The Great Arc

In history, regimes can’t be classified in binary. Their activities, actions and achievements have to be summed contextually. Even then, without accounting for multiple perspectives, judging a regime as good or bad should not ensue.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey

The British rule of India is one such regime which evoke extreme opinions. The Brits, from most accounts, did run their government in a typically high handed manner.

However, one cannot but admire their steadfastness and rigor in the pursuit of scientific exploration.

This is best highlighted in the book “The Great Arc” by John Keay which traces a century of work to measure the length and breadth of India. This is a book that must be made compulsory reading in high schools across the world, for it lays bare, a story on how humans satiated their thirst for knowledge in a still primitive age, how they overcame all odds while achieving their goals and finally how they strove for perfection in the middle of very trying circumstances.

Some notes from the book –

  • The whole business of measuring India’s “geodesy” started from Mysore after Tipu’s fall.
  • In the absence of any “droogs” (durga) near Tanjore, how they tried to use the Brihadeeswara Temple’s arch to mount their theodolite and how it fell damaging the instrument. (There is however no mention of any possible damages to the temple arch.)
  • In complete contrast, they do not even attempt to make use of the Taj Mahal fearing that it might be harmed.
  • George Everest looked condescendingly towards his boss William Lambton’s assistants Joshua de penning, Joseph Olliver, William Rossenrode as they were “mestizoes” or half-caste Britons. (a la Muhajirs?)
  • Radhanath Sickdhar, who was the Chief Computer towards the later part of the Survey, did not necessarily discover the peaks as is widely believed in India. His was a relatively smaller, but significant role in measuring the peaks while based in Calcutta.

The humongous magnitude of the survey can be probably inferred from the fact, that the persons who took charge after Everest retired and completed the survey probably weren’t even born when the survey was conceived by William Lambton.

Another important fact to be noted is that this survey was entirely bankrolled by the East India Company as a precursor to their expansion activities in India. This could be an indication to the amount of profits they may have been making from India.

Overall, a very important story for totally different reasons and perspectives. Only hope somebody writes a similar book on the Great Indian Railway.

The day when I practised “Mentalism”

 

Probably the earliest instance of telepathy :-p
Probably the earliest instance of telepathy :-p

The other day I was watching a show on mentalism on National Geographic. Though sceptical about such shows most of which seem to be staged nowadays, I couldn’t help but remember my own tryst with accidental telepathy, way back in high school.

It was the Doordarshan era and interesting shows were only a handful. “Turning Point” hosted by Girish Karnad was a favorite. That show had a Q&A section handled by Prof Yashpal. We could write our questions in a postcard and send it to them. They would choose questions using some heuristics and answer them in the show.

I was (am) a voracious reader and I read about some guys in a novel who were communicating with each other via “telepathy”. I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about telepathy and how it worked. I wrote my question in a postcard and posted it. And forgot all about it for some months.

One day, my English teacher at school asked me if my question about telepathy was answered in the show. I was flabbergasted. I hadn’t talked about my curiosity about telepathy with anybody and wondered how did my teacher knew about it. I asked her.

She gave a bewildered look and asked me, “You did tell me telepathically about your question and that you had posted your card”. Taken aback, I started thinking about when I did that and how did that happen. I was amazed with myself for having been able to transmit messages mentally. I was also wary about having amnesia. Maybe I had discussed this with my teacher and had forgotten about it. On all accounts, my mind was in a free whirl the whole day and a couple of days after.

After a week, my teacher gave me a postcard. That was my own postcard in which I had written my question and had posted it to Turning Point.

It turned out that I hadn’t posted it after all. Me and my teacher both used to go the public library in our neighbourhood to read and borrow books. I had written the postcard and must have kept it inside one of those books. My teacher had accidentally come across that postcard and used it to pull my leg.

I did send my question after that, but I guess Prof. Yashpal didn’t know the answer after all 😀

Image – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gaurangapada/383469953/in/photolist-zTofV

Solstice at Panipat

The_Third_battle_of_Panipat_13_January_1761

Reading the book “Solstice at Panipat” made me reflect upon the fact about how history takes a bird’s eye view of one’s lifetime. And how most of how details of the events that shape up are lost either in the humongous amount of din or in the lack of.

A veritable time machine, the book by Dr Uday S Kulkarni threw open doors to the not so distant past, hitherto little known to me. Probably I’m not the only one whose knowledge of the Marathas (and India) is so less. History in school was so dry.

