Friday, June 13, 2008

Sand to Silicon, Review-Val Souza

In the byroads of Basavanagudi
Val Souza,
Editor, Express Computers

Ten years ago, when software methodology maharishi Ed Yourdon visited India, he wrote about India’s software industry having matured into what he called “Stage-2”—wherein the Indian pitch had changed from one of bodyshopping of cheap programmers for onsite software coding and maintenance, to one touting high-quality offshore software development “on time, on budget and with a high degree of predictability.” He bemoaned the fact that India was however far from his definition of “Stage-3”, in which software products are produced and marketed extensively by the local software industry.

A decade on, we don’t seem to have moved far ahead on the Stage-3 track, and I don’t think we will ever see a proprietary, packaged desktop software bestseller (such as a Word or a PhotoShop) emerging from a company in this part of the world. But no longer does that seem the nagging worry it used to be not so long ago. Even Yourdon, who has since been inducted into the Computer Hall of Fame (and the Board of iGATE), has altered his views significantly. He was recently quoted in a Cutter Consortium release as saying: “The next razzle-dazzle technology may be created in Bangalore… Bangalore also has some very hungry, very ambitious entrepreneurs… the next generation of Indian IT professionals firmly believes that the US no longer has a monopoly on innovation.”

Indeed, we’ve come a long way since the $350 million mid-nineties. Several billion dollars later, services still contribute a large chunk to revenues. But in the interim, we’ve got offshoring pretty much down pat and the industry is moving up to speed on its global delivery model; services are being offered at various levels of the famed value-chain, with business process outsourcing thrown in for good measure too. ‘Back Office of the World’ is nothing to be ashamed of, seeing as it’s bringing in billions of bucks and keeping a cool million of our folk gainfully occupied.

Actually, even if you are determined to find fault and remain ashamed regardless of the magnitude of India’s software services success, you can now take heart in other things—hardly a week goes by without another announcement of another global software company setting up R&D shop or moving part of its product development work out here. We have software product development by proxy, if you will. And homegrown companies are merrily joining the fray, making Bangalore and other cities a hotbed of research in chip design, embedded systems and similar esoteric stuff. The trickle is yet to build up into a flood, but the juggernaut is unstoppable now.

That’s why there’s a growing feeling that America doesn’t have a monopoly on the Next Big Thing in digital tech any longer. No one knows what it’s going to be, but it’s somewhere down the road, and that road could well be in India.

Anyway Indians have contributed in the past, directly and indirectly, to several Big Things of the digital revolution. But apart from a handful like Sabeer Bhatia, Vinod Khosla, Kanwal Rekhi and others who’ve made big bucks, they’ve remained largely unsung heroes. Until now. Shivanand Kanavi’s book, Sand to Silicon—The Amazing Story of Digital Technology, sets right that wrong quite adequately indeed.

Kanavi traces the evolution of Information Technology from the early days of valves, transistors, and semiconductors, through to the invention and development of the integrated circuit, personal computers, the Internet, fibre optics and the complete digital convergence of computing and communications technologies. Such historical accounts are widely available on the Net, but Kanavi has a unique twist to the tale—he repaints digital history from the perspective of the contribution of myriad brilliant Indian scientists, researchers, academicians and entrepreneurs, all of whom played a critical role in technological breakthroughs that have made IT what it is today.

Have you heard of Narinder Singh Kapany? I hadn’t. Turns out he carried out pioneering experiments with optical fibres and actually coined the term ‘fibre optics’ in the 50s. It was only in 1999 that he was recognised, by Fortune magazine, as one of seven unsung heroes who have greatly influenced life in the twentieth century. Innumerable Indian scientists have been key members of research teams at Stanford, Xerox PARC, IBM, Texas Instruments, Bell Labs, Intel, etc, and the contributions of many of them are mentioned in the book. While Kanavi has concentrated on explaining the technologies in detail, one would have also liked to see more graphic biographical sketches of all the great Indians covered—especially since the author spent about six months meeting and interviewing them. Perhaps he’s reserving all that for the sequel.

The book mentions the award-winning exploits of a few individuals like Raj Reddy (Turing Award), Praveen Chaudhari (US National Technology Medal), C K N Patel (US National Medal of Science) and Bala Manian (technical Oscar), but Kanavi clarifies that technology creation and evolution has largely been a collective effort rather than “the romantic mythology of a few oracles spouting pearls of wisdom, or flamboyant whizkids making quick billions.”

Which brings us to IT in India. A few names stand out from the very recent past: R Narasimhan, H Kesavan, V Rajaraman, N Yegnanarayana, Sam Pitroda. And a few more are contemporary: Mohan Tambe, Ashok Jhunjhunwala and Manindra Agrawal, to name just three. But the next chapter in the amazing story of digital technology could well be unfolding right now somewhere in the byroads of Basavanagudi in Bangalore. Or, as Ed Yourdon recently stated: Maybe in Pune or Hyderabad or Chennai, for all you know…

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