Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Low cost computing and the Tata Nano

A recent editorial in the Hindu, Why not a Rs 5000 computer?,
triggered by the launch of the Tata Nano, the world's lowest-cost
production car, got me thinking about why there is so much focus on
this notion of `low-cost'. There is frenzied media attention
heralding the arrival of this car, and the debate about its pros and
cons rage on. The Tata Nano is a car and hence it is obvious what its
owner will do - drive his family from point A to point B, happily ever
after. When we step back and look at the broader picture, many
questions arise - How low is low cost? Can everyone in India buy a car
now? Is the ultimate goal of India to enable every citizen to own a
car? Is that feasible? What are the alternatives? What is the impact
of such a vision on oil prices? On infrastructure? On the environment?

Now to expect Mr. Tata to answer all these questions is unfair. He
runs a well established automobile manufacturing company that aims at
making and selling as many vehicles as possible, as any automobile
company would. He has simply identified the need for a car at a price
of Rs 1 lakh, just as he has identified that there is a market for
cars like the Jaguar. Unfortunately, Mr. Tata has put himself in a
situation of having to face the above questions; by invoking his dream
of putting the common Indian family on four wheels. This in itself has
unearthed tougher questions - Why is it a given that personal
transportation is preferable to public transport? Why not apply the
innovative machinery of the company to bring fantastic public
transportation vehicles to the market?

Back to the question of low cost computing. The situation here is a
lot sketchier. The car, obviously, has a clear function that is well
known to all. However, very few people are clear about what a computer
is for, especially a computer in every child's hand. The OLPC has held
worldwide media attention for the past two years with its promise of a
US\$ 100 `one lap top per child' program. Apparently, it is now
available for sale in the US for something like US $180. Not to be
left behind, Intel has announced a low cost laptop called the
Classmate, which is being marketed in India and elsewhere. HCL and AMD
have come up with sub-10,000 rupee desktop PCs as well.

The major difference between the Tata Nano and these low-cost
computers is that it is not clear what the owner of one of these, (in
this case a school child in a developing country), will do with his or
her possession. Let us do a thought experiment: Assume that some
company with a magic wand produces a US $1 laptop. Obviously, every
child across the planet (even at this price, many countries will need
assistance from donor countries, but I quibble) will manage to get his
or her own laptop. The first school day of this golden era dawns and all the kids
march into their class with their own laptops. What next? Let us pause
and ponder.

Will these kids spend six to seven hours of school time with the
laptops? What do they do with the laptops? is there a clear plan
or vision in anybody's minds of how one laptop per child will be
used in classrooms (where they actually exist) across the poor
and marginal countries of the world?

If pushed on this question, technology companies like Intel and AMD
will say, that they merely technology companies, and not educators. The
only thing they can do is to bring out better and better machines at
lower and lower prices. It is up to educators and governments to use
these marvelous enabling technologies. Of course the same fall back
is not avaialble to the OLPC project. The US $100 price-tag doesn't include costs of set-up, maintenance, training of teachers, or connectivity. How then, can the OLPC project, or anyone else for that matter, claim to know that a laptop in the hands of every child will eradicate illiteracy and poverty? (It is another story that they carefully avoided targeting developed country markets for their wares).

The media needs to take a significant part of the blame for the current
situation. By not asking the right questions, by not being sceptical
of claims made by technologists, by conjuring images of a glorious
technological utopia, they mislead the general pubic - making it seem like we are on the brink of imminent technological nirvana.

There are books like `The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of
Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved' by Todd
Oppenheimer, which report painstakingly detailed studies conducted
across American public schools. The title reflects the conclusion that
at best, there is no conclusive evidence to show that hundreds of
millions of dollars spent on computing technologies in schools has
created any real benefits to school education, and at worst, that it is a
misdirected waste of scarce public resources. The blog world is full
of experienced people who question the claimed benefits of these
low-cost technologies in education. However, such reports and
discussions are not given any visibility in the mainstream media, and if
at all, they are dismissed as Luddite ravings.