It is my firm belief that, history or any story for that matter cannot be clearly described only in black and white, but always in shades of grey. The book too reinforces this belief.

It was a revelation of sorts to learn that the Marathas were responsible for the security of the Mughal empire. As was learning about the impervious relations between the Rajputs and the Marathas.

Malhar Rao Holkar and Najib Khan seem to be the key nobles of the time who made a difference. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if Malhar Rao Holkar would not have protected Najib Khan. Probably Abdali wouldn’t have come to India, and the Marathas would have established much more control over the whole of North India. And this might have helped blocking the English from gaining a foot hold and later extending their presence in the whole of India.

Another salient point that could be gleaned is the fact that most of India was under constant turmoil during the same time European countries were experiencing relative calm in their mainland. This probably explains the lack of industrial advancement in India as compared to Europe and America though we were quite advanced in fields like architecture, medicine, etc.

The amount of research that has gone into writing the book, contrasts with the abysmal level of analysis and general lack of application by other well known contemporary historians.

The only criticism that I can think of is that in the midst of the narration, references are made asynchronously which made it difficult to follow. But then, just explaining things chronologically would have made it yet another high school textbook.

The book and the author are an inspiration for students of Indian history. And a must buy and read. (The author himself has published it. Hence, the recommendation to buy and support)

I also posted this on Good Reads –https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1533247057?book_show_action=false

Rethinking the Indian Telecom Sector

I have been observing the Telecom/Internet Infastructure in India both as a former vendor to service providers and also as a customer. I am of the firm opinion that in its current state, the sector will not grow and also shall hinder the progress of the rest of the country by not fulfilling its role as a connectivity provider.

I feel it is time to break the sector proactively and nudge it to bring in disruptive innovation.

Run-down Telecom Infrastructure

The Indian telecom sector is bridled with so many inefficiencies. The telecom companies have no incentives to create innovative offerings, let alone raise their quality of services.

Entangled sector
Entangled sector

Part of the problem might lie in the fact that creating infrastructure for a pan-India telecom service from the ground up is a huge task. Maintaining whatever infrastructure that has been created is even more of a nightmare.

Every telecom company in every circle needs to dig ditches across cities, towns and villages. Along highways, waterways, railways but mostly in the air on tree tops, roof-tops and even on electricity poles. The CapEx sunk on this infrastructure goes waste many a times, due to the whims and fancies of individual local bodies who decide to fix a road, dig a tunnel or just embark upon some ‘developmental’ work. The fuel costs that goes into powering the diesel generators, inverters for the base stations and repeaters easily consume most of the OpEx.

With the infrastructure in such a mess, no wonder consumers are short-changed or presented with a lack of alternatives.

There are other issues that contribute to the mess too. The state-owned telecom companies serve more as India’s equivalent of a Social Security program rather than efficient and innovative Service Providers. Even ignoring probable corruption, the very nature of their slow and staid operations does a huge disservice to the young and dynamic nation.

Suggestions for a viable and efficient sector

Now, after a thorough panning of the existing situation, here are some suggestions for fixing the sector.

Photograph by Ken Banks
Efficient Infrastructure

Break the state-owned operators into two parts initially – one, to pool all their infrastructure assets, the second to hold all their operations including subscriptions, plans, etc. The operations part could be further broken into smaller units – a la Baby Bells.

The infrastructure, including highly valuable land, buildings, country wide fiber, last mile copper, etc should be vested with a new company probably called – The National Communications Infrastructure Company. All the private operators should also be asked to hand over their infrastructure assets for a corresponding stake in the new company. This company to be run by professional management drawn from the government, private businesses, academics should be the sole custodian of creating, maintaining and innovating country wide communications infrastructure.

From no MVNOs to only MVNOs

A Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) builds consumer services on top of leased infrastructure – both last mile and upstream. Currently, India has no MVNOs by design.

The Infrastructure Company should be able to lease out the infrastructure to all the existing players under a compulsory mandate. All existing telecom operators should transition to become MVNOs.

With the costs of capital coming down, there could be new special purpose MVNOs who provides only B2B services, M2M services (very relevant in the context of 100 Smart Cities/IoT),

P2P services. With decreased responsibilities, and increased focus, the new Infrastructure Company as well as the new MVNos are bound to innovate and create valuable products and services for their users. The consumers benefit from a decent competition and reliable services.

The society at large is benefitted by a decrease in the number of road-cutters. Mother earth will be happy because of reduced pollution.


