Wi-Fi on Tap

Rates for 3G access plans in Mumbai have been slashed by 70 percent, yet I do not see our young workforce upgrading to 3G in droves. It may be a slice of high networth individuals that have gone 3G, but not a chunk of the smart phone user base. And 3G access continues to be spotty, with weak signals in the far flung areas of the city, but stronger access at the business hubs. I think Wi-Fi access would be a more viable option for the average smart device owner, but why hasn’t a service provider jumped at the opportunity?

I read Ajit Ranade’s article “STD booths as Wi-Fi hotspots” in Mumbai Mirror (14 July) with interest. In his Edit piece Ranade suggests that STD booths can be converted to Wi-Fi hotspots with a subsidy from the municipality. He recalls India’s first telecom revolution (1980s) and the proliferation of the PCO (Public Call Office) booths — (thanks to Sam Pitroda). Remember the bright yellow, dinky booths with the words ‘ISD-STD-PCO’ printed in bold letters? Well, that’s a rare sight today, and all that remains are chunky plastic coin-operated phones in local Kirana stores (who uses them anyway?)

Perhaps those booths can be resurrected, with the ISD-STD-PCO acronyms replaced with the ‘Wi-Fi Zone’ logo defined by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Another opportunity for Public-Private-Partnership?

Earlier this year, I was touring Silicon Valley in a mid-sized bus. I joined a team of tech journalists from Brazil and Mexico. The journey from San Francisco to Silicon Valley took around two hours. These journalists passed time by filing stories on their laptops. As I entered the bus, I noticed the ‘Wi-Fi Zone’ logo painted on the door, suggesting the availability of free Wi-Fi access on board! And it worked! Now, how did they manage that?

Some Indian airports offer free Wi-Fi access. I am also aware that airlines in the league of Emirates offer Internet access on board. And of course, you couldn’t miss Wi-Fi at a Starbucks café abroad.

When I visit companies in India for meetings, I notice that many offer Wi-Fi access with guest log-ins. That’s handy for quickly surfing the company site for some last minute preparation, while waiting in the lobby or reception area. And you can’t miss young executives with their shiny laptops in front of them at the food court at Inorbit Mall in Mumbai (a Wi-Fi Zone).

Well, that’s a good start. But I am hoping to see more Wi-Fi hotspots in our Indian cities and offices.

Is Email on the way out?

There was a time when it was considered hip to have an email address, never mind if it was something as cryptic as firstname.lastname@bom2.vsnl.net.in. Soon it became fashionable to show off one’s AOL or Hotmail or Yahoo! mail or Rocketmail or Gmail address on one’s business card. Eventually, email became an essential communications tool in the business world.

Last week I met the CEO of a global technology services company, and he complained about how much email he was getting. Apart from daily reports, there’s mail from business heads, and he is also CC’d and BCC’d on a deluge of mails. His company has now kicked off a zero email drive at a global level. The ‘zero’ is a visionary thing of course; even though the drive has been on for the past one and a half years, employees continue to write email — but the number of mails exchanged has reduced by 10 – 20 percent. I am assuming that a bulk of their mail is sent externally. For internal communication they use a Wiki platform and certain collaboration tools. This company is in the process of establishing an Enterprise Social Network, and direct messaging will be available on this platform.

A week ago I visited the CIO of a well-known media company (I’m not giving away names now; you’ll have to wait for my feature story in InformationWeek next month). He proudly showed me his new social intranet and all the shiny collaboration tools. When an employee in his organization sends email, it is intercepted at the mail gateway, and the domain in the email address is scanned. If the domain is the same as the company email domain, then the mail is redirected back to the social intranet, and the recipient gets it as a direct message in a social interface that’s similar to Facebook or Linkedin. A smart way to spare us Inbox flooding! And this method of communication evokes faster responses too!

When I need to get a quick response from a person I have never met, I first connect with him/her on Linkedin, and then send a direct message. Nine out of 10 times, I get a response the same day, often within the hour. That does not happen with email.

On this site, I reported how a company called MangoSpring is bringing a Facebook-like experience into the corporate world. It offers a Social Email solution, by way of Ignite, a plug-in for MS Outlook. Ignite links your Outlook email with SharePoint or some other data repository. It simplifies the process of saving email attachments to SharePoint — or picking up files from SharePoint and attaching these to email. When attaching files to internal email messages, one can simply drag the file from the central repository (shown in a window) into the body of the message. A link to file is included in the mail — the actual file is not attached. This saves bandwidth and prevents users from storing copies of the same file in their Inboxes. It also obviates the need to use file sharing services (a security hazard) and gets round the company file size limitation for attachments. And of course, it reduces the overhead of archived mail on the Exchange server.

While social media and collaboration tools (especially video collaboration), will reduce the number of emails (and physical meetings) in the organization, a corporate world with zero email is still some time away. But the workplace is definitely changing; a social layer is being spread on the enterprise network. With enterprise-grade tools for chat, presence, video conferencing, micro-blogging, task management etc coming into the enterprise, people will eventually use email less.