Published April 8-14, 2023
Lists – 1
This essay is inspired by a post I saw from Tyler Cowen (born in 1962) entitled “The major revolutions I have seen in my lifetime.” Tyler’s list:
- Moon landing, 1969
- The collapse of communism (1989-????)
- The rise of Asia. Japan and South Korea starting around the time of my birth. The rise of China for sure, and currently the rise of India is a likely addition.
- Feminization, ongoing, no firm date
- The realization of the internet. Hard to date, but I’ll say the 1990s and ongoing.
- The smartphone — 2007
- Effective Large Language Models/AI. Impact still to be seen.
I scanned the 300+ comments on Tyler’s posts for more lists. This is from Back 2 Basics:
- Globalization: Increased cross-border trade and cultural exchange
- Internet: Revolutionized communication and access to information
- Climate change: Alteration of global temperatures and weather patterns
- Medical advancements: Improved healthcare and increased life expectancy
- Demographic shifts: Aging populations and urbanization
- Political changes: Shift towards neoliberal economic policies.
- Space exploration: Advancements in technology and understanding of the universe
- Increase in communication technology: Mobile phones, social media and video conferencing.
- Economic development in Asia: China and India becoming major global powers.
- Changes in Religious beliefs and practices: Decline in traditional religious affiliations.
From a list from derek (edited for simplicity):
- Ubiquity of birth control
- Women in the workforce
- Divorce becoming the norm
- Sexual revolution
- Quiet Revolution. This is the most interesting, showing how institutions can simply become irrelevant and almost disappear.
- Air travel
- Breakdown in law and order
- Fax machines. Their ubiquity made communication of written material easy.
- Dismantlement of legacy media empires.
- Collapse of the Soviet Union.
- The rise of China.
I asked ChatGPT about the big revolutions of the past 60 years. The list (with edits for simplification):
- Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 60s
- Fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991
- Internet and digital revolution, starting in the late 20th century
- LGBT rights movement
- Women’s rights movement
- Environmental movement
- Global health revolution
We have indeed seen big changes. For this essay, I will focus on digital revolutions in our lifetime.
Lists – 2
I asked ChatGPT for the major digital revolutions over the past 60 years, and I got a list that overlapped with what I had been thinking:
- Personal Computer Revolution: The development and popularization of personal computers in the 1980s and 1990s, which greatly increased the accessibility and usability of computing power.
- Internet Revolution: The widespread adoption of the internet in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, which transformed the way people communicate and access information.
- Mobile Revolution: The rise of mobile devices and smartphones in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, which have made computing and communication even more accessible and portable.
- Social Media Revolution: The emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in the early 21st century, which have dramatically changed the way people communicate and share information.
- Cloud Revolution: The growth of cloud computing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, which has made it possible to store, process, and access large amounts of data and applications over the internet.
- Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Revolution: The rapid advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning in the early 21st century, which have led to breakthroughs in natural language processing, computer vision, and other areas, and have the potential to transform a wide range of industries.
My list of digital revolutions (I was born in 1967):
- Personal computers, starting in the early 1980s
- Internet, starting in the early 1990s, with the launch of the HTTP protocol and Mosaic browser
- Mobile (more specifically, the smartphone revolution) with the launch of Apple’s iPhone in 2007
- AI (more specifically, Generative AI) with the launch of many mass use applications in 2022
The other digital revolutions I had shortlisted:
- Semiconductors, which has made all of our digital world possible. This started in the early 1970s and continues to go from strength to strength.
- Adtech, starting in the early 2000s, which monetised our attention and data, primarily via search and social, leading to the rise of Google and Facebook (now Meta)
- SaaS (software-as-a-service), the early 2000s with Salesforce but picked up steam in the following decade and continues to go This has led to the transformation of how enterprises use software – shifting from local networks and processing to the cloud.
- GPS and Maps, which eased travel and also enabled many next-gen services possible (ride hailing and food delivery are two examples)
- Robots: with cheaper computing and better AI-ML, robots are already making a big impact in manufacturing – and this is likely to expand
- Blockchain and Crypto, with the rise and fall of cryptocurrencies and the underlying trust-based platform. This is still in its early days and could go either way.
I put this list into ChatGPT and asked if there were any other revolutions that could be added. The response (which I have edited):
- E-commerce, which has dramatically changed the way people buy and sell goods and services.
- Social Networking, which has transformed the way people interact and form relationships online. [I had this above as “social media”.]
