Operating systems: The businesses of tomorrow (Column: Behind Infra Lines)

Updated July 26, 2020

social social social social Operating systems: The businesses of tomorrow (Column: Behind Infra Lines)
The flurry of investments by global technology giants and investors into India and the rapid ascent of digital technologies has once again squarely brought the focus on just how vital digital transformations will be in the decades to come.

The flurry of investments by global technology giants and investors into India and the rapid ascent of digital technologies has once again squarely brought the focus on just how vital digital transformations will be in the decades to come.

Whether one looks at the investments in the Edtech space in India or the decision by an alliance of telecom operators globally to explore the O-RAN Alliance or the increasing interest around providing consumers with phones, the essential focus is on building and scaling the next generation "operating systems".

From the ubiquitous Windows to Bloomberg to Booking.com to Android on phones, operating systems in various forms have been fundamental to satisfying user needs and in building some of the most iconic global businesses.

Operating systems (OS) can be thought of as digitisation that delivers value and hence can be monetised. To elaborate further, while talks of Internet Of Things (IoT) through connected devices have been splashed across the media, at a fundamental level one can view the future operating system as the software that can not only link the hardware together but generate value by adding efficiency or reducing problems.

One can draw valuable lessons from the value creation done by some of the existing successful operating systems across industries in terms of where the future value creation may come from.

Aggregating fragmented markets to add value is probably one of the more common forms of operating systems that add value. From Booking.com to the recent investments in the ed-tech space in India, broadly speaking the usage of an OS to reduce search costs and allow both the fragmented user and service providers to come on a platform is the most significant value-generating aspect of the business.

While aggregating fragmented sets of buyers and sellers has primarily focused on market places, the next set of operating systems may start solving other issues. For instance, in the retail sector, operating systems may look to transform the franchise model of business entirely.

In fact, in the day of social media and micro-influencers, an operating system that can allow entrepreneurs to bypass the high capital intensive franchise model to build and scale using online tools can be a game-changer. The capacity of operating systems to lower both search costs and capital expenditures can be value additive in new sectors to create the winners of tomorrow.

Alternatively, the operating system value-add by Bloomberg revolves around providing data and, more importantly, analytics. As the case is made for industrial uses of IoT, especially as 5G deployment gathers steam globally, the ability to provide data with analytics to add to productivity will lead to operating systems that can create value.

Operating systems that can not only help link hardware but provide data that can be of utility for value generation will be of great benefit to many industries, not the least industries such as manufacturing and agriculture. Bloomberg's value addition in the financial world wasn't just the provision of an incredible array of information but also the provision of tools to make sense of the information. Aggregation of large data pools with insights is probably a business model for the next generation of operating systems in several industries.

While how industries use operating systems and technologies will vary across the spectrum, and the first port of call may not always be the most significant value creator. For instance, in the real estate industry, while the use of technology has created value in the search business or in what have been real estate tech businesses, the overall profitability of such companies is still debatable.

But in the real estate space, an operating system for digitising and analysing land registry records in India would be a significant value addition. Land related information and dealings are an area that leads to considerable friction for both individuals and businesses. The ability to have digitised records will go a long way in creating value and efficiency in the system. While in no way identical, the importance of a land registry system can be gauged by the fact that the New South Wales Land Registry business was given out on a private lease for AUD 2.6 billion in 2017. Primarily, the key takeaway is that there is a significant value add through creating operating systems, and there are multiple ways to approach an industry.

While operating systems will play a significant role going forward, it needs to be underscored that the success of operating systems hinges on the ability to scale using technology by not being limited by physical constraints. For instance, Android as an operating system can be viewed as an infrastructure asset such as an airport or a seaport with the mobile apps acting as the planes and ships. However, in the case of Android, the business scales in a digital world without the physical limitations that an airport or seaport assets face.

Therefore, the operating systems that are the winners of the future must look to build businesses that can scale using technology beyond the physical constraints and, even more importantly, build businesses solving real user cases for effective monetisation.

(The views expressed in this article are personal and that of the author. The author heads Development Tracks, an advisory firm. You can contact him at [email protected])

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