New HP Labs India focuses on emerging markets

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) has set up a lab in India that will focus on developing technologies and business models to advance IT in developing economies.

The Bangalore-based lab will work on ways to bridge the “digital divide” in its various forms, between rich and poor, computer literate and computer illiterate, urban and rural communities, and even gender divides found so often in developing economies, said Srinivasan Ramani, who was appointed director of the new HP Labs India earlier this week.

“Very often the research here will not consist of inventing a new piece of software or a new system alone, but also going out in the field, and studying, for example, what is happening in the school system today, to find out which are the schools that are benefiting from the IT revolution, and why the others do not benefit, and then working on the appropriate solutions,” Ramani said.

The technologies and business models developed by the lab will be based on an understanding of the social, cultural and technological needs of a developing economy like India, and the experiences will then be applied to other developing economies with similar characteristics.

“India as an emerging marketplace is very similar to a lot of other parts of the world which are also emerging marketplaces,” said Warren Greving, department director of the sustainable solutions department of HP Labs India. “Working in the Indian market is a great place to learn and establish some of these principles and products, and then use them in expanding marketplaces around the world.”

For example, to make IT more accessible to the masses, HP Labs India is working on computing in vernacular languages.

“In India, it is the upper crust that is buying information technology (products), and they are comfortable with English,” Ramani said. ” Our concern is the other sections of society who are not familiar with English.” The lab will also work on speech-based computer interfaces.

The aim of HP Labs India is to build an ecosystem of companies and organizations including Internet service providers (ISPs), content creators, and research and educational organizations such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras in Chennai. The lab will work with ISPs and IIT Madras to take Internet kiosks to rural India.

Although a number of organizations in India have proposed the idea of Internet kiosks for rural areas, HP will have a better model because it ensures a revenue stream, according to Ramani.

“We work in a model in which the beneficiary pays for it in the long run,” Ramani said. “HP’s interest is in making products that are affordable, products that are ideally suited to certain sections of people, but with a commercial objective. That sets us apart from the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), the academics and the government.” That model also complements what academics and government are doing, he said.

HP Labs India plans to ramp up to 40 people over the next two years. HP already runs a software development subsidiary in Bangalore, called Hewlett-Packard India Software Operation Ltd. (HPISO) which works primarily for the business groups within HP. HP Labs India shares a facility with HPISO.