Saturday, June 14, 2008

Financial Express: Book Review Sand to Silicon

Intel’s India Plans Got Shot Down Once

Sunday , February 15, 2004
Chitra Phadnis, Financial Express

In today’s world, all of us are users of high technology. Most of us are familiar with the jargon and perhaps some of us even flaunt it without a proper understanding of what all of it is really about. For someone, who would like to know how the World Wide Web came into being, or what a chip really does, Mr Shivanand Kanavi’s maiden book, Sand To Silicon has all the answers.

Mr Kanavi, now executive editor of Business India, is a “theoretical physicist” from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, who writes frequently on business and technology. He has in the past, also been a lecturer and a development consul- tant. He attempts a ‘‘pop’’ history of digital technology — the pop part of it surprisingly easy to understand, considering the complexity of the subject. The book may not be everyone’s idea of bed-time reading, but it does explain the evolution of computing, communication and convergence, the history of micro electronics, starting with the semicondutor and how the chip came into being, followed by the computer and the PC (personal computer) and finally networking, telecommunications and the Internet, as we know them.

Mr Kanavi simplifies technology for the common man, using ordinary, if unusual, metaphors. The chip manufacturing process, for instance, is likened to stencil printing, writing on a grain of rice and layering a cake. The easy writing obviously comes from Mr Kanavi’s understanding of the subject, the enormous research and work that has gone into the book, and the fact that he has been a technology journalist for the last ten years.

A couple of things do strike the reader about his style.

This is not just a technology expert writing a smart book, targeted at an international readership. Mr Kanavi seems to be proud to be an Indian. His book is international enough to be about technology in general, but he takes care to underscore the Indian contribution to global advances in technology.

The book is very Indian in experience too, as Mr Kanavi writes of the tremendous strides in telecommunications the country has made. He manages to draw out a smile too sometimes, with for instance, his description of the classic “trunk call” of 20 years ago. Remember how people booked calls, waited to be connected through an operator, shouted conversations into the telephone, and then wasted precious time asking the guy at the other end if they could be heard? That story also drives home the huge leaps that have taken place in technology since.

There are other tidbits of information, like how the Indian government rejected a proposal from Intel to set up a chip company in the 1960s. (Ironically, today it is wooing the company for more investments.) Attitudes such as this created the dichotomy between Indians and India, he says, pointing out that while individuals have always done well in technology when they went abroad, their growth had been stunted within the country, by various restrictions.

The book has been sponsored by The Tata Group, which “supported the author financially during the research and writing of the book”. The foreword by the sponsors describes it as a “commemorative tribute” to Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, “the visionary who laid the foundation of modern Indian industry” and Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, “who reached out to new frontiers in industry and technology”. The book does indeed look at the evolution of digital technology from the beginning of the 20th Century.

In the preface, Mr Kanavi says that he proposes to use an ‘‘informal walk about style’’ and ‘‘chat’’ about technology — a promise that he delivers on.

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