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March - 2008 - issue > Innovation
Nexus between technology enablers and needs
Ash Tankha
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Inventions do not happen in a vacuum, they require the right catalyst and a favorable ecosystem to thrive. We very often happen to see a new technology enabler or the changing demands of a society driven paradigm. If we were to look closely at the filed patents that have been converted into successful products, it can be found that they have been created at the vortex of innovations from various technologies and relatively new human wants and needs. The technological developments that cut across web browsing, user interfaces, natural language processing, hectic inputs, networking, telecommunication methods, and hardware are used in various combinations to create today’s inventions, some complex and others simple but display a flash of ingenuity. The range of new human needs demand collaborative work, knowledge sharing, contextual decision making, new modes of communication, availability of information “anywhere and anytime”, and enhanced security. Mix and match the technological developments and the new human needs, and you would be surprised at the incredible number of novel combinations that result in patentable solutions.

It is an established fact that even in the best of market conditions a great many startups fail in their initial ventures to capitalize or monetize on inventions. Many a times it is not due to a shortcoming in the innovative concept. Rather it is due to a failure at effectively identifying the human needs and mapping them with appropriate technology. The companies we have featured exemplify, on a case-by-case basis, the creation of a business derived from the nexus of a technology enabler and a new unmet business or human need.

Increasingly there is a pressing need for systems to go beyond their traditional roles and engage with humans in a more natural form. There are vast repositories of information that are locked up in databases that are not accessible to a natural human query. While there have been implementations of NLP (Natural Language Processing) for search engines and for other applications, it remains a challenge to make them work in a business environment. Towards this end is Alabot’s implementation based on NLP that hopes to teach systems to understand the human language and respond appropriately. “I don't see any convergence of NLP technology across mobile, instant messaging, and web platforms. More importantly there is no business or monetization associated with these products,” says Akshat Shrivastava, CEO of Alabot. To address this challenge, Alabot’s algorithm makes it possible for the system to understand and respond to any format of query originating in any platform. This ensures a more human interface with the machine. A system using the Alabot interface would be able to intelligently understand a query like “Get me from London to Athens on 3rd Feb, 4 adults” by an individual, by using advanced phonetics. The system enables results like booking a hotel, calling a taxi, weather forecasting, and other relevant information over an Instant Messenger or through an SMS.

The need for knowledge can be addressed by machines only to a certain extent. At best they can be intelligent information repositories. What a machine lacks is experiential learning and wisdom, for which we need to turn towards social communities. Web technology has particularly addressed this need with the vast number of people on various social networks and groups. The need to tap into this knowledge store-house is just as necessary when we are on the move. Aiming to combine the two powerful media of social networks and mobility search features is Ziva Software, Bangalore. It is focused on redefining the way we search on the move. “Instead of adopting the web based search techniques and paradigms to the mobile world, we have built the whole stack ground up by keeping the mobile requirements in mind,” says Ajay Sethi , CEO of Ziva Software. The novelty in Ziva’s approach is combining the search task with the power of social networking. In addition, it provides for a personalization feature by introducing an automatic feedback loop based on the user’s and community’s mobile usage patterns. Another player in the same space is MobMe Wireless Solutions, Kochi. Its flagship Mobshare platform lets users and businesses share mobile content. As with many young startups, there is no dearth of technology depth as illustrated by its open source implementation of voice servers for Vodafone. Though it is not just a product innovation that is responsible for the company’s success, “We realized that more than technology it would be business innovation that would make a difference and thus the product we have also reflect the same,” says Sanjay Kumar, CEO, MobMe.

The numerous human needs that spurn the vast number of mobile applications necessitate fast roll out of mobile devices with varied applications. Shortening and simplifying mobile development cycles achieve this rapid pace of innovation. The simplicity of the mobile devices’ application interface development is a critical component in reducing time to market. Application interface frameworks generally tend to be complex and heavy applications. To aid the handset manufacturers overcome this hurdle, Mango Technologies, Bangalore, has developed an application framework software that is modular and the thinnest in the segment, thereby significantly reducing cost and time at multiple levels in the mobile development cycle. “The major roadblock in providing applications for the target audience is that phones for this segment cannot support any additional applications outside of what the OEM has packed in during their manufacture,” says Lekh Joshi, CTO and Co-Founder, Mango Technologies. The Mango solution empowers the handset manufacturer with the flexibility to churn out devices with varied flavors of User Interface (UI) and opens up opportunities for VAS (Value Added Services) applications in low cost phones.

