Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My eulogy for Steve Jobs

I have been pondering over the many undoubted achievements of Steve Jobs but would have to stop short of any hagiographic treatment that he is now getting. The kind of media frenzy that is going on is absolutely unquestioned. I don't hear many contrary points of view. Was he perfect? I doubt it. While Steve Jobs has left the world a bit better than ever, do we have to put him up on a pedestal? I think not.

Despite the sleekness and the universal appeal of his products, I have to say I have never owned one except for the lowly Apple Touch (an iPhone-, something between an iPod and an iPhone). Frankly, I found no great value in this particular product and I suspect this experience may have put me off Apple for ever. For example, I could never get it to work with WiFi at home. Setting the WEP/WPA pass-phrase was always an extremely frustrating exercise for me because my password was often a complex pass-phrase and not a dumb password. I finally got it right when I purchased a rubberized stylus. Did that show great usability?

Since I haven't used other Apple products since then, I cannot say how much of Apple technology I might have missed out on over the years but I do know that my freedom of choice is intact!!

I developed a wireless tablet (Mobilis) way back in 2004, several years before the famed iPad. We also developed the Simputer, a wireless PDA, way back in 1999-2000 time-frame. We developed these products around the Linux operating system. From that deep personal experience I learned more than a few lessons.

One important lesson is that product development is not always about technology, but how you market a product that separates the men from the boys. On that count, I guess I am still a curious 59-year old boy, and happy to be so!!

The other important lesson is that the consumer experience must be designed in at the foundation level of product conceptualization.

On both counts, my conclusion would be that the current iPad is a great consumer product, state-of-the-art as far as usability is concerned but well behind the technology-curve.

I would certainly give Steve full marks for developing great products and I have respect for his meticulous and relentless focus on perfection. Summary: great, elegant products with great usability features, but with severe constraints on your personal freedom.

The third lesson I learned from the Simputer and Mobilis experience is that while open-source software gives a designer the power to leverage into his product, it also passes on that power to the end-user. This is a transitive relationship which enables the product to evolve in the hands of the designer and the user. What would the user do with that enabling power is not for me to say. What would I do with freedom anyway? Is that a question that merits an answer?

I have always valued my personal freedom, and enjoyed the freedom to do whatever I want with a product once I have bought it. Whether I load incompatible applications and trash the warranty is entirely up to me.

Don't we all add our own add-ons when we purchase a set of wheels or buy a new condo? Could I get such freedom from an Apple product?

While elegance and sleekness of design are highly desirable attributes in a product, I prefer the personal freedom to do what I want with the product on which I put down my hard earned money. Is that freedom available to me with an Apple product? I have so many Android choices available to me if I want to buy a smart-phone or a wireless tablet.

As a technology-savvy person, I have no fear when I load software from different sources or something I may have developed. That is the power of the open-source. I know "open-source" is a matter of religion for many and is definitely not for the faint-of-heart. But then, freedom is also not for the faint-of-heart. Freedom has to be fought for at every step with eternal vigilance.

Isn't Apple some sort of religion too?

The obvious question I could be asked is, "how is the average user constrained in his or her freedom by purchasing an Apple product?". The counter argument I would pose to you would be another set of questions, "Why do you want to be clubbed with the average user? Why not strike out on you own and experiment. Let the product evolve and be personalized for you by you, if possible. Isn't this the freedom you exercise in your social and political decisions? If so, why get constrained when you buy a product?"

Richard Stallman couldn't have put it any better. Here is an extract from a new item I recently read somewhere:

One of Jobs' greatest critics wouldn't even honour his business achievements. Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman eulogised Jobs as "the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom."

"We all deserve the end of Jobs' malign influence on people's computing," said the high-tech renegade and father of the free software movement.

"Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective."


I don't particularly care for Steve's riding roughshod over his employees and business associates but I am concerned if as a paying user I am told there are things I cannot do with my product.

So, by all means, let us eulogize Steve Jobs as a great business leader, a great human-being and a great inventor to be respected for his contributions, but let us carefully weigh the pros and cons of freedom versus constraints.

Freedom should reign supreme!!


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shashank Garg: Folks and potential Customers, please look at open-source applications too

Shashank Garg: Folks and potential Customers, please look at open-source applications too

Folks and potential Customers, please look at open-source applications too

I cannot understand why the likes of Apple and Microsoft can generate so much passion, debate. and brouhaha. Whether Apple has overtaken Microsoft as the technology company with the largest market-cap is immaterial to me? My issue is with the predatory business models followed by leading technology corporates. Why do we as customers want to give up the freedom that certain technology corporates take away when we buy products and services from these predatory corporate giants?

Why not look at the possibilities that the open-source software model has to offer? Freedom for one. Freedom to use and do what you want to do with it? Freedom from periodic and costly upgrades. Freedom from anti-competitive lock-ins.

Isn’t that what you do when you buy any other product? You basically own the product for which you put down your hard-earned money. So, why should software be any different?

