Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Patriot's Paradox

I had to wait a while ( just 3000 seconds . I love waits (they're wondrous, sometimes they get me wild enough to leave immediately and save my day) before the Guest turned up. The welcome programme began with the right rhythm - welcoming, keynote, honouring (the Chief Guest.) The next item was "Chief Guest's Address," given the absence of a schedule, my narrative should do insofar. The event started just an hour late. Punctuality is to be suffered by the few who choose it.

The Chief Guest took to the lectern, and opened out what seemed to a long written speech. He is a Software Developer whose entire career has been between a Large Township supporting a Factory and Academic updates at a Regional Educational Institution. Until then, he had not spoken a word, and we looked at him with reverence.

The floodgates of callous, anachronic, disconnected sentences poured open the most obnoxious speech, I have ever heard of my Nation. "India is a nation that has always been and continues to be slaves. We have been and ever will be slaves to technology, except for the happenings of the past 3 decades where some hope has dawned." he began, shocking though as it was. This was the moment, the idiom "empty vessels make more noise," had waited for. He went on, "Alexander, the Great (Alexandros Megasthenos) defeated an Indian warlord Purushottam because they had superior technological advantage in cavalry. Purushottam (or Porus,) was defeated by the supreme army because he had slow moving elephants, while Alexander's cavalry were swift and made quick work of Porus' defeat." According to the Chief Guest, this was a great historical example of how Indian technology has never developed and bowed down to western greatness.

Insulting the people who lived in that time (c. 326 BC) and attributing a reason out of nowhere, while giving the keynote address of a Scientific Paper Presentation discourse. He seems to have forgotten that Elephant formations used cavalry for protection. Agile archers wearing no armour using the thick forest covers easily ambushed him. Given the genius of Alexander the Great, he defeated Porus with fair strategy. For a strange reason, he let him live, and also let Seleucus Nicator venture South Westward to establish the later Seleucid empire. Alexander's battle troops were too tired to be trained for better tactics to face interior India. The Kingdom of Porus is within the territory of present day Afghanistan. Accounts cite that Porus, grieved at the loss of his son, surrendered but refused to accept Alexander as his Emperor. Alexander's teacher Aristotle once quipped, "The east has a way of swallowing its enemies." The visit proved that to be true.

Did he know that the Greeks rode all the way down across Persia, with a cavalry, riding bareback on horses that did not have a saddle? Did he know that the Indian cavalry of Porus had saddles, and armory for the horse?

More words, now came, in torrents with confidence on a subject with minimalist knowledge.
"Babur invaded India somewhere in 500 AD, or something. He had superior artillery power which gave him full advantage and some other King in India, who had not invested time nor effort to build technology. That is why we (Indians) are slaves to technology."

This was Babur's special mention in historical annals. A force of 10,000 defeated Ibrahim Lodi's stronger force of 110,000 (arithmetically equivalent to 1 averaging 110 kills.) Ibrahim Lodi, despite strategic advantage lost. Wait, where and how did Lodi come from? At least at that time, Lodi wasn't considered a native Indian, but a descendant of recent migrants. The battle also took place in 1526 AD (a frequent one in 'are you smarter than a fifth grader?' [India]) We have forgotten that this is one migrant attempting to thwart another.

Emperor Ashok became King in 274 BC and held what is probably the largest Indian empire for another 8 centuries. Let's ignore him, his technology, the Arthashastra. Politics is misunderstood as history. It is also recorded that Ashok was one of the earliest monarchs to have passed an edict that outlawed slavery. Most battles are won or lost the moment planning is done, execution at every level has its surprises, but the political gameplay controls (almost) everything. India had advances in politics and diplomacy at that time.

He continues to drum on, while I reined in my eagerness to chip in. He then went on to say, "SAP started in 1973, with founders who had left IBM. They believed in a new model, but held their resolve for two decades, only to reap one of the largest market rates in 1993. We, Indians are not resilient, and therefore do not achieve."

SAP, as a company has a history, quite unlike the garage startups which originated from the Silicon Valley. Was SAP too slow to deploy? Did they find too early a solution? In today's market no one can be resilient? If they had started two decades later, we wouldn't be referring t them here.

Are Indians Resilient? Historically, we have always shown great resolve. All cultures who invaded us, we have assimilated. India: "Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated." The ancient lifestyle is recorded in many books including the Arthashastra for a period 300 BC. After 12th Century AD, we have several documented examples to refer to and show our resilience. Indian software developers tend to develop a culture of sticking to a mother ship, rather than hitch hiking the galaxy on space trawlers. Yet, we are not slow, we are big, huge, larger than imagination might yield.

He tried his hand at humour, but that comedy is subject for another post.

He continued, "We Indians are still having the slave mentality. All the global companies I had worked with used to state that we are a nation of snake charmers. We do not want to start our own companies or build our own Intellectual property [snip] Indian Infotech professionals create IP and sell it cheap to big clients who make millions, if not trillions of dollars We are not patenting or creating new ideas and intellectual property. We must start creating at least now and not continue to slave and make products for big companies elsewhere in the globe."

