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Disruptive technologies cross continents

Social networking is as hot in India as in the U.S. The tech scene here sizzles, but don't expect to get paid for your software, says Fortune's David Kirkpatrick.

By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor

NEW DELHI (Fortune) -- Abhishek Nayak just turned 20 yesterday, and he spoke on a panel of young people here in Delhi at the Fortune Global Forum. He's a committed programmer who hands out a business card that shows him as vice president of a company, even though he's primarily a student. On the card is that great quote from John Lennon's Imagine: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will live as one."

Nayak, like a growing number of visionary techies, sees the burgeoning social networking industry as a tool for such a unification of the world.


If you are an Indian college kid, it seems, you are not only online, but you are becoming friends with people from Brazil. That's because Orkut, which by far dominates social networking here, is populated very heavily with young people from those two countries. Nayak said many of his friends are chatting up "hot females" from Brazil that they meet on Orkut, which is owned by Google (Charts, Fortune 500).

Nayak is conversant with state-of-the-art software, and recently wrote a custom Twitter-like application for his schoolmates, using the toolset called Ruby on Rails.

While he has about 600 friends on Orkut, Nayak is also a member of Facebook. He's got about 50 friends there, and says it is "slowly taking off among techie geeks in India."

Apparently Facebook's platform strategy, launched in May, is getting programmers in India as excited as it is in the U.S. Now Nayak wants to write a Facebook application that will alert you when someone has opened a message you sent.

I asked him why he thinks Orkut is so much more popular in India than in the U.S. His answer suggested it might have something to do with Google's renowned technical capabilities. He points out that many of his friends get online at access speeds as slow as 15 kilobits per second. (About what AOL members in the U.S. were at in 1990.) His own dialup line is an only slightly-less-pokey 28K.

Nayak says "Orkut is much lighter than Facebook," meaning it is better designed to be used on a slow dialup line. While getting onto Orkut takes about a minute and a half for him, Facebook takes a minute longer. And getting on MySpace takes him five minutes.

There were a lot of old-school techies at the Global Forum as well. I moderated a discussion between Michael Dell and Kris Gopalakrishnan, the new CEO of Indian software powerhouse Infosys (Charts). I asked them to respond to a talk by Clay Christensen about innovation and disruption.

Christensen calls both companies disrupters, though Dell's (Charts, Fortune 500) disruptive heyday was some years past, when it outclassed other PC-makers on price with its vaunted direct model. How, I asked Michael, was his company going to regain a disruptive role? His answer centered around the idea of simplifying IT for enterprise customers, and while it sounded pretty good on its face, many of my Fortune colleagues later told me they didn't think it sounded fully thought-out.

Infosys, on the other hand, is a disrupter of the moment. IBM (Charts, Fortune 500) has now moved 53,000 of its own service employees to India to compete with Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Satyam, and other Indian software and services companies.

Gopalakrishnan said the secret for him is to move into new industries and areas of services where what he calls the "global delivery model" - doing the task wherever in the world it is most efficient - can be newly applied.

Carol Bartz, longtime CEO of Autodesk and now its chairman, came up to say hello during last night's gala dinner - in between an amazing array of sterling Indian singers and dancers.

I asked Bartz how Autodesk - which makes high-end software used by architects, engineers, and designers - is doing in India. "Well, the good news is that we've got a lot of users," she replied. "The great thing about this infrastructure boom in India is that they need to model and design it using software."

But, she added, "now we've got to get them to stop stealing it." Like Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500) in China, which I've written about, Autodesk would rather people stole its software than anybody else's. But even more it would like them to pay.

It's just another sign of the contradictions of India, which are everywhere apparent. The basic, seemingly unstoppable trend is of a country on the move - getting in most ways better and better. But there are rough edges, like a 28K dialup line or an unwillingness to pay for software when someone is designing a house.

I think all of us at Fortune, though, leave India with the conviction that the problems are diminishing and the opportunities growing. But if I were Facebook, I'd do something about how that code downloads. Top of page