IBM's research to 'touch common folks'

Its labs in India focus on innovative use of technologies and new business models to solve economic problems.

Solving practical issues in India's fast-developing economy has pushed research to a deeper level and meaning, say IBM researchers based in the country.

According to Guruduth Banavar, program director and head of IBM's Services Innovation and Research Center (SIRC), one of the latest ideas the lab is working on is related to the concept of micro business. The SIRC focuses on developing technologies to enhance IBM's global service delivery capabilities and is parked at the company's India Research Lab in Bangalore. IBM's other research lab in the country is located in New Delhi.

People with small disposable incomes can only afford to buy things on a small scale, explained Banavar, so products that are "micro-packaged" suit these consumers who might otherwise not be able to afford them.

Similarly, when it comes to software, IBM is looking at new business models to offer applications designed specifically for small or home businesses.

A fisherman, for instance, would benefit from an enhanced supply chain which gives access to an "auction mechanism" via a mobile phone, said Bavanar. This automated tool could take the role of an aggregator, serving as a middleman that interacts with distributors and sells the catch to the highest bidders.

The fisherman analogy, noted Guruduth, is still in a "very exploratory stage". IBM is currently in talks with industry partners to "validate thoughts", and determine if the concept is worth exploring further. "Things could work out in the next few years", he said.

The micro business concept is not new, Guruduth pointed out. Nobel Peace Prize 2006 winner Muhamad Yunus started a micro credit scheme to extend small loans to poor persons, which eventually led to creation of the Grameen Bank.

He added: "[But] the question is, can we move it out to the other industries…[and] what kind of technologies are needed [to support this]?"

While such concepts have been developed to address specific problems in India, the use of the new technologies is not limited to just this market, said Guruduth. "If you build [an application] the correct way, something that is built for India can benefit other more developed countries as well."

Globally, IBM budgets about US$5 billion for research annually, and employs 3,200 researchers--about 1 percent of IBM's total headcount--in eight research labs around the world. In the region, besides India, China and Japan are also home to IBM research labs.