So what is the relevance of computing, if not low-cost computing, for
countries like India? There are many examples in India where mobile
computer technology has benefited the general public. In Karnataka,
more than 10,000 buses of the state road transport corporation (KSRTC)
run with conductors who are equipped with mobile ticketing machines.
These machines have transformed the working life of conductors,
increased the revenues of the corporation, reduced pilferage and inefficiency, and reduced the overall convenience of the travelling public.
Another quiet revolution has taken place in utility billing. Again, handheld
terminals with printers have ensured reliable and efficient billing of
electricity and water utilities across the southern states. These devices
number in the tens of thousands.
Neither of these have found much coverage in the media. Here the traditional question of `How low is the cost of these machines?' is the wrong question to ask. The right question is, `What is the return on the investments made in technology for the corporations involved?'
Clearly, these corporations will be able to quantify increase in revenues. For the ticketing and billing machines,
the returns have been consistently high and hence these are being
expanded to cover more regions and States.
But in a domain like education, there is clearly a paucity of measurable
quantities. The standard measures used are test scores and exams, and
even here, no study has established any correlation between the use of
computers and performance. Hence, governments, industry, educators
and the general public are focussed on a quantity that everyone can
grasp - the price of these computers.

Reverting to the Tata Nano, the broader questions that media should
focus on are the following: Why is so much prestige attached to
personal ownership of cars? Why is there so little thought and
attention given to public transportation and its improvement? For computers, the relevant questions are similar. Why is there so
much prestige attached to `computers'? The general perception, stoked
by countless marketing dollars and the media, is that anyone dealing with computers is someone who has `arrived'. Hence the fond wish of millions of middle
class parents that one of their children will get into the field of
`computers', and the unproven corollary that owning a computer somehow
makes the owner move up the proverbial ladder.

Let us extend the earlier thought experiment a bit and assume that now
everyone can get a PC free. (Who would have thought even in the
nineties that a state government could give free colour TV sets to poor
households?) What will an average household do with it? I can't think
of anything worthwhile without having data connectivity. With the Internet, there is e-mail, IM, social networks, Second Life, and downloadable movies and songs, all for free (except of course, bandwidth costs bite at the end of the month). Diligent students can benefit from sites
like the MIT Open Courseware. But is there a comprehensive way to measure the
impact on the household because of the presence of the PC?
If we step back, and again, look at the larger picture - with hundreds of millions of people accessing the Internet - the issues of how to provide bandwidth to meet all these requirements and the costs of such bandwidth need to be considered. Will the focus then shift from low-cost PCs to low-cost bandwidth? There is a phrase made popular by
the late Dewang Mehta - Is it Roti, Kapada, Makkan aur Bandwidth?

One political luminary has already demanded that Tata give
away 10 lakh Nanos free in return for the subsidised land acquired
for their car plant. This will presumably be followed by another demand
for free petrol. Otherwise how will these 10 lakh newly endowed
citizens drive their Nanos? These will certainly be real scenarios
unless all of us - industry, academia, government and the media - start
focusing on real benefits of technology rather than on the
costs of a few glamorous manifestations like cars or computers.
This obsession with `low-cost' is an enormous red herring.

The same Hindu editorial had this to say about the exploding mobile phone market in India. ``... the right devices with a good value proposition are assured of success".
This statement shows a glimmer of the right approach to looking at
computers. `Why not a Rs 5000 computer?' is the wrong question to
ask. The right question is, `What is the value proposition of the OLPC
or the Simputer or your favourite computing device?' Or more
specifically, `What is the value proposition of these devices to primary
schools in rural Karnataka?' Such questions will then direct attention
to the output, the benefits of computing, rather than the input, the
price of the computers. The price of the device eventually says nothing of relevance about the usefulness of the device.
For a cell phone, the use (and the value proposition) is crystal
clear - the cost per call, the value of making the call to the calling and receiving
individual, and the relative inconvenience of alternate options to the call (letters, registered
post, physical travel, etc.) The end user has all the information (despite attempts by telcos to obfuscate the pricing details)
to understand and evaluate the value proposition. Hence the explosion of the mobile phone in India.
The value proposition of the Tata Nano will emerge as users find out
all the details of owning and using the Nano - fuel efficiency, ride
comfort, ease of driving, cost of maintenance, cost of spare parts,
quality of service, the time taken for reaching a destination in a Nano
compared to a two-wheeler, the safety of a Nano compared to a two-wheeler, the cool
factor of driving the latest two-wheeled sensation rather than a cheap car, and so on. These factors will be worked out by the consumer who will then arrive at the Nano's value proposition. The sticker price of Rs 1 lakh may have very little to do with it at that point.

