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April 2005

Innovating for emerging economies

HP Labs India creates technologies for the world's developing regions


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To make a difference in emerging markets, you have to be there. You need to understand how technology can add to people’s lives.

by Simon Firth

Western soft drinks or laundry soap can be sold in developing nations with little more than a change in the packaging, but when it comes to Information Technology, things get a lot more complicated.

Consider the basic process of entering data into a computer. The QWERTY keyboard and touch-typing, which most people in the West take for granted, don't work in places like India or China, where language isn't based on the Roman alphabet. Computers themselves are problematic in a place where few people can afford to purchase one.

But that doesn’t mean advanced technology can’t make a big difference in people's lives. "It can," says HP Labs India Director Ajay Gupta, "when the technology is designed with their particular needs in mind."

To make a difference in emerging markets, "you have to be there," he says. "You have to understand the context -- not just affordability, but factors like differences in computing interfaces, language and in the communications infrastructure itself. You also need to deeply understand how information technology can add to people’s lives."

It was these insights that led to the launch of HP’s India Lab in February 2002. The lab was charged with surveying the unique challenges and opportunities in emerging markets, and developing appropriate products and services that have the potential to lead to new HP businesses.

Two years on, the Bangalore-based lab has begun to see some of the fruits of its research.

Data entry without QWERTY

One early development addresses the problem of the traditional, Western-style keyboard. "On the Indian subcontinent, some 15 different scripts are used by about 1.5 billion people," Gupta says. "But because these scripts are syllabic in nature, using hundreds of syllables, you cannot have a keyboard with one key per written symbol.”

In such languages, a small group of basic characters are modified by strokes of a pen to create the many syllables out of which words are built.

In response, researchers designed a hybrid keyboard that uses both typing and pen strokes. With a pen, a user picks out a basic character in a language such as Tamil or Hindi on the keyboard of a position-sensitive tablet, and then writes the appropriate modifier over the character using the pen. This not only reflects the way in which syllables are formed in such languages, but neatly supplants the convoluted way in which they have to be created on a conventional QWERTY keyboard.

By coupling an understanding of how people write in such languages with expertise in handwriting recognition, says Gupta, researchers at the India lab have been able to develop such solutions rapidly. Less than six months after it was conceived, a prototype keyboard was ready to demonstrate. It has since attracted considerable interest from within and outside HP and has the potential to bring computing to a vast new population.

Enabling e-mail

Another device aims to provide the benefits of e-mail to people who normally wouldn't use a western keyboard. This simple, low-cost appliance lets users send handwritten e-mail with a digital pen and a sort of souped-up clipboard. After placing a paper form on the board to launch the application, users can write on the form with the pen and see the content of the message in a small LCD display at the top of the board. Because the message is sent as a bit-map file, it can be written by hand in any script. Once finished, the e-mail is sent through any available network – LAN, wireline or wireless phones.

Shekhar Borgaonkar, one of developers behind the concept, believes it has tremendous potential. "Many Indian families want to send e-mails today," he says, "but not so often that they can justify owning a computer."

"The postman can carry this device from house to house," he notes. Or, he says, such devices could be made available on a pay-as-you-go basis in rural and urban phone kiosks. A number of prototype devices are being deployed in a field trial exploring usability and business models.

Mobile phones as computers?

Although emerging markets face considerable challenges, in at least one area they have an advantage over more developed regions: a lack of legacy technologies. China and India are the world's fastest-growing markets for mobile telephones, including the newer CDMA and GSM technologies. Already in India, there are more cellular phones than traditional wired phones.

"While people may not have access to the Broadband Internet, they do have access to cell phones," says Gupta. "We believe that for a very large number of people, the cell phone will be their computer."

As a result, the lab is exploring ways to use these robust cellular networks to deliver IT in the form of voice-based services, so that users with cell phones can get access to banking services or purchase railway tickets. "Voice-based information access is a real practical alternative for enterprises to reach large numbers of customers in environments such as India where Internet access is below one percent," says K.S.R. Anjaneyulu, department manager, Language Technology and Applications.

His team is working with such major universities as India's IIIT Hyderbad and Carnegie-Mellon University in the U.S. to create an ecosystem of researchers who are developing open source systems for automatic speech recognition and text-to-speech for the so-called "orphaned" languages – ones that are spoken by millions of people but have not been addressed so far.

More to come

Other key areas the lab is exploring include:

• An electronic form-filling tablet device able to recognize multiple languages and translate each into a universal data set.

• New pen-based input mechanisms that make IT more accessible -- important because people in emerging markets are familiar and comfortable with paper as a way to input data.

• Making paper-based processes more efficient by adapting the right balance between paper and electronic media.

• Technologies for effective mass communication using rapidly changing television and radio broadcast networks. Formal and informal education can be more efficiently delivered to large and distributed populations using mixed-media broadcasts.

Close ties to HP businesses

HP’s India Lab works closely with partner organizations, including HP software development teams in the company's Global Delivery India Center, as well as consulting firms such as Human Factors International, which specializes in user-related research. In addition, it has built strong university relationships with key players such as the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

"The lab’s ability to connect with local HP country operations in emerging economies and to enhance their capabilities with new products and services is a key attribute, as is its close connection with HP's vice president for strategy for emerging countries," says Kris Halvorsen, director of the HP Labs Solutions and Services Research Center and an HP vice president.

"Our goal is to be close enough to the business teams in these emerging geographies that they can confidently set higher growth goals for their business because we are there with them," he explains.

Opportunities around the world

The success of the India lab has inspired HP to explore additional development opportunities for emerging economies around the world. Teams are putting together plans for China, Russia and Brazil.

"The whole idea is to understand the context of each region and integrate that in the technology solutions," says Gita Gopal, program director, Research for Emerging Economies.

" What’s exciting now is the huge opportunity that’s ahead of us,” she adds, "both in terms of the business engagements and all the research threads we can explore. It’s probably more than we have the time and resources to do, so we need to prioritize. But that’s a good position to be in."

Related links

» HP Labs India
» e-inclusion: Increasing access to technology (Feature story)

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