Friday, June 13, 2008

Profile: Asian Age

Realising the digital dream

By Jayalakshmi Menon
Asian Age, Dec 9, 2003

"In India, we had only screwdriver technology, where everything was merely assembled, not invented or manufactured. It is really weird how we do nothing and blame everything on our country. I have heard business presentations where every member has a global vision, but when speaking of the Indian perspective, the common opening statement employed is. ‘But in a country like India…., mouthing the collective pessimism in which we drown development in India,” says Shivanand Kanavi, first-time author and executive editor of Business India.

Clear observations, facts and research-based information form the essence of his first book, Sand to Silicon. He traces the history of the expedition that has made information technology and communications central to modern existence. “There are three aspects to this book, it gives the popular exposition on technology, highlights the Indian contribution in the revolution and the impact of technology on the lives of people,” he explains.

With 300 years of history to be told, Kanavi’s approach has been “slightly evangelical.” As he asserts, “I want the word of technological developments to spread across to people young and old. So I have used simple terms and language to explain technological advances to readers.”

Kanavi has mixed feelings about becoming an author. He says, “ Journalism and authorship is a lonely form of communication because you don’t get to see the result or people’s reaction to what you write. I remember bribing colleagues to read my article, when I was new in journalism,” he laughs.

Sand to Silicon covers the entire gamut of developments in semiconductors, fibre optics, telecommunications, optical technology and the Internet, while highlighting the achievement of people, who played a crucial role in giving life to the digital dream. Sand to Silicon also focuses on the role played by Indian scientists and engineers in the evolution of the digital revolution.

Kanavi comes from a family of well-known Kannada writers, but brushes aside talk of literary genius. “I had a very liberal, hands-off kind of upbringing. I attended several literary conferences and grew up in an environment where I was allowed to read a lot.”

The book also pays homage to the role played by two Indian institutions, ISRO and C-DOT, in promoting research and development in technology, in India. Interestingly, Sand to Silicon has a chapter on the role of Bangalore. India’s IT capital and home to the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, which as Kanavi asserts, was one of the first universities in the world which offered a Ph.D. in communication technology. On his future course of action, Kanavi adds, “I have two or three books planned out. One will be about quantum mechanics and another on the Bhakti movement in India. Let’s wait and see how things shape up.”

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…