Similarly, unless the general public can evaluate the value proposition
of computing, any amount of hype surrounding any low-cost technology,
indigenous or imported, is merely a distraction. Unless this is recognised by
the general population, the notion of low-cost computing will serve
only to keep the media, and writers like this one, busy.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


The Maharaja of ITTIAM

I have suggested in this blog that becoming a Nawab or a Maharaja is an admirable career option for the young men and women of India. I am happy to see the gradual growth of one such self-made Maharaja and the expansion of his domain across the globe. I am referring to Srini Rajam and his company ITTIAM, that recently unveiled the first single chip HDTV solution in the world.

The story of Srini in many ways mirrors the path taken by many Nawabs and Maharajas in Indian history. The awesome Hyder Ali of Mysore is an example.
To become a king, study the ways of kings, or better still work in the army of the best king you can locate in your neighborhood. Better still, seek out the king that best values the talents that you have to offer. Fight many battles. Important that one survives intact from these battles, but emerge a veteran of many battles. Rise through the ranks. Command and inspire increasing number of soldiers. Earn their respect and loyalty by leading from the front. Be part of exhilarating victories. Ensure minimum loss of life and exit with maximum reputation from lost battles. Regroup and fight another day.

Seize the opportunity to become a King of your own. Unlike the countless unsavory ways in which usurpers have become kings in India, take the honorable path to becoming your own king: Establish a small domain, attract the best soldiers that value and respect your valor and command, to be part of your army. Go forth and expand. The world is your limit.

Srini did just that. Armed with a Masters Degree from the Indian Institute of Science (class topper, with one of the earliest Masters projects in India on CAD, under the guidance of Prof. L. M. Patnaik), he joined the army of the first coloniser of the Indian IT space, Texas Instruments, when it set up shop in Bangalore. Within a very short time, he had risen to be the Head of TI India.
And when he decided to set up his own kingdom, he did it not just honorably, but with lot of strategic vision and elan: gave sufficient advance notice to TI, ensured that his company will work with TI, ensured that his new kingdom was in no way taking away any resources of TI, but instead offered to be a small but respected ally to TI.

The name ITTIAM, 'I think therefore I am', conveys a lot about the focus of the company. To be a company that creates intellectual property that will be utilised by global players and not be another services company. The latter would have meant that Srini just moved from being a soldier in one foreign army to a supplier of mercenaries to multiple armies! Instead, the army of ITTIAM is a proud bunch of soldiers who create IP, Being the first globally in such a complex activity as creating a single chip HDTV solution is an outstanding achievement that has the potential to spread the ITTIAM empire pervasively across the globe. I am sure that some of the leaders in the ITTIAM army are well trained and well poised to set up their own kingdoms in the future, with the support and best wishes of Srini. This is the obvious benefit of present day kingdoms: it is not necessary to depose a king to become a king.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


The white horses of the IT battlefield

My ebullient friend Prof. Yogendra Simha at the Indian Institute of Science had this pet project proposal he conceived to poke fun at the way the science and technology establishment squanders money on white elephants. His project was titled AIRAVAT (the name of the mythical white elephant of the King of the Gods, Indra). AIRAVAT stands for Autonomous Integrated, Rural, Adaptive Vehicle for All Terrains. The objective is of course to convert rural India into a glorious economic miracle with the deployment of thousands of AIRAVATs.

I have been reminded of Simha and his AIRAVAT recently when Intel announced Eduwise, the low-cost laptop for education, and I heard rumors that the Government of India (some ministry or the other) has placed initial orders. Why is this fascination with PCs and laptops? Why do we believe that if we give one laptop to every child all our educational woes will disappear? I guess learning from history is hard because history is not well known, given that teaching and research in humanities is in the pits in India. Not surprisingly, similar folly was committed by many in medieval India. Instead of PCs, horses were the white elephants of those days.

