Category Archives: Technology

Roti, Kapda and Internet

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A news-article covering the run up to the UP polls caught my eye. The saga of the polls had already been played out on the media relentlessly. But this article caught my attention for a slightly different reason. The article featured the Cong manifesto which promised high speed broadband connection across the state.I was mildly surprised -I had not seen too many poll manifestos with the promise of broadband reaching every home . UP the heartland of feudal India- not exactly known to be the tech-savviest state and here the contender actually hoped to sway the vote count on the strength of the mouse. Well Congress did not win but that is probably beside the point. The point is the politicians in the country saddled with the burden of being sadly out of touch with times have gone beyond the promise of ‘Roti, Kapda aur Makaan’. They have tacitly recognised the internet as a basic necessity (offcourse they are also intent on controlling it but that is a separate point). They could not have done this sooner.

When Kapil Sibal launched Akash last year, a 35$ tablet we were looking at a significant reverse innovation. A low cost product adapted to the needs of the subcontinent. Ofcourse Akash had its problems, however for me the launch was symbolic of even a far greater potential than the tablet represented on ground. Imagine a country where every kirana store, every middle-man, every ration-dealer is equipped with an Akash. Linked by a 3G network that hooks him up to central computers which love to crunch data. Huge improvement in not only India’s retail network but also a transformation in our public distribution system beyond measure. Imagine villages where farmers equipped with Akash can readily hook up to databases to get information on weather, soil conditions, guidance on which crops to plant depending on the market conditions. A few steps up, they can possibly sell their goods to wholesellers online cutting down the supply chain and ensuring fairer returns. And finally imagine Akash in the hand of the little girl who dreams of being an IAS officer and solving the water problem of her village. Akash for her is a gateway to a magical world where she attends e-classes, watches inspirational videos, listens to recorded lectures and accesses information from around the universe. All on the backbone of a robust connectivity. Sounds impossible? Possibly not.

As a country which was a late starter on the hi-tech highway, we are used to leapfrogging. So we achieved 100% teledensity in mobiles even before fixed line connectivity had reached every nook and corner. An internet network supplanted partially by broadband partly by GPRS, 3G,wi-fi(last-mile connectivity) does not need to be incumbent upon other, maybe more fundamental infrastructure such as roads being in place. Infact the pace at which mobile internet has outpaced broadand connectivity represents technological leap-frogging in itself. Surprisingly mobile internet has found a substantial base in rural India, an indicator of a quiet revolution that may be taking place in distant villages. By 2015 rural users are expected to constitute 24% of 3G users. Coupled with low cost computing devices, the possibilities are endless. Take Apollo’s telemedicine programme for example. Launched in association with Indian Space Research Organisation, the e-doctor module seeks to make specialist medical advice available for people in remote areas. How useful is such information? Well rural medical centres are mostly staffed by junior doctors or paramedics who can use the information to augment the counsel they provide to the patients. The computer then becomes a supplement to semi-skilled resources, helping bridge knowledge divides. Similarly e-learning modules supplement rural teachers and help to address to an extent the wide disparity in quality of education resources available to urban and rural India. The internet infact can go a long way in making Right to Education a reality, making physical and social divides matter less.

The spread of internet connectivity can also create thousands of rural jobs – a scoring point for any political party which manages to live up to its political manifesto. Rural BPO’s for example have a strong potential serving regional markets. Paraskilling can move certain slices of the value chain to the rural job space where the cost of human resource will be significantly lower than in big cities.

And so the internet becomes a nifty tool of national development, a means which can play a substantial role in bridging the divide in India. As every internet connection contribute more than 0.6% to the country’s GDP it unlocks new sources of prosperity and liberation for the masses on the other side of the social divide. Access to the internet may soon become a staple necessity along with the food, housing and clothes triad. No wonder politicians are keen to upstage each other in their promise for a networked India. Let the cyber world not remain another virtual dream.

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When Lerds meet Nerds

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“The Arts and Science divide,” explained one of my professors at college where I was studying Mathematics, “is like the hearts-mind divide. Arts banks on the fickle heart and science on the sound mind”. An overtly simplistic division I thought. I had the same thought when I read Chetan Bhagat’s article(1) on lerds vs nerds published about a month back. Liberal Arts folks or lerds were stereotyped by Bhagat as argumentative philosophers who wallowed in a kind of fuzzy world while the nerds burnt their midnight oil looking for solutions. “Lerds unlike nerds,”stated Chetan somehat pompously standing on the firm ground of science, “hate definitive solutions”. For a moment, he had probably forgotten about fuzzy logic, probability fields, relativity theories and uncertainty principles. Wherein Science acknowledged that deterministic solutions contradicted with an inherently fuzzy Cosmos lacking an absolute frame of reference. Nullifying thus one of the sharpest lines of division between the disciplines. Fuzzy Arts and well-defined Science. Less like it.

