin film how about heating the ink and making it flow on paper in a controlled fashion? This thinking caused the invention of Thermal Ink Jet (TIJ) technology which laid the foundation stone for thermal inkjet printers and the rest is history. By ‘connecting’ the film heating with ink heating made the accident as an innovation.

Now what about ‘connecting’ this printer businesses ‘shaving razor’ business? Gone crazy? No. I am not crazy. Most of us would have observed Gillette sells its shaving stick at a very competitive price (Say 200 INR) but their blades are very costly (Say 100 INR). You are forced to buy Gillette blades (Even though it is costly) because you have already bought the stick from them. Now what about selling printers at a very optimal price and then cartridges at high cost? Sounds great! Can you see the ‘connection’ now? That’s exactly what HP is doing with their printer business. They have formed the blue-ocean strategy by learning from shaving razor business.

It’s really amazing to learn and experience the lateral thinking. So let us start ‘connecting’ things from now on!

Startup Incubation from Indian T-schools

In January 2005 the state of California announced the location 367, Addison Avenue in the Palo Alto area as ‘Birthplace of silicon valley’. Please don’t jump into a conclusion this must be a hi-fi museum or a huge building. It is a small garage (See the photo) where two youngsters Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard from Stanford University started their company Hewlett Packard (HP) in the year 1938. Today HP is an 80 billion USD company and everybody knows the contributions HP has made to the technology world. After almost 60 years later another two youngsters from the same Stanford University (Lary Page and Sergey Brin) founded another company called ‘Google’ and I don’t need to tell anything more about that Google. The commonality between HP and Google is the ‘Stanford University’ which played a very significant role in nurturing these great people. After some time I was reading an essay by Paul Graham in which he clearly mentioned the importance of Stanford University and University of California (UCB), which played a very significant role in Silicon Valley’s success.

If Stanford and UCB are the best universities in the US, I can very well say IIT and IISc are equally best in India. Then the next question came to my mind was ‘Are we doing something similar to US universities? Can we create a Silicon Valley in India?’ and started doing some reading in these areas. I learned that there is nothing concrete has happened from these Indian universities as of today but there is a huge amount of momentum building up for incubating startups. I could easily see half a dozen companies are currently in the incubation phase:

1. SINE (http://www.sineiitb.org/): SINE is hosted by Indian Institute of Technology Bombay under the IIT-B umbrella for promotion of entrepreneurship at IIT Bombay. SINE administers a business incubator which provides support for technology based entrepreneurship.

2. Eisodus Networks (http://www.eisodus.com/): This is a company incubated from IIT-B and they are into Broadband access networking. The company has developed an innovative Architecture called EisoAccess by leveraging the potential of Ethernet to enable triple play. This organization is nurtured by Prof Abhay Karandikar from EE department in IIT-B.

3. Vegayan Systems (http://www.vegayan.com/): This is also incubated from IIT-B and Vegayan is into developing MPLS traffic engineering and network planning tool for service provider and enterprise network customers. Vegayan technology is based on innovative VS routing scheme with international IP protection (patents pending) and this is run by Professor Girish Saraph from IIT-B.

4. Webaroo (http://www.webaroo.com/): This is also run from IIT-B and they are making search engines and multimedia games.

5. Esqube Communications (http://www.esqube.com/): This is a startup company run by professors from IISc. They are into Voice over IP (VoIP) and Wireless domain. Apart from this Tejas Networks and Strand Genomics are the other two companies started by IISc Profs which have had pretty good success in the past.

6. Backend Bangalore (http://www.backend.co.in/): This Company was incubated from IIIT-Bangalore and they are into multiple areas like product development, consulting and services.

The above mentioned startups are in the early stage and they need to go a long way before achieving ‘Commercial Success’. After Indian independence Nehru called dams and steel mills as ‘Temples of modern India’. I feel calling these startup incubations as ‘Temples of future India’ as they are going to play a very vital role in future India.