The role of cavalry in armed conflict has at least a 2500 year old history. The battle between the victorious Alexander and the defeated Porus is the story of the battle between the horses and the elephants. More recently and much further down south, the import of horses from Arabia was the top expenditure item for many kingdoms. Unlike in north India, where local breeds of horses (the Marwari, Manipuri, Kathiawari, etc.), the south had no native horses.
The successive emergence of large empires centered in the North was attributed to the presence of cavalry as a key part of the armed forces and hence the the creation and maintenance of a cavalry was given top priority by any empire-building aspirant in the south. The result was a long standing and profitable trade for the Arabs in horses. For instance, the Pandya kingdom in South India was importing about 2000 horses every year from Arab traders! (By a strange and not so strange coincidence, I found this information in the blog of a real person named Airavat Singh with a website!) The key feature that is of interest to us today is the fact that Arab horses never bred well in India nor did they live long. the reasons cited for this poor state of affairs (from the Indian perspective) is that the horses couldn't survive the humid and hot conditions, used as they were to the dry environment of the Arabian peninsula. The second reason is
the lack of skills in managing horses by the natives. For obvious reasons, the Arabs kept these skills to themselves.

Thus huge investments in horses were made in the hope that the armed forces will be empowered. This trend continued even when the cavalry ceased to be the prime edge in the battlefield. The innovative and entrepreneurial Tippu Sultan was among the few who looked for alternate options for military superiority. The chronicle of how he created long range rocket technology, how he won several battles with the British because of the rockets (in combination with several other military tactics), and how Tippu's rocket is credited with helping the British win the battle of Trafalgar could be found elsewhere (Lecture by Prof. Roddam Narasimha.)
We are still looking at PCs and laptops to win our battles in the IT field. Hence peddlers of such wares continue to entice us with 'low-cost' versions of these just so that they continue to get revenues from outdated products which will support their dominance in the leading edge arsenal. In education, may be there is no need for PCs. Maybe it is about simply adding a boiled egg to the mid-day meal. May be we need to invent our own rockets. But whatever else, we certainly need to read history.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


ICT in education: What works?

I have written about what does not work in education: OLPC, NIIT-type computer training in schools, etc. Obviously, it is very easy to find fault with what others are doing but much, much
axiom: The involvement of teachers,
especially in determining the content and the way in which the content is taught, is key to the success of any ICT intervention.

This appears obvious but, like all simple axioms, missed completely by most people in practice. Many failed attempts at using computers in education, use a model where content (usually flashy multimedia) is created by some centralised 'pedagogic and content creation experts', boxed into CDs and shipped to school teachers who are expected to dole out this content in predetermined (by the same experts) quantities and schedules to the children. A sriking example of such a failed attempt is Schoolnet, a Bangalore based company that was funded to the tune of several hundred crores of rupees, but which eventually failed since, in my view, it ignored this key axiom.

My basis for this axiom is simple: any teacher who takes her job seriously and with passion will hate to be told by some nameless wiseguy what she should reach, how she should teach and in what order, on a daily basis. Teachers who are just holding a job and earning a salary, will not care either way: if told by higher authorities to run through a flashy presentation and animation, they will do it with the same monotony that they suffuse their normal 'reading from the presectibed text' mode of teaching. For the net effect this has on school children, I will rather have such teachers continue their monotonous routine than invest in rapidly depreciating computer assets. At least, kids have figured out already how to deal with such teachers and they will not have to invent new ways to cope with teachers who are armed with computers and gadgets.

OK, let us look at positive experiences that support the axiom.

PicoPeta Simputers was involved over a year with two schools in Chhattisgarh on a project funded by the South Asia Foundation. The broad goal was to deploy Simputers in education. Some raw logs of our experience can be found at. I have not spent time to extract learnings from this experience and I hope to do so during the course of these blogs.

We had no clear idea of what Simputers could do for school kids. But our mandate was to find out by real experience rather than based on theories and hence we went with an open mind.
We had several learning scenarios and applications on the Simputer and discussed these with the teachers. Several suggestions were made, and one of the most rewarding was the following.