The best personification of the Arts-Science dichotomy can be found in the Apple story. Infact the dichotomy starts with the name – a firm which made hitech computers named for Jobs’ escapades to an orchard farm along with a group of bohemian friends experimenting with religion, mysticism, philosophy, hedonism, minimalism. The dichotomy continues with the partnership that launched Apple. Wozniak, Job’s friend and Apple’s co-founder was the better engineer, the type of person who the scientific community proudly claim as their own. Wozniak infact was the brain behind most of Apple’s earlier engineering marvels – the sophisticated circuit and the complex software. However the products though brilliant would have probably remained in the realms of hackers and geeks if not for the eccentric Jobs who sat at a bizarre Science-Arts-Religion-Commerce crossroads. His emphasis on design, aesthetics, intuition made the Apple products some of the most beautiful computers. Which sat comfortably atop a writer’s desktop or an artist’s easel. Years later holding an iPhone in hand one feels a comparable euphoria. Here’s a product made by Science. Here’s a product designed by Arts. Did you say there is a divide?

As we scour over the domains of modern Science and technology, you see more of the ‘jugalbandi’. Products, be it the music-player or mobile phones invest heavily in aesthetics incorporating in them almost a poetic fluidity.Social media borrow the metaphors from humanities to build virtual equivalents of the human community.. Gamification and story-fication seek to unify practices sitting within the realms of the literary or visual Arts with technology. Engineers talk increasingly in a Liberal Arts language peperred with terms such as immersion, experiential learning, intuition, beauty. Science draws inspiration from the ancient scriptures. Zen and Yoga find place in science journals. Noetic science pushes the boundaries of logic by talking about transmigration of souls and reality distortion fields. Time travel and parallel worlds, prophecies and after-death experiences. Science and philosophy cling together as they traverse these fuzzy domains. The well-lit corridors of Science and the flirtatious shadows of Arts seem to find their quaint junction. where the nerds and lerds sit together to argue, complement and disagree. On a less than binary world. While the computer and Santa coexist in the living room. Sorry, Chetan!

1.Chetan Bhagat’s column Save us from lerds:http://www.chetanbhagat.com/columns/save-us-from-lerds/

The Personal Cloud

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Everyone has been talking cloud. And when I say everyone, I do not mean the elite group of techies or their CIO. Cloud has transcended mere techno-speak to emerge as a full-fledged business term. The powerful imagery behind a cloud and the infinite benefits it professes has made it a hugely sellable concept. Ofcourse with that has come the hyped up marketing literature making the cloud to be more than it is. And the gullible shopper who will buy anything sold packaged within fluffy clouds. For instance I was told about a gentleman who is paying a service provider a premium to get his blog hosted on the cloud. With no ostensible benefit. The fact is there remains a lot of confusion about what cloud means for the individual end-user. The same is true for business but then they hopefully have intelligent CIO’s who can cut through the cloud fluff. So I decided to look at cloud from the individual user point of a view. Look at the benefits it offers us. And hopefully make a case against paying a premium for a blog in the cloud.

Let’s do a bit of time travel. Say about 10/ 15 years back. You used Hot Mail or Yahoo mail to keep in touch or conduct your business. Rediff et al also offered emails with your business domain. You used Yahoo briefcase to store and share documents online. You took your diaries to the web when Blogger was launched in 1999. You bought, sold, auctioned on the web and an invisible hand ensured you can order and receive, from the comforts of your home, a curio available at the other end of the world. As the web evolved you started putting your photos online, asked it to calculate your insurance, shared your videos and so on. In essence you had the ability to access information, share materials, use services such as a photo upload from anywhere in the world. So you have been on the cloud atleast a decade before you knew it.

Cloud in very simple terms refers to a service model which allows you to distribute and access information, applications, resources over a network. And as I have explained in the previous paragraph you have been doing most of these things for a long time. Honestly the cloud is not a path-breaking new technology. What it is old wine in a very smart and useful new bottle which has increased many times over the value of the wine. Cloud is a smart business model which has taken the software out of the CD and the documents out of the hard-drive. It has fed off the power of the internet, the rise and rise of 3G and 4G, advancement in storage and virtualization solutions to create the equivalent of the water supply and tap in IT. You turn on the tap and use as much IT as you need. You shut off the tap and pay for as much IT you have used.

For example take computer games. Computer games evolve at a neck-breaking speed. And very soon you are stuck with stacks of CDs you do not like to play with anymore. Imagine if on the other hand you had a virtual library which lets you access your favourite games for a selected number of hours in exchange for a nominal fee. Or the other example where you run a small magazine and work with a group of freelancers, have no dedicated office and you do not want to invest in costly MS Office license for the staff. You have an alternative. Use a cloud based solution which lets you create, edit and distribute documents online. Add to it a mix of collaboration tools which lets you stay in touch. All at a fraction of a full-fledged licensing cost. The Microsoft Office 365 comes at a fee of $6 per user per month while the Google suite of productivity apps is priced at $5 per user per month.

