Sunday, November 20, 2005


High-return Computing

Based on seven years of work looking at low-cost computing for the developing economies as an academic, and four years of market experience in this area as the CEO of PicoPeta Simputers, I can say with considerable authority that

Low-cost computing is a red herring.

Let me use a concrete experience to illustrate.
Harvest data collection by the village accountants is the end task. We put together a complete solution and deployed it in 2003. The following are the components of the solution:

For ALL of the above the government of Karnataka parted with US$75,000, inclusive of everything.
Certainly very very low cost computing.

No other system integrator can offer such a solution at such low costs. So why has this project not been scaled up to cover the entire state of Karnataka (9000 village accountants)? The answer is simple: the total cost will no longer be low.

To reduce the cost of the scaled up solution, the easiest target to beat on is the hardware vendor. Witness the irrational focus on "sub-10,000 PC." The second in line are small application developers who will be asked to develop applications and provide support/upgrade/bugfix on a perpetual basis for peanuts. (Large software platform vendors like Microsoft and Oracle will get payments for their 'core software platform' much more readily). Still the cost will be about 15 crores, just for deploying the harvest data collection application across the state. Not a small amount to justify, given that there are farmers committing suicide unable to pay paltry loans of a few thousands. May be it is worth saving a hundred lives than to provide this solution.

That is why low-cost computing is a red herring.

The right question to ask is what are the returns on my investment in computing? I propose the se of the phrase "high-return computing". It allows for extensions like very high-return computing, super high-return computing and mega high-return computing and so on.

High-return computing changes the focus to the output benefits of computing, rather than the input costs. In the above scenario, the right questions to ask are the following:

Sadly, neither government, private industry, non-government or academia is exploring these aspects of computing. Each constituency is repeating their mantras and each is pulling in their own direction, all with good intent but with no overall progress.

We are all like blind men mightily pulling the ICT elephant to its destination of benefiting society. We not only don't know what it is that we are pulling, but each is pulling in its own favorite direction.

From now on I am going to work on high-return computing.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Native soldiers and software services professionals

At the height of the British Raj in India, the number of English soldiers stationed in India did not exceed several tens of thousnds. How did the East India Company first, and latter the Queen, manage to control a population of several tens of crores with such a small army? Is there any truth in the statement that one white man is equal to hundred natives? The answer is much simpler and less controversial.
The British had at their disposal armies several times the above, comprising of native soldiers, either directly under the pay of the British or indirectly controlled them through the dozens of native kings and nawabs who under various treaties had committed their troops to the service of the British.

Let us first, examine the native soldiers under British pay. We will discuss the native kings and nawabs separately. Why would anyone want to work for the invader and conqueror, especially as a soldier that will require fighting your own kith and kin. Why would anyone want to butcher their own fellow natives at the command of a foreign master? To us today, it seems so obviously unpatriotic, treacherous and the ultimate betrayal. Before we jump to such conclusions, or pass judgements, we need to view this from the perspective of the individual signing up as a soldier with the EIC.

If you were an able-bodied young man (with nothing more than a able body as your capital) looking for a promising career around the time what were your options: Join a local king's army or Join the British army. If you joined the local king's army, there are two possibilities: be deputed by that king to fight for the British Or be sent by the king to fight against the British. The former was better, since you had a much better chance of staying alive, and in taking part in the plunder and pillage. If you join the British army, you have an increased likelihood of staying alive, making more money as salary and of course incidental incentives like pillage, plunder and extortion. The most important reason however is the prestige and power that your near and dear ones assign to your position as the soldier in the rulers' army. It is a question of a decent livelihood, a means to achieve a much better quality of life than offered by most other options available, as well as a prestigious career in the view of your contemporaries.

We can be judgmental about it, but to the individual making a choice, it is his life, his duties to his family and his hope for a better life. Let future judgement be damned! Thus a large number of able-bodied young men of the time served as British soldiers, and if they manged to get promoted and rise up the ranks, they were counted among the successful. Other, smarter men, decided to work for the British as their clerks, translators, administrative assistants, worked their way up the bureaucratic hierarchy, without risk of bodily harm, but that is a different story.

Let us now turn out attention to the more recent versions of the East India Company, namely the multinational companies (MNCs), especially in the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector. The ambition of the best young men (and women) in the country and their parents is to be recruited by one of these MNCs. The dream job of these individuals, across college campuses in the country, is to work in nice environments, large paychecks, with a well defined hierarchy and process that defines what they are expected to do every day of their work. There is no stress of having to think about what they will be doing, no risk of being asked to be creative, since the creative work gets done elsewhere.

The ICT MNCs have a global lock on the intellectual property rights (IPRs) behind every one of the key ingredients that drive computing and communication products today. These soldiers of the MNC work very hard to help these MNCs perpetuate these locks. Essentially use the cheap labour offered by these soldiers to build the next generation of products that will give the MNCs the financial muscle to maintain the status quo into the future: new technoligies and standards will be created by these companies, and developing countries like India will continue to be consumers of these. The irony will be that these new technologies will be created with the cheap labor from these same developing countries!

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Sanjoy Dasgupta

The man indirectly responsible for my interest and involvement in simpact is no more.
Sanjoy was the visionary who while conceiving of the first Bangalore
was able to think about both sides of the IT coin: the commercial and technological on one side and the impact on society on the other side. It was he who insisted
that we look at a broad-based view of the impact of ICT on developing countries: the Global Village Seminar mentioned in my first post is the result of
Sanjoy's vision. It is only Sanjoy who could have thought of the Bangalore Declaration on IT, converting what otherwise would have been just another seminar into a provoactive exercise.

It is indeed a poor homage to Sanjoy that seven years after
the above, we find the current cynical and highly politicised wranglings about the
role of IT and its impact on Bangalore and its infrastructure. There is no one either in government or in the IT industry that appear even to be thinking about
the broader aspects of ICT. During the IT boom, ICT was touted as the
silver bullet for every ailment. Today, IT is the villain for everything that ails
Bangalore, starting from overgrown and unplanend infrastructure to lack of
job opportunities to locals.

Sanjoy was one of the earliest adminsitrators, anywhere in the country, to realise
the potential of ICT. I enjoyed the time I spent with Sanjoy during the
planning and preparations of the Global Village Seminar, admired his passion for
making a positive change with ICT and have gained considerable personal satisfaction
in the road I have taken since then.

May his soul rest in peace. Knowing Sanjoy, I doubt it. I am sure he has already embarked on some passionate task wherever he is.

Good luck my friend!

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