Now, look at Apple from the application developer perspective. The current Adobe Flash episode comes to mind immediately. Let us say you have a hot idea and have developed a solution for it. You want to implement your application on the popular Apple platform (iPOD, iPAD, iTunes or whatever!!). Go ahead... After all it is your idea and your freedom and privilege to do as you choose. That is what the sensible business model should be. But no, hold on, wrong assumptions.... If you want to get onto the above-mentioned platforms you must basically sign away your right to implement the same or similar solution on a competing platform. Outrageous, isn’t it? Did the platform vendor pay you to develop your solution? Was the original application your own innovative idea or did the innovative idea belong to the platform vendor?

Can I give an example from other industries? Honda and Mercedes are leading providers of auto engines to practically all competing Formula-1 platforms. They compete through the technology they have developed and have a right to migrate it to competing automotive racing platforms. That right belongs to them because they own the technology they have developed. So, why is application software any different? Shouldn't I have a right to proliferate my IT solution onto as many IT platforms as possible? I can understand having to invest in the platform provider's tools that might enable me to implement my task. But I cannot understand why I would give away my right to proliferate the solution?

So, the moot question is why would otherwise intelligent application developers give away their freedom on the intellectual property they have developed? One answer that comes to mind is short-term greed!! Instant gratification is a societal short-coming. This is a good example of it.

This aspect of succumbing to predatory corporate behavior disturbs my sense of personal freedom in the same manner as if some physical property I owned were to be taken away forcefully from me by a non-democratic government. Why would I want to let that happen to my virtual intellectual resources through the force of a one-sided corporate appropriation?

Folks and potential customers, go for open-source. If customers start looking at open-source applications and solutions with some passion and diligence they would find open-source solution developers stepping up to the pitch. Open-source solutions can be and are competitive, cost-effective and start-of-the-art.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A New Campus for Education and Research at IISc

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, has recently decided on Chitradurga, approximately 200 Km from Bangalore, for its new 1,000 acre Campus. IISc and its planners are to be congratulated for finalizing a new campus well beyond the reach of the Bangalore metropolitan region.

As the general reader may not know, IISc is the leading centre for academics and research in India. (Disclosure: I am an alumnus of IISc, and hence very interested in its growth over the next 20-30 years). IISc is also celebrating 2009 as its Centenary Year. So it has a vision for where it wants to be in the next centenary of its existence.

The selection of Chitradurga for IISc's second campus presents several potential benefits. First, it opens up an entirely new region of Karnataka and India to the potential long-term economic benefits that accrue from a centre of educational and research excellence, as the establishment of IISc in Bangalore in 1909 has already proven in the case of Bangalore itself. Bangalore's growth as the IT and BT Capital of India, as well as its strong historical role as the base for the Indian Defence and Space research establishment, is largely due to the lasting contributions IISc has made in nurturing the foundations of Science and Engineering research in India.

Further, it gives the IISc planners an opportunity to start with a clean slate for the next 30 years and they should truly think of a "Science Village", an entirely new eco-system which will be based broadly on the concept of "college parks" or "university towns" in the US and UK. It could open up new areas of research at its new campus.

I am purposefully downplaying "Science City" and emphasizing "Science Village" because of the cozy atmosphere that a village connotes. A city like Bangalore is too unmanageable and is already saturated. The residential village is my ideal for an academic and research ambience.

In fact, this "Science Village" should have its own CEO/Mayor and have a small elected local Government (Panchayat, why not?) to meet the needs of the Science Village. Obviously, the Director or another high official of IISc would be the de facto CEO or the designated Mayor or one could even be elected. I am okay with that since the rest of the governing local body would most certainly be elected.

Incidentally, Harvard has this quaint tradition in the town of Cambridge (Mass) and it creates a powerful connection with the local community. So does Stanford, for the "city of Stanford" which is actually the 8,800 hectare campus of Stanford, bordering Palo Alto.

Most major university town in the US started this way and even today they continue to retain this village ambience. Examples are Palo Alto, Cambridge (Mass), Research Triangle Park, College Park ( Maryland) etc. Of course, Oxford and Cambridge in UK are the precursors of all of these college towns.

As far as possible, the new IISc Campus should be entirely residential. Even if a residential campus is unable to accommodate all students and Faculty as it grows, the Science Village should be able to do so as the local economy will actually driven by the location of the academic campus.

For me, the closest Indian equivalent would be Pilani (for BITS) or IIT Kharagpur, or even Manipal. So we have plenty of precedents, though we don't need necessarily one in the case of IISc. IISc should lead in setting precedents, not follow!!

So, in my humble opinion, it is essential that any potentially important research school like IISc be located well outside the influence zone of a large metropolis as it unnecessarily overloads the infrastructure of the metropolis, distracts students, faculty and researchers from a monastic life of scholarship, and prevents us from creating other new zones of influence. Frankly, I am sick of Bangalore being over-pampered in this area!! Chitradurga, 200 kilometres away from Bangalore, is the right place to start afresh.