The teachers asked for something very simple: how can they teach English better? The background to this request is that the Governement of Chhattisgarh had recently made English compulsory from the first grade.
Our teachers were young and enthusiastic, but were ill equipped in English. They could understand English reasonably well and could speak in broken English, the same level of competence as my Hindi!

We took this simple challenge and came back with a simple solution: A 'authoring tool' on the PC using which the teacher could enter any English text: prose or poem or whatever the teacher wanted to teach to her class. Afetr typing the text, a text-to-speech (TTS) system was used to listen to the same text spoken out. The teacher
could add pauses where necessary. Once she was happy, the lesson was then loaded on the twenty -odd Simputers. This was done in a separate teachers' room.

In the class, each Simputer was shared by two kids. By selecting a line or a paragraph and tapping a speak button, the selected text was spoken out, in excellent Queen's English (we used public domain TTS system called flite
and selected the British accent). Each child (and the teacher!) could listen to the text any number of times in the privacy of their seat, or huddled in a corner or wherever, till the material was learned. Once the material was learned by everyone, the teacher loaded in a fresh batch of text. Since the data constitutes just text, and the TTS is performed by the Simputer, a very large amount of text could be available on the machine before new data is needed. But the choice was left to the teacher.

Of course listening to the text being read out does not constitute English learning, but one has to consider the fact that prior to this solution, there was no one even to do the proper reading. And the solution we created allowed the teacher the freedom to select what text will be used, based on the level and material appropriate for her class.
I cannot imagine similar impact being created by any centrally planned content creation and delivery model.

We also created some other tools that helped in the teaching of parts of speech, but the key learning from this experience is the teachers axiom itself.

Monday, June 12, 2006


OLPC: the technology scam of the century?

I have been waiting to see if there are other unbiased minds out there that will stand up and call the bluff. But looks like the marketing juggernaut of Prof. Negroponte is rolling on. I heard from a reliable source that he even made a presentation to the Planning Commission of India to rope them to support his project. But before we proceed, let us get some background material.

The OLPC, or One Laptop Per Child, project was proclaimed by Prof. Negroponte in Davos in 2005, as the ultimate solution to the digital divide that is keeping technology away from the deserving kids in the under-developed world. To the uninitiated, this is the self-same Prof. Negroponte of MIT Media Lab that sold the white elephant by the name of Media Lab Asia a few years ago to the Government of India, that cost the taxpayers upwards of Rs 75 crores, spent in a year with no results to show. Bolstered by the positive experience (positive, from his perspective, since the Media Lab at MIT got a cool few million dollars of Indian tax payer's
money as royalty from the Government of India, in a period were Media Lab was starved of funds from its traditional sources in the US industry), Prof. Negroponte has now gone global. His scheme is as follows: the whiz-kids working with Prof. Negroponte come up with a laptop that includes bright colored boxes, with some crank shaft for powering the machine, and a nice color display, and Linux (or some other open source) as OS, priced at, hold your breath, US$ 100! But there is a string attached. In fact it is so long and large that string is an understatement.

Here is the attachment. The US$ 100 price will be true when volumes touch close to a hundred million. So who will buy the first thousand and at what price. Here is where Prof. Negroponte is creative, and based on his marketing might, bold: he is applying his magic on gullible countries around the world to entrap nations to committing to buy a minimum of one million units, and pay the money in advance. Not only that, he will wait till he accumulates fully paid orders for at least about 10 to 15 million before he will commence production. If you read the assorted items on the web about the status of the hardware, you hear periods ranging from late 2006 to early 2007, for 'first generation' version, and the second generation being planned with future chipsets from AMD as well as future screen technology.

Let us do a simple arithmetic: 1 million units is "the entry ticket" (as proclaimed by Prof. Negroponte), and at the quoted price of US$100, a government has to shell out a cool $100 Million dollars in advance and await shipment.

And if he succeeds in convincing governments of "China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, Thailand, and other countries", and gets orders for about 10 million units, he is sitting on a US$ 1 Billion pile. If it takes a year or two to deliver the machines after the payment is made, the cost per device is already 250$ to the governments.