The Cloud of Possibilities

So the cloud has obvious benefits for an end user. The next time you want to procure a costly software you will do well to check if there are equivalent services over the internet which does it. Carefully read the fine print and the billing rules and do a quick calculation. Cloud bill rates apply on a per month per user or on a more granular level on a per hour basis. See where you are making the cutoff using the simple formula

Then analyse whether and how soon you are likely to reach the cut off period. Your cloud or not to cloud decision will depend on the answer.

A few words of caution before you jump on the cloud. Cloud comes with its fair share of performance, security and operational issues. If you are going to work off the cloud, you need a reliable connectivity to the internet. If you are on patchy broadband, playing games on the cloud may not be such fun. Needless to say your documents are usually safer with you than on a public server which may be prone to hacking, spamming, etc. So do check out the security credentials of the service provider you are entrusting your collaterals with. And to reiterate do not fall for a service because it comes with a cloud tag. WordPress, Blogger, Youtube, Flickr all operate on the cloud pattern without them being exclusively branded as cloud services. And these offer most of the utilities at no charge. So if someone is charging you to put your blog on the cloud, you are being taken for a ride. Do not, as I put it, fall for the cloud-trap.

Shorn of the frills, cloud computing does help the individual user. There is also secondary benefit that cloud offers in form of lower enterprise IT costs- a benefit that a business can then pass on to end users. But cloud-gazers need to get real and see things in perspective without all the fancy rain and monsoon metaphors. Make the most of cloud without being deluged.

Where are the tech ladies?

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Two things prompted this article. Two very significant events. Gini Rometty being appointed as the first woman CEO of IBM. And the UNDP report ranking India as 134th on the gender inequality scale. Having been born in a well-off, liberal upper middle class family I have been fairly insulated from most of the anti-women practices or mindsets which have pushed India down the female development scale. Infact I was not aware of any disadvantage posed by my gender unless I had left my nest to pursue higher education and then ofcourse entered the sanctum of the Indian IT industry. And so when between Gini and Meg, women controlled two of the largest IT firms by revenue I decided to look at gender inequality in a different context –the Indian IT sector. And try to answer why there are so few women in leadership roles in the industry here.

For all the flak India is drawing for finishing below Pakistan and Bangladesh on the gender scale, we know that the employment scenario for women in white-collar jobs has been changing. There are more women in media, banking, advertisement, hospitality than a decade ago. And many of them in prominent leadership positions. When you shift to the highly successful IT industry on the other hand it is difficult to rattle off the names of 10 women leaders. Put aside the stray Neelam Dhawan. The leadership vacuum for women stares starkly in your face. Women seem to be falling off the edge while trying to transition to senior management or even middle management. Organizations meet their diversity goals by recruiting a number of women in start-up positions. And then give them little support or scope to grow into effective leaders. If you plot women across the organization hierarchies in IT, you are more likely to end up with a funnel. With a wide base and a severely constricted pipe through only a few bubble over to the top.

So where does the problem lie? Where does the leak in the pipeline occur? It actually starts much before girls and boys enter the workforce. Imagine you have had a birthday bash for your twin babies- a boy and a girl. The boy has been showered with blocks,jig-saw puzzles and hi-tech toys. And the girl with dolls. There is a certain amount of symbolism here. Women geeks are a rare, much-despised, much-avoided tribe. This is true to some extent all over the world. But it is particularly truer in India where such stereotypes are strongly etched. Women geeks are not good marriage materials! So they are inadvertently pushed to the ‘gentler’ art steams. Or are bullied out of science by their male peers or professors. So here is where the first leak occurs. Fewer women engineers. You have possibly lost some very good technology brains there.

Female engineering graduates are also routinely discouraged from entering the corporate corridors perceived largely as a man’s world. Women are ‘eased’ into academics or research. Which should have seen more women-driven technology research but for the fact that women are largely compelled to treat them as roosting grounds which they often abandon once marriage or motherhood takes over.

Even after all these leaks there are quite a many women graduates entering the IT behemoths. Once inside the grinds of the industry kick in. Longer working hours, night-shifts, frequent travels, long stints abroad. And a certain amount of drudgery in work. Everything that works against women specially once they are married and/ or become moms. And then they slowly get left out. She cannot stay late because she has to go home and cook. Night-shifts are a no-no. She cannot take that stint abroad because she would not get a nanny abroad. She cannot travel because her child is sick. If she has a supportive spouse, she can make many of these difficult choices. If she hasn’t, she has to stay contended to see men she joined with sail past her.

Lack of women in senior positions - The contributing factors

I did a survey with the IT girls Read the rest of this entry