Privacy concerns conference keynote

Sabeer Bhatia, the India-born co-inventor of Hotmail, is nervous of a US government clamp-down on privacy following last month's terrorist attacks.

Sabeer Bhatia, the India-born co-inventor of Hotmail, is nervous of a US government clamp-down on privacy following last month’s terrorist attacks.

Bhatia is one of the keynote speakers at the South East Asia Regional Computer Confederation (SEARCC) conference in Auckland next month.

Although Bhatia - who has lived in the US for more than a dozen years while remaining an Indian citizen - has concerns about privacy, he says now isn’t the time to speak out against the US legislative response to the attacks.

“I am fearful of the proposed legislation but at this point I wouldn’t campaign against it because the sentiment is too strong. People are willing to forsake this part of their freedom for a safer life.”

Bhatia says he is attracted to the New Zealand SEARCC conference by the dynamism of the region and plans to speak about entrepreneurship.

“There seems to be a lot of excitement in the east, and this is a southeast Asian event. I will be sharing my experiences in Silicon Valley of the past four or five years.”

His immediate past experiences in the valley haven’t been so successful. His latest venture, Arzoo, was shut down in May. But before that, Bhatia rose to fame when, with a partner, he founded Hotmail.

Hotmail was also the path to riches: 18 months after the launch of the free web-based mail service on July 4, 1996, the pair sold it to Microsoft for a reputed $US400 million.

Countless fortunes have since been lost as a result of the slump in the US tech sector, but Bhatia has held on to his.

“I’m still worth a lot of money despite the downturn,” he says.

Arzoo was his first venture after Hotmail. It consisted of a network of IT specialists who would respond over the internet to support requests from customers willing to pay five-figure amounts for a service contract. It was launched at the height of the worldwide shortage of IT staff, but the scheme came unstuck when only one customer, which Bhatia won’t name, signed up for the service.

“I started Arzoo originally as a service that facilitated e-commerce but I changed the model because many e-commerce companies were going belly-up.”

By the time Arzoo was abandoned, about 4000 programmers and analysts had joined the network, on the basis that they would be paid for any support query they solved. They would bid for the right to answer a query and were instructed by Bhatia to do so only in their own time, not their employers’.

“If we could leverage the knowledge of this network of 4000 to 5000 people it would be tremendously powerful.”

Bhatia says the failure of the venture wasn’t a financial disaster, and he has learnt from it.

“In relative terms the venture didn’t cost too much and it was a fantastic experience. You learn more from your failures than successes.”

Bhatia finally pulled the plug on Arzoo because he had “a strong sense the economy was headed in the wrong direction”. In the aftermath, US organisations are spending more conservatively than ever on technology.

“Firm after firm with innovative products are finding there are no buyers. When we launched Hotmail, the atmosphere in the investment market was pretty conservative. Today it’s even more so.”

Bhatia will be telling would-be entrepreneurs at the SEARCC conference to pay close attention to their business plans before launching forth.

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