Offshoring, or sending work to countries where a workforce charges less for the same thing, is big business. In recent years, large companies have been hiving off departments - call centres, engineering plants, research and development labs and so on - to countries such as India, where an educated workforce costs a fraction of the price in a fully industrialised country.
For big companies it can make a lot of sense. A fully trained Indian programmer, for example, costs perhaps a quarter of her/his UK equivalent. And while there are issues regarding the management of the process, and the need for extremely clear communication between the two parties, the majority of these offshoring deals are successful. So much so that IT professionals in the west are increasingly nervous of being replaced, at least in day-to-day tasks, by their cheaper subcontinental counterparts, or the newer businesses from China, south-east Asia, and South America.
Personal offshoring has been done before - it was good form in the Russian Tsar's court to send shirts to Paris to be laundered - but what was once the the preserve of big business is now available for the individual. A combination of the internet and the universal acceptability of credit cards means that although you might not need a call centre, there are an increasing number of things that can be moved offshore that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive or outside one's skillset.
The first is computer code. The idea of hiring a programmer to make that little widget you are desperate for might seem decadent, but it is very good value for money and remarkably easy. I needed a selection of little programs to do things with my email. But I'd never had the time, or the patience, to write them myself. After a visit to RentACoder.com, I was able to file a request for bids from programmers around the world.
Prospective coders can view all the requests on the site, and bid for the ones that interest them. Once I'd accepted a bid - it was less than £200 for a fortnight's programming work - I paid the money to the site, which placed it in escrow. My coder, a young man in Belorussia, completed the work, and once I'd checked it was up to scratch (it was), I instructed the site to release the cash.
I got something I needed for a fifth of the price I would otherwise have had to pay. Indeed, the UK price was always too much: I wouldn't ever have spent that much money. But via the web, I could get what I needed for a price I could afford. That it was written in Belorussia, and not Brighton, made the difference between having it or not.
This sort of auction and escrow arrangement is commonplace with personal offshoring sites. Both you and the business at the other end are protected from fraud and non-payment and, by off-loading the credit checking and banking systems to the credit card companies, the offshoring marketplaces can be very efficient.
With my coding done, I needed a webpage built. Web designers are everywhere, and web hosting is cheap. It is just much cheaper in India. So, £30 paid via PayPal.com to templatekingdom.com got me a website design, an hour of the designer's time for changes, and a year's hosting for good measure. In 24 hours, and for less than the price of a few rounds in a pub, I had a new, uniquely designed website up and running. For small businesses needing a home page, why spend hundreds of pounds on a domestic designer, when something just as good can be commissioned from designers in India or Bangladesh?
I should also note that I'm not actually writing this. I'm dictating it. Like many journalists, I interview a lot of people, and find that transcribing the interviews afterwards is the least fun part of the job. So I don't any more. Like many legal firms and large hospitals, I have found a company that will do it for me. Mine is in New Zealand, where the time difference works in my favour. At the end of the day, I email the recordings of my interviews to my contact, and by the time I wake up in the morning they are Word documents in my inbox. For a few pounds per hour of recording, this is the working writer's idea of bliss.
CareerLauncher.com, also based in India, offers maths tutoring over the internet. For between $10 and $40 an hour, secondary school and university students can have maths graduates tutor them over a live web chat.
There's the future for you: schools online, teachers offshore.
· If you'd like to comment on any aspect of Online, send your emails to [email protected]