No mention has been made as to what software will ship with the machine, what applications will be appropriate and useful for the one million children to whom the OLPC are to be given "free of cost" by the said government, how will teachers integrate the presence of such an intrusive device in the school, what content is avaialble in what language and what time frame to justify the introduction of such a machine in the daily life of a student, and a host of other issues, that anyone who is familiar with the environment in the schools of a country like India will easily come up with, after ten minutes of thinking. However, the hype is on the "100-dollar laptop". If I was part of MIT, I will be deeply worried and embarassed by such snake-oil marketing from one of its faculty. Fortunately, I am told that Prof. Negroponte has already left MIT to be full time with the non-profit that he has launched for this effort.

There are so many assumptions, claims and presumptions in this marketing mela that one is hardpressed to select a facet to criticize. That is probably why there are no sceptical voices
out there yet: people are simply dumbstruck by the audacity of the claims.

I certainly need a series of posts to back up my strong criticism. Let me try to separate the factors into two: technical and non-technical.
Technical, not from hardcore technology, but from the point of technology for education, and in particular whether OLPC is the appropirate technology for the intended end result. I will discuss this in susequent posts. In this post, let me hint at the non-technical objections to the OLPC.

Let me start of with the basic assumption: one laptop per child. This assumption comes with so much baggage that it is extremely hard to counter. The assumption that ownership, especially individual ownership, is key, even if the individual in question is a child, is so natural for anyone in the US that it is assumed that it is true for everyone else. The example quoted by Prof. Negroponte in justification for ownership is esecpially striking: ¨Have you ever washed a rented car?¨ Individual ownership of cars was pushed so heavily by car manufacturers in the US in the early twentieth century, so successfully, that ownership of a car is a key element of the American dream. This success has had tremendous negative impact on public transportation, the environment, and the economy of the US. We are now looking at OLPC!

That sharing of resources is a key necssesity of survival in every developing country has been
completely ignored, but it is obviously so
since neither Prof. Negroponte nor any of the whiz kids building the devices have any idea about the ground reality at the countries where they are targeting their design. This is of course not to question the committment and passion of the developers to the cause or their obvious technical brilliance.

Second, if OLPC is so good, why is the target audience entirely in the so called developing world? Is OLPC not good enough for the kids in the US or have we already achieved the aim of providing one lap top per every child in the US?
My suspicion is that so many schools and school districts have burnt their fingers by investing unsuccessfully in computer technology over the past decade that they are extremely wary of such blatant hype and so Prof. Negroponte is focussing on the gullible market.

Third, one million OLPC units is a drop in the ocean for a country like India. The big question then emerges; Which one million children will suddenly become owners of this brigtly colored devices? The glib assumption is that the government of India (if it falls far this trap) is responsible for distributing these units to the children in India. Given the abysml track record of governments in India over the past sixty years in disbursing ANY benfit with any sense of equality and social justice, OLPC will
just add one more explosive into the already
charged atmosphere. Having been an Indian all these years, I can tell you what will happen: US$ 100 Million worth of OLPCs will be in some warehouse while a series of highpower committees decide the complex arithmetic that will decide how these units will be distributed. The arithmetic will have region, language, caste, economic status, monthly income of parents, number of PCs in the household etc., as parmaeters and will require that the beneficiary child produce a set of documents in triplicate attested by the Tashildar before the OLPC is issued. There will also be a state level monitoring committee.... You get the picture. Now what were the OLPCs supposed to do? ... Hmm..., Oh, help the kid shine in school.

I suspect the situation is similar or much worse (for eg. in South Africa) in all the other countries that are the first level target of this marketing juggernaut. More soon...

Disclosure: I have strong reasons to be biased against the MediaLab: The money taken away by the Media Lab Asia project was ten times more than the funding that we were asking the Ministry of ICT for the Simputer project at the same time. The entire pie was given away to the MLA project, depriving funding for the Simputer project at a critical stage.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Alternative for native soldiers: become nawabs!