- Big Data, which has created new opportunities for businesses to collect, process, and analyze large amounts of data to make better decisions
- Internet of Things, which has led to a new era of smart homes, smart cities, and connected cars
- Streaming, which has changed the way people consume media, such as music, movies, and TV shows. [Rajesh comment: Podcasting can also be viewed as a very important innovation.]
- Cybersecurity: As the number of cyberattacks and data breaches has grown, and the need for protection against these threats has become critical [Rajesh: encryption may be a better way to frame this.]
Next, I will discuss the intersection of four revolutions I mentioned (personal computing, Internet, mobile, SaaS) with my life. (The AI revolution is still in its early days, so that’s a story for the future.)
In 1982, TIME magazine named the PC as its “Machine of the Year” (instead of naming a “Man of the Year”). An excerpt: “There are some occasions, though, when the most significant force in a year’s news is not a single individual but a process, and a widespread recognition by a whole society that this process is changing the course of all other processes. That is why, after weighing the ebb and flow of events around the world, TIME has decided that 1982 is the year of the computer. … TIME’S Man of the Year for 1982, the greatest influence for good or evil, is not a man at all. It is a machine: the computer.”
I am certain that the cover story influenced my father to purchase a computer in 1983 for his office. It was a decision that changed the trajectory of my life. I was in college (11th standard at St. Xavier’s College). With free time on my hands, I would go to my father’s office and write software. Here is what I had written on my previous blog in 2004: “I remember using my first PC in 1983-4. I remember getting a ZX Sinclair home but didn’t use it much. At the same time, my father had also got a computer at work. It was very expensive (Rs 200,000 or so, when the dollar was Rs 8 per dollar). Since we couldn’t find a software programmer who would stay long enough (!), I decided to learn BASIC programming, and would go after college and write programs on it. [I] wrote many interactive games then: one that simulated a one-day cricket international (remember that was the time India had won the Cricket World Cup), Monopoly, and a game I called MinderMast (guessing a 4-digit number in upto 10 tries). The computer was my life then – that was how my love affair with technology began. Till then, I wanted to follow my father’s footsteps and become a civil engineer and build bridges and buildings. The computer in the office changed my life.”
I learnt some theory about the digital world during my IIT years, and did some low-level assembly language programming for a communications project. Computers came back into my life at Columbia University during my Masters education. That is when I started writing software seriously, something I continued at NYNEX, and then the early days of my entrepreneurial career. I wrote (along with my co-founder Sanjay) a multimedia database in 1992-3, and then an image processing software (Image WorkBench) in 1993-94. None of these succeeded commercially. By then, the next revolution was already underway – and I had already started thinking about how I could play a part in it.
In the summer of 1994, I was looking for something new for my entrepreneurial venture. I had failed multiple times over the past couple years, and needed to pivot. This is what I wrote in 2004:
The Internet was far removed from my life (other than using email through an email account on NCSTs servers, along with the Usenet newsgroups). I had a business developing image processing software. That was just not working. Efforts to sell our Image WorkBench solution to metallurgists and medical institutions had been largely unsuccessful. It was two years since I had returned from the US to set up a business in India, and I could see that we had gone quite wrong in our business activities.
As I started thinking then about what to do, I started reading various magazines trying to spot future trends. It was then that I came across the Internet as the new information highway. For all practical purposes, India’s linkage to the Internet then was through ERNET, the educational and research network. Access to it was limited.
Some more reading and thinking led me to put a concept called SpiderNet. I imagined it as a network that would have all kinds of India-specific information which people could use their computers to dial into. Though I didn’t make the link then, it was a kind-of private CompuServe or AOL. The only operating network then in India was Business Indias aXcess. So, there seemed to be plenty of opportunities.
The summer of 1994 was when I put together my first ideas for an electronic news and information service. As the months passed, the SpiderNet ideas gave way to IndiaWorld, an Internet-based news and information service primarily focused on Indians outside India and others interested in India. Instead of trying to set up our own network, we would use the Internet as the distribution medium.
I launched IndiaWorld as India’s first Internet portal in March 1995. Here is the story:
The IndiaWorld story begins in September 1994. I was in the US, trying to figure out a good business to do in an area other than software exports. It was the time when the Internet and Web were just about beginning to catch people’s fancies. I spent a few weeks at a friend’s place, browsing the Web on a 14.4 Kbps dial-up modem with Netcom’s Netcruiser account. The experience was absolutely amazing. It was quite evident then that the Web as a medium would have a significant impact on how information was disseminated. The Web offered a good business opportunity: attract the NRIs (I was one myself!) with good intent, and then look at offshoots in electronic commerce.
