Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Hindu, Sand to Silicon

India shining? IT's there, everywhere!

These are strange times, when the global media speaks of `India rising' and discusses the `threat' posed by Indian technology to the West. In this year end appraisal, Anand Parthasarathy finds Indian ingenuity all across the IT spectrum .

BIHAR'S MOST colourful politician is credited with the memorable question: `Yeh IT, YT kya hai? Will it bring rain to the drought stricken?' Clearly, it cannot, but thirty years into the computer revolution, we are fairly confident that it can help us manage our drought relief programmes better. That is because, late starter though India was, it has carved out its own special space in the Information Technology (IT) arena and Indian expertise and talent drives key sectors of the computers-and-communication business worldwide.

A new book, out last week, chronicles possibly for the first time — the story from a `desi' perspective and weaves Indian achievers and achievements into the very fabric of IT and its brief international history. Sand to Silicon: The Amazing Story of Digital Technology is the work of technology journalist Shivanand Kanavi, currently Executive Editor of Business India magazine. It is published by Tata McGraw-Hill (, costs Rs. 295, and reading it, will make every Indian proud.

While tracing key developments in semiconductor and computer technology, Mr Kanavi repeatedly reminds readers of Indian contributions that tend to get overlooked: Jagdish Chandra Bose created a semiconductor microwave detector using iron and mercury in his lab in Kolkata in 1897, the year Marconi used a version in his wireless radio receiver.

When Neville Mott received the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his work in solid-state electronics, he remarked "Bose was at least 60 years ahead of his time." In the 1980s, while the first microprocessors went under the hoods of the first personal computers, Pallab Chatterjee at Texas Instruments was honing the technology to pack more transistors on to a slab of silicon and Tom Kailath at Stanford University developed the signal processing to compensate for the effect of `masking' during chip production.

Kanavi reminds us of the work of Indians behind key milestones in computer history: Vinod Khosla co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982, a company that created the PC workstation. Vinod Dham at Intel, created that company's most successful chip ever — the Pentium. The book pays tribute to pioneers of mainframe computer programming in India — R. Narasimhan at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR); H. Kesavan and V. Rajaraman of IIT Kanpur... a tradition that continued into the 21st century when in August 2002, Manindra Agrawal of the same IIT, with two students, won global recognition for solving the centuries-old problem of how to test for prime numbers.

The foray into Indian language computing aids was led by Mohan Tambe at the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) while it is rarely appreciated that a significant part in the development of that industry-standard presentation software, Powerpoint, was played by Vijay Vashee at Microsoft. The birth of the Internet spawned a new generation of Indian technologists like Sabeer Bhatia who created the Web's first free email service, Hotmail; Arun Netravali, now Chief Scientist at Lucent Technologies, who provided key building blocks for video streaming and digital satellite TV, and N. Jayant of Bell Labs who helped create the MPEG standard for audio compression.

One could go on and on, digging such fascinating facts from Kanavi's Indian `take' on global technology. Rather than lifting large chunks from his work, let me share with readers a few bits of `thaja khabar' emanating from India's silicon city, Bangalore in recent days. These days, every other announcement of a new IT development seems to involve Indian ingenuity somewhere in the process... often in the unlikeliest corners.
* In Mumbai, recently during the Intel Developer Forum, I bumped into Krishna Srinivasan, Executive Vice President of Sandhill Systems, an Indian IT company based in San Jose, California (U.S.). His core work is an example of e-governance osmosis in reverse. Sandhill has created E-Forms and a complimentary server, `SubmitIT' that key US federal departments are using for the electronic capture and transmission of a variety of citizen forms.

* When P.V. Kannan, founder CEO of the California- based 24/7 Customer, voice and email-based support services player told me last week that his company boasted 20 master Black Belts, I wondered when Karate had became a qualification in the call centre. I soon realized he was taking of the Six Sigma Black Belt given for quality of service, not kicks. The company is the first Indian contact centre ever, to receive the ISO 9002 certification.

* Another US Silicon Valley-based company, SiNett Semiconductors, will soon unveil the world's first multi gigabit System on a Chip (SoC) for wireless networking applications... with 150 million transistors on board. Last week co founder and CEO Shiri Kadambi was in Bangalore to help set up an R&D centre here.

* Two graduate students from the Karnataka Regional Engineering College Aravind Melligeri and Ajit Prabhu founded QuEST in Schenectady, New York. Today, the company provides critical solutions in aerospace, automotive and power generation industry leaders. Their crash analysis work is used by leading manufacturers in Detroit to build better cars. Their testing and analysis of aero engine turbines, bolsters new designs that roll out from GE, Pratt and Whitney and other globally respected brand names that go into the Boeing and other passenger aircraft. And 80 per cent of their engineering muscle is located at Whitefield, Bangalore.

* When Hewlett Packard decided to participate at the Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) expo at the UN- sponsored World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva earlier this month, they decided to project some of the exciting initiatives in their `e-inclusion' programme .. to take IT to the rural heartland of the world's developing nations. So what was the key exhibit? Scriptmail, a handy device on which one can scribble a message in Kannada or Hindi or Telugu and see it converted into machine readable format and then emailed so that it can then be received and seen exactly the way it was entered. The product was developed at HP Labs, Bangalore, by Indian engineers.

As the Net becomes all pervasive, so seemingly is the inventive reach of Indian ingenuity. And on the global IT road map, each of these developments is one more meaningful signpost for a nation whose earthy goals were elegantly expressed by her most fervent techno-evangelist, the late Dewang Mehta: ` Roti, kapda, makaan, bijlee aur bandwidth.'

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