Cloud Computing At The Bottom Of The Pyramid

I see cloud computing play a big role in enabling IT revolution in the developing nations to help companies market products and services to 4 billion consumers at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP). C.K.Prahlad has extensively covered many aspects of the BOP strategy in his book Fortune At The Bottom Of The Pyramid that is a must-read for the strategists and marketers working on the BOP strategy.

This is how I think cloud computing is extremely relevant to the companies that are trying to reach to the consumers at the BOP:

Logical extension to the mobile revolution: The mobile phone revolution at the BOP has changed the way people communicate in their daily lives and conduct business. Many people never had a landline and in some case no electricity. Some of them charged their mobile phones using a charger that generates electricity from a bike. As the cellular data networks become more and more mature and reliable the same consumers will have access to the Internet on their mobile phones without having a computer or broadband at home.

The marketers tend to be dismissive about the spending power of the people at the BOP to buy and use a device that could consume applications from the cloud. BOP requires innovative distribution channels. The telcos who have invested into the current BPO distribution channels will have significant advantage over their competitors. The telcos, that empowered people leap frog the landline to move to the mobile phones, could further invest into the infrastructure and become the cloud providers to fuel the IT revolution. They already have relationship with the consumers at the BOP that they can effectively utilize to pedal more products and services.

Elastic capacity at utility pricing: The computing demand growth in the developing countries is not going to be linear and it is certainly not going to be uniform across the countries. The cloud computing is the right kind of architecture that allows the companies to add computing infrastructure as demand surges amongst the BPO consumers in different geographies. Leaving political issues aside the data centers, if set up well, could potentially work across the countries to serve concentrated BOP population. The cloud computing would also allow the application providers to eliminate the upfront infrastructure investment and truly leverage the utility model. The BOP consumers are extremely value conscious. It is a win-win situation if this value can be delivered to match the true ongoing usage at zero upfront cost.

Cheap computing devices: OLPC and other small handheld devices such as Netbooks are weak in the computing power and low in memory but they are a good enough solution to run a few tools locally and an application inside a browser. These devices would discourage people from using the applications that are thick-client and requires heavy computation on the client side. The Netbooks and the introduction of tablets and other smaller devices are likely to proliferate since they are affordable, reliable, and provide the value that the BOP consumers expect. Serving tools and applications over the cloud might just become an expectation, especially when these devices come with a prepaid data plans.

Highly-skilled top of the pyramid serving BOP: Countries such as India and China have highly skilled IT people at the top and middle of the pyramid. These people are skilled to write new kind of software that will fuel the cloud computing growth in these emerging economies. The United States has been going through a reverse immigration trend amongst highly skilled IT workers who have chosen to return back to their home countries to pursue exiting opportunities. These skilled people are likely to bring in their experience of the western world to build new generation of tools and applications and innovative ways to serve the people at the BOP.

Sustainable social economies: It might seem that the countries with a large BOP population are not simply ready for the modern and reliable IT infrastructure due to bureaucratic government policies and lack of modern infrastructure. However if you take a closer look you will find that these countries receive a large FDI [pdf] that empowers the companies to invest into modern infrastructure that creates a sustainable social economy.

Most of the petrochemical refineries and cement manufacturing plants that I have visited in India do not rely on the grid (utility) for electricity. They have set up their own Captive Power Plants (CPP) to run their businesses. Running a mission critical data center would require an in-house power generation. As I have argued before, local power generation for a data center will result into clean energy and reduced distribution loss. There are also discussions on generating DC power locally to feed the data centers to minimize the AC to DC conversion loss. Relatively inexpensive and readily available workforce that have been building and maintaining the power plants will make it easier to build and maintain these data centers as well. The local governments would encourage the investment that creates employment opportunities. Not only this allows the countries to serve BOP and build sustainable social economy but to contribute to the global sustainability movement as well.

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