That was the vision of IndiaWorld: a bridge between Indians worldwide.
On my return to India in November 1994, I wrote to various publishers and talked to a number of companies and individuals to participate in the venture by offering their content. It was tough explaining the Internet and the Web to people in India then: there was no commercial Internet access provider (our “shell” account was through NCST/ERNET). Most thought the Internet to be another variation of a satellite channel! I would take a notebook with NCSA Mosaic, and show them the power of hyperlinks. It wasn’t quite clear how it would make an impact on businesses, but yes, it was going to transform how NRIs got their information.
Our focus was on IndiaWorld as a news and information service for NRIs. With help (and content) from Indian Express, India Today, Dataquest, Reader’s Digest, Kensource, Crisil, CMIE, DSP Financial, Professional Management Group and Laxman, IndiaWorld was formally launched from a server in the US on March 13, 1995.
(There is more on the IndiaWorld story here.)
And the rest, as they say, is history! Five years after imagining IndiaWorld, I sold it to Satyam Infoway for $115 million in what was then one of Asia’s largest Internet deals. I am still remembered as one of India’s two early Internet pioneers. (Sabeer Bhatia, who sold Hotmail to Microsoft, for $400 million, is the other.) I did it out of India – riding the Internet revolution and its many ups and downs through five years. The PC introduced me to the digital world; the Internet gave me success, money, fame, and freedom.
I was early to the mobile revolution, but this was the one I missed as an entrepreneur – multiple times. As part of Netcore, I had started multiple services: an SMS content service, an SMS groups service, a mobile web portal, and had even tried something called phone.cc to create a dedicated mobile portal for every mobile. All failed. What I missed was the smartphone and apps revolution – both from the B2C and B2B standpoints.
I was one of the early buyers of the iPhone. I was in the US in August 2007 – a few weeks after it was launched. I went to the Apple store in New York and bought one. I had a colleague at work do a jailbreak so I could use it in India. I should have seen the power and potential of apps, but for some reason, I did not focus on the consumer side. I stuck to the enterprise SMS services that Netcore had launched, perhaps bitten by the repeated failures of the MyToday variants in the previous few years.
A decade or so later, I missed the app engagement and analytics layer in the marketing automation platform Netcore was building. While I had correctly identified the emergence of martech, the focus was more on journeys and the web platform. The exponential growth of apps energised by the launch of cheap data from Jio was a big miss in Netcore’s journey. We did catch up in terms of features over the next few years, but as they say “the early bird catches the worm” and we were late.
As I look back, the mobile revolution was what I missed in India. It was going slowly until Jio revolutionised mobile data with its aggressive pricing. In the early days, could I have focused on global markets like I did with IndiaWorld? Perhaps. Maybe, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money in the global mobile apps game where I thought we would not have a significant advantage working out of India. But I underestimated the power and ubiquity of the smartphone. During those years, I was also trying to think of ideas to transform India with digital technology. While this later came to fruition with Niti Digital and my work in the 2011-14 political campaign, I had by then moved too far away from technology to get an intuitive sense of the new opportunities being created in the mobile and smartphone era. I do sometimes wonder: what if I had recognised the potential of apps and smartphones? I was an early adopter and I knew something transformative had taken place with the launch of the iPhone. What should I have done as an entrepreneur? All I can say after all these years is: it was a road not taken, and that did make a difference.
The cloud has transformed our lives – email, files, photos are all stored on servers rather than our own devices. Many of the services we use would not have been possible had it not been for the cloud. For enterprises also, software has started moving from the enterprise LAN to the cloud. Netcore has had SaaS (software-as-a-service) offerings for many years – though for the early years, we did not think of ourselves as a SaaS company.