Interestingly, he seems to forget that IP is not only created and monetized in India, but is protected by networks of law firms for the geographic region. Vinod Dham or Sabeer Bhatia probably aren't counted as Indians. All the technocrats who originated from here, what happens to them. India now has a TIE chapter (pun intended), several meets where VCs and Investors meet Sponsors. Entrepeneurship, IP creation, Originality, it's all here. Brand "Bangalore" has been made. No longer is India a land of Snake Charmers.

Can inventing, creating be given enough focus in college curriculum or should curriculum be shortened to teach essentials, allowing inventions and creativity to follow through in extended apprenticeships? That is food for thought. If what we are creating is invisible to the eye and intangible, and yet, we continue reaping fruits of our labour, we are creating, competing and getting better. Who owns land or the intangible is always debatable under legal jurisdictions.

Note to self: Next time you go to a function, take the last seat. If you are disinterested, leave the hall pretending to take a photograph. Run for some sanity cover.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Tablet Renaissance - 11 Items to Check

Tablet computing is reaching a vortex with Consumer Electronics vendors, pushing them into the market more enthusiastically than ever. The concept of the Tablet was tried more than once earlier (termed Tablet/PC), deriving designs from the Laptop/PC. Those attempts had mixed results, but no roaring successes. The HP Tablet/PC image on the right is sweet memory of what looked like an oversized Compaq/HP/iPaq. With new Mobile Microprocessors, the advent of platforms like Android, the game has undoubtedly changed. The Laptop/PC itself has evolved into the more portable and light-weight Netbook. We would quickly associate the term "tablet" to Apple's much hyped iPad.

Yet, will people take to using tablets? Practical usability of Tablets would depend on
  1. Size, form factor of the Tablet
  2. Interface usability - display readability, touch screens, keypads, voice recognition
  3. Weight of the Tablet (People hate lugging heavy slates.)
  4. Battery Life (surviving longer without a recharge.)
  5. Connectivity options (3G, WiFi, WiMax, USB, ethernet ...)
  6. Memory Storage (Internal Storage, Expansion Options, Maximum Limits)
  7. Application availability (Application stores, reasonable variety of options.)
  8. Utility and Productivity value (Business and Entertainment use.)
  9. Freedom to customize, theme and personalize
  10. Availability of Accessories (Docks, Sleeves)
  11. After Sales Support and Services!
As the market is highly nascent, 'size' is something that has not crystallised yet. Devices with display sizes varying from 5" to 11", with/without keypads or touchpads are available. The popularity of the Amazon Kindle (as an eBook reader) seemed to have triggered a Domino effect in creation and commercialisation of Tablets. Comparisons and theories on whether Apple iPad started the Tablet craze or the eBook readers did are abundant.

I find the form factor of tablets, a little heavier to carry around; while my laptop is still remains indispensable for my work. Screen size definitely improves readability, and the iPad probably got it just right in terms of readability.

I do find the tablet useful for
  1. Quick information lookup and search
  2. Updating a microblog
  3. Checking email
  4. Reading documents, eBooks
  5. Getting Navigation Assistance
  6. Testing out mobile applications
  7. An alternative when I cannot carry my Laptop
I still find a few issues that would have to be sorted out, as the devices become more commonly used:
  • Charger compatibility and standardisation
  • Video output for quick use as a presentation tool
  • Easy solutions to carry a Tablet
  • Information security and privacy concerns
  • Seamless and dynamic network connectivity/migration
  • Pricing of Tablets, upgrades and accessories is yet to settle down
  • Dependence on the "Cloud Infrastructure" is heavy, but is Cloud infrastructure failsafe?
Solutions do exist for the items I have listed, but they still remain open in search of better solutions. The Tablets overlap an application space taken up by smartphones, and once served by the PDA. Their advent in the markets is more an evolution of the PDA (into the Smartphone, and now the Tablet.) Players who were successful earlier, like "Palm" have found it difficult to keep up with the momentum of the smartphone era. Players who have succeeded in the Smartphone era like "Research In Motion" (RIM) are worried about their survival in the upcoming Tablet era. New entrants come in with lots of innovations. The "Notion Ink", for example, (image, left) on one variant claims 15 hours of battery life. Will such claims hold when the devices are put to real use?

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Telephony Network: Voice & Data Access in India

The growth of Indian Infrastructure nation-wide over the last couple of decades has not been consistent and well planned. This accounts for Transport, Food, City/Town Planning and various arenas.

One area where Indian Infrastructure has been doing well (largely by having opened it to the private sector) is 'Telecom, Network reach, Voice and Data accessibility.' Data on actual network access has not been easy to get given the diversity off the players in the field. This Internet usage statistics (IWS) seems to ignore mobile users who now have some form of Internet access.

Mobile phone usage in India ranks 3rd in the world (ranking China and the EU ahead of India.) An independent study mentions that 40 million users access the Internet from Mobile phones. A paper by Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala and team illustrates barriers in technology while expanding India's telephone network (which made major upgrades in 1991-2010) incrementally improving accessibility.

