Data, not devices is the key

Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia talks to Sunil Rajguru about the Internet, mobiles and his take on gadgets

How different would Hotmail have been today if you were still in charge?

I think Hotmail has done a great job so far but I’m aware that Microsoft for some reason is not giving the 1 GB of space to international users. I wouldn’t have allowed that to happen for sure. Because I think Internet users are Internet users anywhere in the world and they’re equally valuable. Also, we would’ve certainly kept up with all the Gmail features to make it more relevant and quicker. I would also have done a better integration with instant messaging.

How much has e-mail and instant messaging changed the world we live in? For example many claim that the standard of English has gone down because of these things.

You’re looking at the negative aspects. I can’t say if the standard of English has gone down or not. But it certainly has made the world a closer place. Today, companies and individuals can be in dispersed locations around the globe. E-mail and instant have brought in immediacy to all workflow and all types of communication that we conduct today.

We’re having a lot of security issues with the Internet. How far are we away from solving these issues?

Security threats will continue to be prevalent no matter what. There’s no way of preventing most of these things. They’re part of the whole explosion of the Internet and the freedom of the Internet. I think they’ll happen but they constitute a small percentage of the benefits of the Internet, so I don’t think people should shy away from using it. For example, any new new technology comes with its disadvantages. Abuse is not the fault of the Internet, it’s something that we humans do and so that’s an element of society.

A lot of players are talking of a Web upgrade or a brand new Worldwide Web. Do you think it’s necessary?

The IP protocol is inefficient right now. It was designed 30-40 years ago and I think if the same infrastructure can be used but with a better protocol, then it’s great. Certainly if you can carry and make the transmission of bits more efficient, you can get that much more horsepower, that much more content. So all these initiatives are useful because they’ll make the Internet a better experience.

What do you think of projects like e-Chaupal and AMD Personal Internet Communicator that are taking the Internet directly to the rural areas?

All of them are fantastic. The largest growth in the next ten years will come from the developing world and in order to bridge this digital divide, cost is a major factor. Less than half of the population lives on $2 a day. We can’t be a happy planet if there’s a digital divide. Ultimately we live in an information rich world. Power comes from information. Education is a form of information, dissemination and it’s extremely important that we provide access mechanism to the have-nots of the world.

What can India do to increase PC penetration?

PC usage is growing, but lower than mobile usage. That’s because of what it’s used for. A mobile device is something that people are very familiar with. What it can do is obvious. People love to communicate, people love to chat and people love to be always in touch. The cost of mobile telephony has fallen dramatically. But that’s happening with PCs as well. The cost of PCs has fallen dramatically and the cost of Internet access is falling dramatically. With more and more fiber being laid, you’ll see that India is just ready and waiting for a PC explosion and an Internet connectivity explosion as well.

3G mobile phones will always have Web services on all the time. Internet access will be on all the time. But do you think the Internet will be as popular as the mobile?

No, the Internet will be as popular, but for different purposes. So you’ll always be always on it for things that you absolutely need like email, or the latest stock ticker, alerts and messages. Now will it completely replace the Internet? No, because the screen size is important for your workspace because we’re not going to smaller screens but bigger ones. Big screen increases productivity. So for some things the mobile is great and always on is fantastic. But for other things the desktop metaphor will continue to remain. So I think one complements and is not in competition with the other. Ultimately, the key is your data. You’ve to be able to be get to your data from any device. I think the individual data will become more important than devices by which you access your data.

Are you a gadget guy?

I’m not a gadget person. I’m more of a realist. I like things that really improve and enhance my effectiveness and productivity. I’m not crazy and I don’t go and buy the latest iPod. I have a fantastic PDA and a laptop, but I check my mail in the workplace like everyone else. And I don’t have a Blackberry.

Will Bangalore manage to remain India’s Silicon Valley despite all its infrastructure problems?

I don’t think Bangalore will be India’s Silicon Valley for all times to come, because of exactly the same reason you mentioned. If infrastructure is inadequate and other places are offering better infrastructure and the same type of workforce, then the other cities will develop faster than Bangalore. So certainly the local government here has to keep that in mind and realize that they don’t have a monopoly

(This article appeared in Living Digital magazine in May 2005)