Tuesday, April 16, 2024

A Rival to Zoom?

Even as a Kerala firm is hailed for developing the best video-conferencing solution after a contest, its product should serve different segments at a reasonable cost and have watertight security

By Na Vijayashankar

One of the fallouts of the anti-China sentiment that erupted after the country’s recent aggression in Ladakh was the attention paid to the success of video-conferencing software Zoom. Though Zoom is an American product, it was initially mistaken as a Chinese one and some of the security issues that surfaced became a topic of hot debate.

Business rivals of the company fanned the anti-Zoom narrative, which prompted India to issue advisories against it as if it was a Chinese government product and was being used to steal data. Since government agencies were also using Zoom, there was talk of the need to find an indigenous alternative to Zoom.

Though this concern was triggered by a wrong perception, it had a positive fallout with the ministry of information technology announcing a grand challenge to find an indigenous alternative to Zoom. It started a contest with a prize money of Rs 1 crore. Nearly 2,000 companies reportedly participated in it and the winner was a company in Kerala called Techgentsia Software Technologies in Alappuzha.

Its product V Consol went through a three-level evaluation before being declared the winner. It will immediately be put to use by the government and released to the public after about a month.

A detailed, independent evaluation of the product is not available at present and is unlikely till it becomes available to the public. So all the details and claims about the product, as released by the company, including that it is better than Zoom, have to be taken at face value. Nonetheless, the effort needs to be commended. This could be a trendsetter for more such innovative challenges to be launched by the government under the Make in India initiative to discover more such products. This could help India transform itself from an “IT service hub” to an “IT product development hub”.

This is also the time to remember the late Dewang Mehta, a dynamic leader in IT who headed NASSCOM in 2000. After his sudden demise in 2001, an award—Dewang Mehta IT Innovation Award—was instituted by the ministry of IT on an annual basis and the first such award went to a Bengaluru company producing a low-cost computer. Since then, it appears that the government has withdrawn from the award and left its management to the family trust.

Now that the government has taken steps to ban several Chinese mobile apps, Indian entrepreneurs have the opportunity to develop several products with proven acceptance of the concept. They must, therefore, use this opportunity to innovate.

The government should also shed its reluctance to support indigenisation of operating systems for computers and mobiles as well as major applications like Office and Adobe products.

The victory of Techgentsia, a relatively small company from a small town, will be a huge boost to the morale of many start-ups who can also dare to do things that they have so far hesitated to do. If the project succeeds as a good replacement for Zoom in India, it can develop the image of India as the hub of global IT products

Techgentsia now has an opportunity as well as the responsibility to trigger this product-based revolution in the Indian IT industry and if this happens, we may well be on the threshold of an important milestone similar to the Y2K movement which triggered the first IT revolution in India. It is, therefore, essential to ensure that this Techgentsia moment does not fade out but gets continued support till it actually takes off.

Information technology is a fast-developing field and products have a very low shelf life unless they are constantly upgraded and adopted. Normally, technology experts can generate the idea, but for a project to succeed in the market, brilliant marketing minds should work with technology experts. This transition from a technology innovator to a successful business is a paradigm shift that many organisations fail to achieve. If Techgentsia’s moment has to be preserved and nurtured, it is necessary for the government and the public to support this success.

It is heartening that the government not only provided support to VConsol but also recognised three other companies which were impressive in the contest. They are Sarv Webs, PeopleLink Unified Communications and Instrive Softlabs. All the four products would be hosted on the Meghraj cloud system. This should make all of them be on their toes.

We must remember that this kind of product comes in multiple versions. At the simplest level, the conferencing solution would provide video meeting between individuals. At the next level, screen sharing would be enabled so that speakers can present their content to other participants in the meeting.

Then there would be an advanced version for webinars where schools and colleges may find it convenient to host a meeting attended by a large number of people worldwide. Additionally, conferences have to be available through multiple channels such as the web, mobile and through specific equipment installed by companies.

Zoom had got prominence because it was able to serve these different segments at a reasonable cost and efficiently. We need to wait and see if VConsol can match Zoom.

The founder of Techgentsia, Joy Sebastian, reportedly made a statement that they will initially try to serve the B2B segment. He also said that they want to reach a one-million customer base shortly. The two statements appear contradictory as reaching the one-million customer base (as against the 12 million customer base of Zoom) requires the use of the product by individuals, besides SMEs. Also, higher levels of simultaneous use would involve more challenges and would require a different ability.

Managing the transition from a small development set-up to a service organisation with millions of customers demanding 99.99 percent uptime through their own internet connections over which the company has no control is a management challenge that it has to face now.

According to the claims of the company, the product is technically superior to Zoom. This means that “data compression” techniques and “sharing of bandwidth” are efficient and the system is compatible to the currently used video-conferencing hardware devices. Additionally, the versatile functionality needs to be supported by appropriate security measures. These have presumably been thought-out.

We can presume that the server that supports government use would be hosted in India under NIC’s Meghraj cloud. This will be like a community cloud for government entities. As long as the encryption and streaming video compression are ensured between the client and the server, security and functionality concerns can be reasonably addressed.

We have to wait and see if the non-government service of VConsol will also be hosted on Meghraj, in which case, it will support the “Data Localisation” requirement, which would be constantly in demand.

Presently, Meghraj cloud is mostly an IaaS (infrastructure as a service) concept where infrastructure is provided as a service and the rest of the requirements, which includes the secure environment on which an application can be hosted, is left to the platform hosting the companies. Techgentsia has to find an appropriate platform and firewall to run on Meghraj to ensure the level of security that is required.

Government data running on this platform will be similar to the army sourcing a critical defence supply. By this time, Chinese hackers would perhaps be already at work to hack the proposed system. Such hacking will start with the corporate environment of Techgentsia at Alappuzha which so far had no such attention and threat. Being a software development company, it may not have a strong information security-led environment. The employees may not also have a strong “information security culture”. Hence, they may be vulnerable to being hijacked by potential rivals.

Considering the societal environment prevailing in Kerala where radical influences are strong, the company needs to protect itself and its employees as it will soon be the custodian of government data. Threat perceptions have to be revised. Also, depending entirely on the OTP system would not be sufficient security, at least for government operations. This may need upgradation.

These are the non-technical issues which Techgentsia has to contend with. As the government is putting national data resources at stake with this company, it has to advise and if necessary, support it with security requirements. Perhaps Centre for Development of Advanced Computing should conduct an information security and data security audit of the company and release it to Parliament and the public.

After all, a stitch in time saves nine.

—The writer is a cyber law and techno-legal information security consultant based in Bengaluru


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