Today, urban and rural users of telephony in India rely heavily on mobile phone networks. Accessibility in rural areas has also been growing. I was impressed by the availability of telephony, mobile network and broadband data access in remote estates south of the eastern ghats. The main user community are villagers around the area, while the nearest towns are located almost 200km away from the main ghat sections. The cost of voice/data services in India has been at an affordable level in comparison to other countries and regions.

Technology entrepreneurs are now relying on continuing increase of users to push solutions through mobile telephony. Every business, and therefore other infrastructure segments now have an opportunity to reach more people through communication. Applications targeted at farmers to help them in pricing their produce and planning their crops are good examples.

The volume, availability and affordability of telephony in India has been fuelled in part by the Government's Spectrum allocation and largely by corporate pricing wars across multiple players and entrants.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Linux Unleashed (2011)

Over a decade ago, the landscape of open source was predominantly GNU/Linux with Mozilla and the Apache foundation. Teamed up with MySQL, the server scape was slowly assimilated. The Desktop was young with Slackware, Debian, Redhat, Mandrake making early in-roads. Few saw Linux as a solution for the desktop where usability translated to simplicity. Hackers (programmers), sysadmins adopted GNU/Linux in whatever form it was available. At the same time, IBM was demonstrating Linux on its mainframes and packing it onto a wristwatch. They had proven that it was practically scalable. The impact at that time was subtle, but a revolution had begun.

In the early days of GNU/Linux, there were frequent comparisons of Linux with Microsoft's Windows and Mac OS (many serving as flame-bait in mailing lists and forums.) Computing devices were not yet commodity and the OS/System Software space was presumed to be an oligopoly. The "OS" was seen as a product, an end in itself, rather than the means to an application (which is easier from today's perspective.) To be fair today, Linux does not have a single perspective (or personality) to project it as a 'de facto' desktop OS alternative. Ubuntu, Knoppix, Linux Mint, Arch, CentOS, Fedora, OpenSuSE and the list goes on.

I remember a discussion in 2001 with my then CEO (Codito), Harshad Pathak. We were a group of hackers trying to define data abstraction, data hiding and data encapsulation. He came up with lines of wisdom, "I don't care what Operating System my Phone is running as long as I can make calls and use it for texting. Embedded Linux, Windows CE - it really doesn't matter." As techies, to us, the OS was sacred, and that transformed the discussion into an argument. An Operating System must facilitate the user to accomplish something, which could be done only through an application or service or a mix of both.

Today, we are precisely in the scenario where the GNU/Linux ecosystem has facilitated end-user productivity through applications, platforms and cohesive technology. Google uses data centres powered by the GNU/Linux ecosystem. Android derives from a Linux kernel. Chrome-OS derives from a Linux kernel. Facebook runs scalable servers powered by GNU/Linux. Desktop options powered by GNU/Linux are innumerable as this infographic reveals. Alternate OS platforms including Sun (now Oracle)'s OpenSolaris, OpenStorage, BSD's contributions as FreeBSD (forked as Darwin became a part of Mac OS), OpenBSD and NetBSD offer a much larger palette to choose from.

Android users are clearly using a phone, empowered with applications and web services from google. The Internet has many businesses providing services in a SaaS model, a good number of them powered by the ongoing Open Source revolution. Business models have undergone radical changes. Semiconductor companies (Intel, AMD, ARM, TI, FreeScale - to name a few) have gone out of the way to ensure System Software (compiler, OS) level support for new Silicon solutions through the Open Source Community. As this has gradually happened, there is a perceived reduction in solution costs that have been passed on to the end user. The spectrum of smart-phones and tablets at CES 2011 was more than proof of how semiconductor majors worked on reducing time-to-market and system-software costs.

Businesses are increasingly adapting and learning to use community source (rather than roll their own code for everything,) wherever it gives them a significant advantage. The businesses having understood the potential, have also begun to reciprocate to the community. It's happening right now, almost oblivious to the glitz and glamour of a Consumer gadget show or a Technology forum.
Proprietary stand-alone platforms are quickly revising and re-inventing. To name a few, Microsoft Live, Microsoft Azure have been Microsoft's answer to the changing technology scape. Rumour mills suggest Apple Sabertooth could be Apple's answer to the change.

Ultimately, what began as the GNU revolution, and then the GNU/Linux revolution, to a full-fledged ecosystem expanding with options as new players joined has changed Information Technology irreversibly. 'The Cloud' is often compared with earlier ideas proposing 'Network Computers', later 'Network Computing.' Yet, the cloud solutions available rely on the evolved Open Source ecosystem. Community Source / Open Source has finally emerged as part of the change and catalyst to the change. The entire system has evolved without serving goals or targets of its own original projects by allowing itself and therefore impact, goal and user-base to change. The business model of the Open Internet Venture is here to stay. Corporate Entities and Governments are also embracing Open Source (WSJ).