There is a serious alternative for the much maligned (in this blog) well trained young men and women of India other than being soldiers of Indian or multinational armies. In fact the smartest of them start out as being soldiers, quickly learn the art of war and conquest and very soon set out to establish territories of their own and proclaim themselves as worthy Nawabs or Queens. There are some who are well known and others not so well known. From my perspective in this blog, several of these soldiers turned Nawabs are changing the way ICT impacts our own society. Let me illustrate with the story of QunatumAeon, a Bangalore based
product company.

Quantum has been started and run by Brindavan Balaji and Naveen Mukundan for about ten years now. Both Balaji and Naveen were soldiers turned commanders in an India army (ADS, a company specialising in embedded systems), before deciding to strike out on their own.

Today Aeon directly and positively impacts on the lives of the much talked about common man.

Travel by any of the KSRTC (Karnataka State Road transport corporation) and you will find the conductor using a handheld device to print out a ticket for you. At the end of the day, the conductor uploads the day's data, gets a summary trip sheet and hands over the cash and leaves.

There are two categories of common-man involved in the above scenario: the bus passenger and the bus conductor. For the passenger, there is the novelty of a printed ticket and the confidence that a 'computer' and not the conductor is calculating and issuing a ticket. To understand why this is important, those of us who have not traveled recently in such a bus need some background: Passengers can get on a KSRTC bus at many stages. Depending on the stage and the destination, depending on whether there is any toll bridge/road on the route, depending on the value of the ticket, the conductor has to tear of leaves from several ticket books. For example, for a ticket of Rs. 76, there needs to be a fifty rupee slip, two ten rupee slips, a five rupee slip and a one rupee slip. In addition, if there is toll involved, an additional one rupee slip has to be issued.

If there are five passengers in a group, this has to be repeated five times and a total of 30 individual ticket slips had to be issued. Then the total money to be collected, the change to be given back are to be computed. The smarter ones do it in their head and the others use a small pocket calculator.

All of this is now replaced with a few punches of keys and out comes a single ticket, with all the details printed. Thus the passengers get their ticket quickly. The change for the conductors is much more powerful: all the above complications are removed and the issue of tickets no longer involve fairly complex understanding of routes and tariffs, and manipulation of multiple ticket books, but just a few simple key operations.

Add to this another powerful positive. To keep the conductors honest in terms of issuing the correct tickets and depositing the collection to the corporation, rather than keeping it to themselves, a standard fixture in every bus corporation in India are the traveling bus ticket inspectors, who randomly check passengers to see if they have been issued tickets, but more carefully inspect the ticket slips of the conductor to see if tickets have been issued properly based on the above details. A complex process like the above, even with the best intentions can go wrong and the conductor will then have to deal with the ticket inspector. Now
the complete details are available on the handheld terminal and the ticket inspector is no longer a major factor in the life of the conductor.
At the end of the day, instead of a long process of reconciliation of all the tickets olsd and the money collected, it is a few minutes of upload on to the back end machine, a printed travel sheet with total amount to be deposited, and the conductor is ready to go home. No wonder that the KSRTC is now using about 11,000 ticketing handhelds and is expected to scale up to about 15,000 in the next few months.

For the corporation, the cost savings on just the stationary is expected to pay back the cost of the new technology in one year! And the cost of training a new conductor on the handheld devices is much lower than on traditional methods, since the complexity of the stages and routes and the ticketing required lot of practice and on-the-bus training. A new conductor can be up and ticketing after a two-day training. With such improved efficiencies come long-term benefits to the passengers in terms of improved service at reduced costs and improved travel comforts. A multi-faceted win-win scenario!

Balaji and Naveen had to struggle for several years to make the current situation a reality. Theirs is far from a mega-success story. But their territory is well established, has the respect of the consumers and the competition, and brings to them the satisfaction of taking their technology training directly to the service of thousands of fellow-citizens.

The key to their success is their ability to understand the local market, the requirements, the stringent operating environments, both in terms of technology and human factors and the complex interrelationships and to innovate to meet the requirements.

