Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An alternative route through the flat world

Hong Kong-based Rebecca MacKinnon reports that Flat World author Thomas Friedman got a pasting from a Chinese diplomat on stage during a recent panel discussion, with the diplomat pulling him up for his "condescending" views on some of China's global policies. I don't know about China, but sometimes I think Friedman is also missing something when it comes to India, one of the key countries in The World is Flat.

Thomas Friedman started out his journey to survey the flat world on the first tee at KGA Golf Club in Bangalore, where he could observe Microsoft, IBM and the still unfinished Goldman Sachs buildings. I didn’t quite get there, but I managed to get a round in at the cheaper Bangalore Golf Club, from where I could see the horrendous lines of traffic, some of which presumably were going to the same buildings that Friedman mentioned.

I share another thing with Friedman – I’ve also met with one of the Infosys top guys, in my case founder and former chairman Narayana Murthy. However, rather than test theories of globalisation, we basically talked cricket for most of the scheduled one-hour interview. I put this down to the fact that at the time (well before Friedman) I had no idea what Infosys did. Of course in this flat world of ours, now everyone knows about Infosys and the other Indian success stories (although I suspect many still don’t really know what they do).

As for having my own epiphany, I came to the sharp realisation that Bangalore is in about the same shape as my golf game. Take your pick of adjectives – dodgy, streaky, crumbling, a-tad-short-of-shocking – the fact is they both need a lot of work. In the case of Bangalore, the traffic alone is one pointer that the place is just not coping with the demands being put on it. Another is the constant power cuts, and don’t even get me started on the airport.

I liked Friedman’s book and a lot of what he says makes sense. But visiting India gives me a strange feeling that he’s missing something in his flat world theory. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but I’m sure there’s more to the success of places like Bangalore than the Internet and fibre optic connectivity. The social networks of Indians in every corner of the globe for starters.

Anyway, as you might have noticed earlier, I’m not into testing theories of globalisation (although one of these days I might try to flesh out what I think Friedman is missing). Much better to talk cricket, which if you can hang in there I can try to make relevant.

I knew cricket was huge here, but either I’d forgotten how huge or it’s gotten even more crazy. Or . . . maybe the media has grown since my last visit. Or perhaps gotten more sophisticated so I pay it some attention. No doubt all of the above. In fact, I was surprised at how many news channels there are locally and how sophisticated a lot of the publications have become. This place could really be a media powerhouse.

Actually, make that a content powerhouse. Combine all of the cricket programming with the output of Bollywood and you’ve got a huge vault of material just waiting for a new online business model to send it to all corners of the flat earth. At a recent Cisco analyst day I attended, Bob McIntyre, CTO of new acquisition Scientific Atlanta, gave a talk on niche video programming. He noted how in the US, there was always huge demand for all sorts of niche on-demand offerings that cater to expat communities, whether they’re Indian, Australia or Chinese.

Look at the popularity of the Cricinfo web site – it’s one of the top sites in the world in terms of traffic generated. Imagine if they were to have a live video feed for all the users it serves in the far flung corners of the globe. It would be huge. You could also relate cricket programming to Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory. Then again, a long tail of cricket really would be a painful pun.

Whatever you call it, we are living in a world that is increasingly global yet at the same time is searching for more niche and local news and content. Perhaps the more we globalise the more we appreciate our local specialities. Which might explain Bangalore’s adoption of its local identity at the expense of its global one. Yes, just as you were getting used to the likes of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, now you can twist your tongue around Bengalooru, the new name for Bangalore. – Geoff Long

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