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It's open season

india Updated: Nov 16, 2011 23:16 IST
Eric Schmidt

It’s a common mistake to assume that if you want to innovate, then you need technology. In fact, it’s exactly the other way round. When you look at the world-changing innovations through history you find that technology wasn’t the primary cause of innovation. Whether it was the first ballistic missile in India, the first sundial in Korea, the first printing press in China, right up to the Walkman in Japan, the technology was the consequence, not the cause. People were able to arrive at those inventions with an atmosphere of openness, being open to new ideas, open across boundaries and open to collaboration.

It’s hard to define openness. It’s easier to demonstrate that whenever you try to embrace whatever you think it is, you come out ahead.

Let me start with what it means to be open to collaboration. When people ask me what my favorite Google product is, it’s not Gmail or Maps or YouTube. It’s Google, the company.

For the last decade, my number one priority was to help build a community of amazing people who will endure long after I’m gone, and all our current products have been replaced by the next wave of innovation. This kind of community, where all rewards, challenges and responsibilities are shared, allows us to dream big things, then achieve them.

The Internet expands this concept of community beyond the confines of a company, or the borders of a country and to the world. Android is a perfect example. It is the software platform for smartphones found on over 190 million different mobile devices today. It is open source — which means that other people can take our code, modify it and ship it in product forms that we never imagined. This is exactly what companies like Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson and HTC do.

And because of this, there are more options for developers and consumers. A global community of app developers and entrepreneurs have produced over 500,000 apps and grown into an industry. In this case, our desire to collaborate within Google has, over time, made us collaborators with every developer of Android across the world.

Let me give another example of how being open to collaboration can make a big difference. A few years ago, our engineers in India who were growing frustrated by how much of their country was literally off the map released a tool that allowed people to build digital maps collaboratively, using satellite photos. The response has been phenomenal. Volunteers are at work improving the maps of 180 maps on our MapMaker tool. In Pakistan alone, users have marked 25,000 kms of previously uncharted roads. We need to enable the building of these kinds of communities in society, not just at a corporate level. We need to allow people to come together so they can learn, collaborate and innovate in a decentralised manner.

That means that we also need to be open to the world. Thanks to the web, there is no limit to ambition. Geographical borders don’t have digital equivalents. So there is no such thing as a local business anymore. Your market, your customers, your partners, your suppliers are all global.

But are you? In this century, the world is going to keep on getting smaller. We’re seeing the rise of new economic powers throughout Asia, as well as Brazil, Russia and West Asia. And we’re seeing the birth of a global middle-class which will have huge spending power. The Internet will clearly be the best way to engage this new world. We know 3 billion more people will come online by the end of the decade, mostly in emerging economies. In 2011, any kind of business can tap that opportunity.

And that’s true of a florist in Indonesia. About two years ago, Ade Liska set up Butikbunga.com to sell flowers online, presenting a flower shop’s bouquets online and offering to deliver them to people who could pay via BCA. To her surprise, about 15% of her orders came from abroad. Some people across the border just wanted to have Indonesian flowers to give to friends.

That’s one small example of how any new idea now takes place in a global context, thanks to the Internet. Across Asia, millions from all walks of life are demonstrating that as they turn to the Internet as a platform for opportunity and prosperity — and to advance billions of new ideas of their own. They are shopkeepers, manufacturers, artists. And they’re finding ways to reach new markets, in new ways and with new partners.

Some are intimidated by the consequences of this openness, especially as the Internet disrupts some industries. But the benefits are astonishing. When you go beyond anecdotes and into hard numbers, you see that borne out by economic reports coming out this year. In Australia, the Internet contributes 3.6% of GDP, more than its iron-ore exports. In Japan, it contributes 3.7%, more than the auto-manufacturing industry. And every business is benefiting from the Internet’s growth. McKinsey estimated that for every job lost due to the Internet, 2.6 more were created. But those numbers only apply to the completely open Internet that we know today. It’s not guaranteed that it will stay that way. Every business is an Internet business. And the way to maximise the Internet’s economic benefits is to keep it open. Without openness, consumers lose the beauty of choice, companies get complacent, societies lose the dynamics that lead to innovation.

India is blessed with an amazingly talented and creative population, and many brilliant developers, businesses and entrepreneurs. It’s important that businesses and politicians keep up with the imagination of India that will allow all of us to benefit.

Eric Schmidt is executive chairman of Google

The views expressed by the author are personal