In India today, there are many such kingdoms waiting to be established! And unlike the kings in the bygone past, the survival and growth of one king need not always have to come from the vanquishing of others. Many kings and nawabs can coexist in the same domain, and in fact, thrive if they cooperate. But that is a different story.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Computers in Schools: Clothing the future emperors of the IT Superpower?

The recent announcement by NIIT, Intel and Microsoft, in conjunction with the State Bank of India sends shivers down my spine. A short summary of the announcement is that the above four entities plan to extract Rs 1000 crores from the parents of children in about 1000 private schools in India over the next two years. Depending on how successful they are in this phase, they plan to target a further 8000 such schools. In return, they intend to implement "IT and IT-assisted education" in these schools.

The gullibility of parents and the mass marketing muscle of the first three organisations are directly to be blamed for such criminal waste of scarce resources.
These three entities, have successfully implanted in the minds of most educated
and aspiring parents in India that there is a three step path to riches and glory: "do computer" in schools, then do a NIIT diploma and then work as a programmer in an MNC. I do not know where to start in countering the weight of this huge propaganda that is ably assisted by the government, agencies like NASSCOM, and the media.

Over the past several years countless crores of rupees have been spent in setting up computer labs in schools across the country. A very popular elective of Computer Science has been introduced for the eleventh and twelfth standard, which most 'bright' students opt for as a replacement to biology. The computer science syllabus of the otherwise very enlightened CBSE makes it very clear that computer science is equated to the process of learning to manipulate a computer and the use of various software packages (the most sophisticated of which being MS Power Point) as a minimum, and graduating to being able to program either in Visual C or Visual C++ as the ultimate pinnacle of accomplishment. And if a student acquires on the side the title of MCP (no, not what you think, but Microsoft Certified Programmer), then his parents become ecstatic and give interviews to newspapers.

I can not attempt to better the description of Professor Jeannette Wing of CMU,
in an article Computational Thinking published in the Communications of the ACM, a leading publication of the computer science community, on what computer science is.
It is just three pages long, and it is worth reading once if you are a non-tech type, and worth reading twice if you are a tech type. And for once, I will heartily recommend a chain mail with this article as its content. Please forward this to friends, especially if they are working for either Intel, Microsoft or NIIT:-) Most likely, the decision makers are clearly aware of the distinction and that is why there is a specific use of the phrase "IT and IT-assisted" instead of computer science.

Sadly, even most engineering colleges in India that offer computer science degrees
have no real grasp of what computer science is and we now have a public-sector bank funded initiative to thrust computers down students' throats in schools.

There is a double tragedy here: parents who can afford to, buy computers (never low-cost machines, but only the most recent, highest speed processor, fastest graphics, etc., that the market has to offer). Parents who cannot easily afford computers, stretch, sacrifice and buy PCs at home in the hope that they have provided the best for their children. In addition, such parents also pay huge amounts of money to put their children through private schools that provide enlightened education, which are simply those schools that claim to offer "IT and IT-enabled education".

Parents of children that can neither afford to buy computers nor send their children to enlightened schools are the target of government policies and that attempt to
bring technology into education. With the result, governments spend thousands of crores providing the very same "IT and IT-enabled education" to government schools
as well. The only constant in all of these expenditures is that the recipients
are Intel, Microsoft and NIIT!

The second tragedy is that by introducing computer labs in schools, most intelligent
and creative students are turned off from computer science, just as most students who have gone through the horrors of a physics lab or a chemistry lab in school, never want to go anywhere near the basic sciences. Students that can thrive in rote learning excel in school computer labs and these are the very same students who become very successful as part of the celebrated 'workforce' in IT and IT-enabled services!

The only novelty in the recent announcement is the fact that SBI has jumped in to this bandwagon, which is a clear statement of the low-risk nature of this project. No one is going to complain, and there will be recurring revenues for all parties concerned since every three years the current set of machines and software will be declared as "un-enlightened", by three of the above four parties. The parents of successful children will be happy that their early efforts and sacrifices have paved the way for success for their children. The parents of the not-so-successful parents will bemoan the fact that in spite of the best education that they have given to their children, they have not succeeded as expected and point out a range of reasons for this, not one of them will be that they placed their bet wrongly on "IT and IT-assisted education".

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