The mindset shift happened when Kalpit (Netcore’s CEO) and I attended SaaStr, a conference in San Jose, in February 2019. As I wrote a couple of years ago: “Software developers wanted APIs that they could integrate into the code they were writing without having to talk to salespeople. For this, the product needed a self-serve and perhaps even a free trial. This needed a new approach to product development and sales. It needed targeting developers – which needed a very different approach then meeting CIO and CMOs. The SaaS way of marketing and sales was also different – a new world of SDRs (sales development representatives) and ABM (account-based marketing) was enabling companies to reach out globally without a physical presence in multiple countries. The primary metric was not annual sales but MRR (monthly recurring revenue). There was a new language of business that had fuelled a new generation of companies – and we were oblivious to both the vocabulary and the competition. SaaStr opened my eyes to this new world. And the question that kept coming to me was – why had I not seen it earlier? A few knowledgeable colleagues had told me about the new world of SaaS – I ignored them repeatedly. I did not recognise that a new set of decision-makers were emerging in enterprises – developers, product managers. I also failed to recognise that a new class of companies was emerging – aggressive, exponentially growing startups. I was still locked to a worldview that sales and marketing of our solutions had to be via face-to-face connect in large organisations.”
We have now brought in the SaaS approach to every aspect of our business. Netcore has grown to $100 million ARR, through a mix of organic expansion and acquisitions. SaaS is the one revolution I was late to recognise, but did not miss. We are now in the thick of the action with many new ideas around CPaaS – hotlines with Email 2.0 (AMP) – and Martech – unified stack and site search for omnichannel personalisation. The ProfitXL [LINK] focus is what can help Netcore expand its footprint globally.
As I look back, the computing revolution changed the direction of my life, the Internet revolution gave me my first success, the mobile revolution was what I missed, and the SaaS revolution has given me the foundation to build an enduring, great company. An entrepreneur’s life is about climbing mountains beyond mountains; at age 56 I am fortunate to have climbed many even though I stumbled on a few. I have seen amazing changes in digital technology through my lifetime, and I am sure I will see many more in the future.
Many years ago (2004), I had written about my Kumbh Mela Cycle theory – that big innovations in computing come every 12 years or so: “1945 saw the invention of the world’s first computer, the ENIAC. In the late 1950s, IBM switched from using vacuum tubes to using transistors, and also launched Fortran. In the early 1970s, we had the invention of the microprocessor, along with Unix and the relational database. In 1982-83, the personal computer was launched by IBM. In 1992-94, we had Wintel come into being, with the launch of Microsoft Windows 3.1 and the Intel Pentium. It also saw the creation of Mosaic, the graphical web browser, and the start of the proliferation of the Internet.” Almost two decades later, the cycle has (sort-of) continued: 2007 saw the launch of the iPhone, and in the late 2010s and early 2020s, we started seeing the rise of Generative AI.
Going forward, I think the Kumbh Mela Cycle will probably be compressed given the rapidity of innovation that is happening in multiple disciplines simultaneously. Even as it has been an amazing ride in my 56 years lifetime, tomorrow’s world promises a lot more. As consumers, business owners and managers, researchers and entrepreneurs, we will see many new and exciting technologies in our lives, with the promise of many more revolutions in the years and decades to come. Here is some crystal-gazing.
From my vantage point, there are two revolutions which will have a huge impact for consumers and businesses:
- AR/VR (augmented reality and virtual reality): this may or may not lead to the metaverse and is taking longer to come to life, but it will transform how we communicate, play, socialise and get entertained. It is one innovation away – just like ChatGPT brought the 50 years of AI innovations to life.
- Martech: this will shift focus from new customer acquisition (a $400 billion industry with half of it as AdWaste) to existing customers, and empower both brands and consumers at the cost of Big Adtech. I have written about this extensively.
ChatGPT’s response about the future digital revolutions (which I have edited lightly, and have also removed duplicates from earlier lists):
- Virtual and Augmented Reality
- Blockchain, which is expected to lead to new applications in fields such as finance, supply chain management, and digital identity
- Quantum Computing, which will enable breakthroughs in fields such as cryptography, simulation, and optimization
- Autonomous Systems, such as autonomous vehicles and drones, which is expected to greatly increase efficiency and safety in transportation, delivery, and other industries
- Edge Computing, which involves processing data closer to the source of the data rather than in centralized data centers
- Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), which is a form of AI that mimics human intelligence
- 3D Printing, which is expected to greatly increase the efficiency and flexibility of manufacturing, as well as enabling new applications in fields such as bioprinting and space exploration
- Digital Twins, which are virtual representations of physical objects or systems
- Wearables, which will improve our ability to monitor and track our health, as well as enable new forms of entertainment and communication
Here is Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Tech (2022):
All this is just in the narrow world of the computing and digital ecosystem. Technology, defined broadly by Atanu Dey as know-how, or “knowledge of how to do”, continues to impact every sphere of life and business. So, lots to look forward to, and a great time to be an entrepreneur. Imagine, Innovate and Initiate!