Credits:

  • McKay Savage (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mckaysavage/3921003774/)
  • Ken Banks (https://www.flickr.com/photos/kiwanja/3170290086/)
  • All logos for representation purposes only

Bazaar in the Cathedral – Changing faces of Open Source Software

Bazaar and the Cathedral

Some time ago – not too long ago – contributors to Open Source Software – nay Free Software – used to be highly motivated geeks mainly driven by the need to scratch their personal itch. Swarms of such geeks got together in the nascent stages of the Internet and built solutions such as GNU tools, Linux, Apache, Sendmail, Perl, Python, Ruby, GNOME, Debian, Slackware, etc. More importantly they built communities. LUG meets, Install fests, mailing lists, IRC were the places that inspired and helped Free/Open Source Software take roots.

And that was when individuals were looked upon with great respect and celebrated amongst these communities as heroes for creating cutting-edge software. A Marcelo Tosatti, who at a ripe age of 18 would decide what features would go into the Linux kernel, an Alan Cox, whose decision to take a sabbatical to study management caused a few ripples, Miguel de Icaza whose influence and contributions were stuff that made legends, Rasmus Ledorf, Monty Widenius, Brian Behlendorf, Richard M Stallman – names among others who were recognized and who inspired thousands others to contribute their mite to Open Source. This was what Eric S Raymondtermed as the Bazaar as opposed to the proprietary and big company Cathedral model.

Cut to the present. Open Source Software is mainly driven by commercial interests. Contributions based on an individual’s interest has decreased radically. Developers responsible for path-breaking tools and packages are no longer recognized by name. Instead, a Hadoop is Yahoo’s Open Source project, Go was written at Google, Docker, Chrome, etc where the individual’s name is lost in a marketing scheme of things.

So, is this change a bad thing? Has the community interest lost out to commercial interests? Are individuals no more motivated to contribute? Do idealism driven interests matter anymore?

I believe that this change has benefited the community as a whole. When there was minimal or no commercial interest in the open source software that one contributed to, the individual’s interests had to be subsidized by the organization he worked at. Hence the profiles of the contributors were more like academicians (eg Alexey Kuznetsov), students (eg Linus Torvalds), hobbyists (eg Bruce Perens) or committed idealists (eg Richard Stallman).

With companies, corporations and non-profits backing newer open source projects, there is a slew of cutting edge technologies available for everybody to use and improve.

  • This has ensured that the same technologies that helped Google gain scale and solve problems are available to some students in a remote town in India to cut their teeth with.
  • This has helped seed thousands of startups who wouldn’t need to license expensive technologies just to attempt and realize their ideas.
  • This has helped lay consumers who use such open source technologies without knowing its technical intricacies. (eg Android).

This has also helped companies and corporations benefit from the value additions other companies/individuals make to the projects. Corporations also stand to gain from a huge talent pool that have already demonstrated their expertise using the same tools that their engineering teams use. It also helps that these open source software face almost no entry barriers into billion-dollar companies, which earlier was the case.

Nowadays, it is a given that the platform of choice for any application to be developed has to be invariably open source (Linux, Chrome, MySQL, NodeJS, etc). Free/Open Source Software also levels the playing fields for different sized companies alike.

So, the changing face of Open Source Software development from a Cathedral to a Bazaar to a Bazaar-in-the-Cathedral model has had a profound impact and is definitely benefiting the community as a whole.

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andycastro/3759276819

First posted on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20140923102328-37393827-bazaar-in-the-cathedral-changing-faces-of-open-source-software-development

Comments on the Government’s Draft Open Source Policy

It is heartening to note that the new Government is trying hard to involve people in more and more of their policy initiatives[1]. One such initiative is their “Policy on Collaborative Application development by Opening the source code of Applications“.[2]

Since I have extensive experience working with Government Organizations to deploy various solutions, I take the liberty to comment and suggest some points that augment the central idea in their draft policy.

Need for standardization and simplification:

The foremost problem I see in order to create a culture of developing and using open source components are complex rules. Though there has been a start, a lot more simplification of rules is the need of the hour. In my experience, though we started out with a good set of documented processes, we finally ended up translating Swamy’s Handbooks and Manuals to Software Code. Very obviously the software turned out to be heavily customized for the usage of the organization.
Simplified and standardized processes across government organizations help in developing reusable and easily maintainable code. This, I think is a must do to encourage proliferation of open source culture.

A cloud based platform for apps
One of the main problems, most Government organization face is that they do not usually have dedicated IT personnel and even the ones they have are inundated with a lot of work. This leads to under-maintenance, support starved and no motivation to use scenarios.