The need for product simplicity is all the more profound for smaller organizations, given their limited budgets and manpower. With this in mind, various product designers are working on ways to build solutions ground up. This is necessary as the re-engineering of solutions that are essentially developed for large enterprises is not suitable. “While large enterprises have the resources and the processes to manage various point sources, the various complexities, confusion, and the resultant costs have meant that the SMB sector is inhibited from adopting these technologies fast enough,” says Manish Gangey, CEO, Elina Networks, Bangalore. Elina’s approach involves leveraging the open source ecosystem to create high value networking platforms for the mass market and using the commercial off-the-shelf hardware to deliver network services, which are traditionally delivered on expensive custom-built hardware. Product complexity issues are particularly painful to deal with in enterprise data back-up and disaster recovery processes. “Disaster recovery was considered to be a one man-month effort,” says Jaspreet Singh, CEO, Druvaa Software, Pune. Sensing an opportunity to reduce complexity and thereby the cost of enterprise backup and data recovery, Druvaa developed a product named Replicator. It’s a complete Continuous Data Protection (CDP) product. For the large mobile community, a lightweight product for effective back-ups was identified to be essential and hence the product InSync. It can automatically, continuously, and securely take a back up of mobile devices like laptops over normal WAN/Internet.

The need to address complexity issues now extends to the way we work too, given the growing levels of collaboration required across teams spread across the world. To address these challenges, some vendors have turned to the Software as a Service (SaaS) model that allows for flexibility in use, access, and reliability. This model has been around for quite some time, and has long been touted as helping to simplify product distribution and reduce overall costs. However it’s only now that many of the business models based on this concept are really taking off. Betting on this model is the web collaborative tool solution Deskaway of Synage Software, Mumbai. “We have completely moved away from the traditional model of software, i.e., installation, to the software as a service model,” says Sahil Parikh, founder of Deskaway. The product is a result of the company’s own experiences in collaboration difficulties while handling multiple projects at a time. What started out as an in-house project has now transformed to a product, which they hope, would be just as practical and useful to people in the same context.

Apart from satisfying the needs of collaboration, social networking, and knowledge sharing, the one aspect that the Web has had a profound impact on is in creating a market place. On the one hand it has helped the buyers with timely and faster survey options, while on the other sellers are able to effectively target their advertising and products. The very reason for Google’s dominance has been the seismic change it has brought to the advertisement sector. What it has done is to help better target the advertisement spend. Working towards providing similar options in the real world retail sector is Blink Media, Mumbai. “Increased consumption levels have led to an unbelievable clutter in the marketplace where brands are fighting it out to get a share of customers’ attention. This means our exposure to various media has increased multifold. ‘Ad avoidance’ is rendering most interrupt media ineffective. Marketers need sharper tools to talk to their audiences,” says Devang Raiyani, Co-Founder Blink Media, explaining the challenges their company hopes to address. The three core technologies geared towards providing the solution are ‘Recognition Technologies’, where the environment is aware of the shopper, ‘Intelligent Content Mining’, which seeks out highly contextual content, and ‘Narrowcasting Software’ for real time content management for advertisers. “These fundamental building blocks allow us to create multiple products, giving us flexibility to adapt to various types of retail outlets – from supermarkets to bookstores or even luxury retail,” says Devang. Their current product focus is the ‘Intelligent Shopping Cart’ where any standard shopping cart is fitted with an intelligent screen. This device monitors the shopper’s location, likes and dislikes and brand preference amongst others. The system is ‘aware’ of where discounts will work, and where they aren’t necessary. And the system weaves all this information together to create ‘impulse moments’ for brands in a way that is extremely relevant and useful for the shopper. This would help brands reach out to their target customers at the final touch point.

Identifying the dynamically changing requirements of human needs and mapping them with appropriate technology has been the foundation for innovative companies. The closer they get at doing the same effectively and efficiently, the greater their market success.

Ash Tankha, U.S. patent attorney, Gosakan A and Santhosh K provide patent services to inventors. They can be contacted at ash@ipprocurement.com or visit www.ipprocurement.com
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