The Internet needs steam

Written by Rakesh Raman | Updated: May 17 2008, 05:18am hrs
For many netizens who reside in India, the 0s and 1s of the Internet are like oxygen. Get too much, they get too high. Not enough, theyd sooner die. But there is a huge gap between fact and fiction. Dont stay agape if youre told that for over one billion people in the country, there are just about 50 million Internet connections. Thats right. There are five times as many cellphones.

In contrast, China, a country reputed to be informationally repressed, has more than 220 million Internet connections. Or about 20 per 100 people, at least four times Indias ratio. In absolute numbers, China has already edged past the US, which has just under 220 million connections, and avid web watchers wonder what the effects would be. Of course, the US has far fewer people, so it still boasts of a superb ratio70 connections for every 100 people. Together, Americans and Chinese account for over 40% of the worlds Internet users, a dominance that could shape the worlds future.

Is India getting left out Lets hope not. One problem is that India continues to be a user more than developer. Indian enterprise on the Web has fallen behind its Chinese counterpart. Mass-based web services in China are roaring ahead, but not here. Internet traffic is basically driven by information search, community applications and content. However, Indian companies have proved lacklustre in all these departments.

Lets take the search space, for example. Local players dont even exist in this business. Agreed, Indians use global search sites like Google and Yahoo!, which offer local tools, but the Chinese have a clearer preference for search mechanisms that are wholly domestic in their privileging of information. Despite intense Internet censorship and a regulatory maze that baffles outsiders, Chinas Baidu search enginea Chinese language tool named after a poem written some 800 years ago that means hundreds of timeshave been a fascinating success. Baidu, which exhorts users towards a persistent search for the ideal, has more than 11 million visits a day.

Thats not all. China is a frontrunner in other areas also to promote Internet usage. It plans to leverage the 2008 Beijing Olympics (August 8-24) to showcase Chinas Next Generation Internet (CNGI) and the new Internet addressing system called IPv6. In the current IPv4 system, the number of Internet addresses will get exhausted in the next few years. Then, IPv6 will allow more addresses, all the more useful for future 4G communication platforms like WiMax and Long Term Evolution (LTE), by which even your smart mobile gadgets (including phones and cameras) would need an exclusive Internet Protocol (IP) address, as websites do today.

Next comes social networking. Though India has BigAdda and ApnaCircle, they dont stand a chance in front of juggernauts like MySpace, Facebook and Orkut. For online content sharing, most locals prefer global destinations like YouTube and Flickr, though some desi stuff is available.

Content too faces a sorry plight. Traditional media companies are just slapping their print pages online. And most new-generation online companies dont understand mass media, opting to be content aggregators instead of creators. No wonder the eyeballs wander away so soon. Yes, companies like Yahoo! have attempted to attract readers by offering localised content, and in multiple Indian languages, too. Yet, unlike in China, English remains the passport to economic mobility and online life.

So, there you have it, the crux of the problem. India has had the Internet open to all for some 13 years, but its penetration has trailed off prematurely. With 250 million mobile phone users, however, India surely has the numbers to be an Internet force some day. Will web service providers take their cues from the success of mobile services Perhaps they will. But a more basic yearning for information also needs to be nurtured. Only then can Internet ventures gain critical mass in India.

The writer runs a blog at mytechbox.wordpress.com/ These are his personal views