A cloud based platform similar (in concept) to Salesforce[3] could go a long way in helping developers integrate components and solutions quickly, while easing maintenance nightmares for the organizations. Of course, the platform should be based on Open Source stacks.

Style Guides, Aesthetic Sense and Intuitive Design
Currently User Interfaces, most documentation (including this Draft Policy) suffer from just a “adequate-is-enough” syndrome. Recently there was an instance which made the rounds on social media, where a printout of a spreadsheet was pasted in another spreadsheet (for compliance) and circulated. As long as the real benefits of “digital” content is not realized by the user community, most of the efforts go useless.

Towards this, educating users, compiling and compelling adherence to style guides, inculcating an aesthetic sense towards creating content should be invested upon. Developers need to prioritize intuitive design, localization from the ground up for gaining maximum value from these efforts.

The Policy should consider these factors and put in a set of holistic guidelines, so that the entire program can be sustained and expanded.

Background:
I worked as a contractor for BARC, CSB, University of Mysore, BSNL to develop their e-Governance and other software for almost 10 years since 2001-2011. For most of them, I began by convincing them of the need to use open source software. I also committed to deliver and delivered the source code for software I developed.

  1. http://mygov.in/
  2. http://mygov.in/uploads/documents/Draft_Policy_on_Source_Open_Collaborative_Application_Development.pdf
  3. https://developer.salesforce.com/

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rooreynolds/8574509123/

Frugal Innovation and Android One

Frugal Innovation

Android One looks to be the perfect example for global companies pondering overFrugal Innovation. The project seems to have got quite a few things absolutely right.

  • The consumer price point seems to be just right to target the lower and the middle income population which is a significant chunk of India’s whole.
  • The assembly is done locally by local partners.
  • The specs look highly competitive.
  • The software and some features are tuned to Indian needs and sensibilities.

Though they do not make money directly, Google’s monetization strategy from services like Search, Youtube, Mail look pretty sound and they should add significantly to their bottom-line from these markets. Especially since they could have a first movers advantage in the nascent vernacular markets.

There is an obvious lesson here for tackling the ‘Emerging Markets’ conundrums that lot of product teams in global companies face.

  • Deciding what features to strip so as to de-value their cutting edge innovations to make it affordable in these markets (eg Car manufacturers)
  • Bringing their innovations as-is with a significant cost reduction and risk “brand dilution”.
  • Sell products targeting a premium and niche customer base and fail to gain suitable market traction.

Google seems to have found a solution for all these difficulties and might just go on to create a customer base of the next 5 billion smartphone users.

Can this be a template for others? Only time can decide.

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/scalino/14481111075/in/set-72157644891694137

Originally posted on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20140916110024-37393827-frugal-innovation-and-android-one

Apple should buy Amazon. Here’s why!

Well, not the whole, but their entire technology division – including cloud and hardware.

‘Apple is a great hardware company, but are clueless when it comes to software’ – is an opinion that is shared across the industry and has almost become a cliché. This may not be really true as they were the ones who figured out how to adapt Unix for desktop usage.

However, when it comes to building data-driven products and services, their capabilities seem to be woefully inadequate. Even their cloud engineering prowessseem to be still lacking.

OTOH, Amazon is almost a monopoly when it comes to IaaS and PaaS. Also, their technologies are now deemed standard, with rival efforts like OpenStack copying their API, heuristics, etc. But, Amazon seems to be hitting quite a few blockers when it comes to consumer hardware. Though Kindle is by far their most popular hardware, the other devices haven’t captured consumers imagination like it has for Apple’s products. Amazon’s efforts at replicating Google’s services like Play, Store, etc have been pathetic with very few takers.

Amazon’s cloud services are the first choice for developers and start-ups when it comes to the cloud/backend services. Apple’s iOS platform is the first choice for developers when it comes to building apps and MacOS is increasingly the personal OS of choice for both developers and casual users.

Technical synergies aside, Amazon has been having quite a lot of problemsincreasing their profit margins. While most of their costs are attributed to the investments being sunk into developing new products, their retail operations seem to be making quite some money.

As on date, Apple(AAPL)’s market cap is around USD 640B and had cash reserves of about USD 160B last summer. In comparison, the entirety of Amazon (AMZN)’s market cap is around USD 142B. Though nobody knows the valuation of their technology business, some estimates say it might be around USD 50B by 2015. So Apple can easily afford to buy Amazon’s technology division and still have cash to burn.

Jeff Bezos could use some other muse. Not that he is short of them already!