Hence, Chitradurga is an excellent choice. The verdant green, low rolling hills, with large rocky outcrops, the clean air and miles of windmill farms on the hilltops present an awe-inspiring visage. I have recently passed that way on a car trip to Goa and the memory of those verdant rolling hills is quite vivid.

I think water should not be a problem though it is very obvioulsy part of a dry region. In fact, this should be treated as an opportunity for our scientists and engineers to come up with unique solutions. Chitradurga is by no means a desert; it just happens to have a shortage of water. That cannot be a show-stopper. Can we do large-scale rain-water harvesting or something else? The benefits to the surrounding communities will be long-lasting and we would have established IISc as a good neighbourhood citizen!! Israel is largely desert. Can we find out what Technion (some rate is as high as MIT) has done there? There is opportunity here for our budding researchers!!

The fact that Chitradurga already has acres of windmill farms implies that the wind blows strongly through the low hills, probably for large parts of the year. The IISc Campus should leverage this and experiment with wind energy for meeting its energy needs. What a great ecological statement this would be!! As a leader, IISc should lead in every which way, in thought and in deed!!

Obviously, we will have to find ways to motivate designated Faculty to move out to Chitradurga. If Indians can follow the monastic life in remote US campuses, why can't they do so in India? There are many ways to do address this issue and this should be the subject matter of another thread on the Blog.

Once again, congratulations to those who chose Chitradurga over the usual suspects, Bangalore or Mysore.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Spiritual Linkage Between the Indian Mythological Character of Ekalavya and the Modern Concept of Open Courseware

Back in 2001 MIT took an unprecedented step when it announced its intention to make most of its courses and course materials freely available on the Internet over the next few years. Today MIT has advanced significantly towards this goal, with the school’s Open CoursewareWeb site now providing access to syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, exams, problems and solution sets, tools and tutorials, and a growing library of video lectures for most of MIT’s courses. Subsequently, the Open Courseware Consortium was formed as a collaboration of more than 200 higher educational institutions and associated organizations from around the world for creating a broad and deep body of open educational content using a shared model. Many of the world's leading academic institutions now contribute to the open courseware movement in their own unique ways. For example, Rice University runs a very vibrant site called Connexions as "a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports".

So what is the linkage between the modern concept of open courseware with the story of Ekalavya, an interesting character from Indian mythology? Let me give you a brief overview of Ekalavya for those who might not have heard of him. For further reading, please click here.

Ekalavya, as narrated in the great epic Mahabharatha, was a young prince from a lowly forest tribe who wanted to learn archery from the great Guru Dronacharya who taught Arjuna and his brother princes. However, Drona refused to take on Ekalavya as his student because of the latter's humble origins. Some commentaries say that Guru Drona recognized a master archer and didn't want anyone to come in the way of his favourite pupil Arjuna.

Disappointed but undeterred, Ekalavya went back into the forest, where he created a sculpture in the likeness of Guru Drona and started a rigorous schedule of self-study in archery in front of the sculpture. As a result of his tenacity and single-minded focus, he achieved a level of skill in archery that was far superior to that of Arjuna, the favourite pupil of Guru Drona.

Of course, the story has a cruel ending which the interested reader can pursue separately. But the point of interest for me is that "Ekalavya-ism" is a philosophical way of looking at learning as a self-learning process in which the meditative mind can function and learn even without the physical presence of a Guru or teacher. Ekalavya's role model was Guru Dronacharya whose sculptural likeness provided the physical and spiritual connection between the student and the teacher. Today, modern technology provides us better tools to emulate that connection.

Often, when educators discuss the important role of the teacher and the relevance of face-to-face interaction between teachers and students, the general consensus is that without teacher-student interaction students may not learn to their potential. My contention is that we need to apply the concept of "Ekalavya-ism" here. Modern technology allows us the luxury of access to information and knowledge through initiatives such as open courseware. Technology enables the student to view video images of lectures and create a mental image of the lecturer. It is then up to the student herself to create the remote spiritual connection with her guru or other role model.

While there is no denying the importance of role models, role models are not necessarily available as close physical entities. Role models exist in the virtual, conceptual and spiritual domain. We just need to make the appropriate connection.

So, those aspiring young students who might never have the opportunity of going through the hallowed portals of MIT or Stanford or whatever else is their ideal place of study, should not despair. They can still benefit from the open courseware movement as long as they emulate Ekalavya within themselves. In any case, higher learning is all about self-learning.

The spirit of the Open Courseware movement is the same as that of the mythological Ekalavya.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Microsoft's entry into OLPC Project, and Walter Bender's exit!!

I have several problems with Negroponte's philosophy on the OLPC Project. At the outset, I must confess my admiration for any "disruptive" idea or technology. By that count, the OLPC is a good disruptive technology. However, Negroponte’s business model of initially insisting that poor countries purchase 1 million units at $100 a piece was a real stinker. Imagine, having to shell out $100 million for an unproven concept!! No matter how relevant and exciting the OLPC technology might have been, that is not the way to gouge poorer countries with unproven concepts and products. Poor countries have scarce resources and have the right to prioritize usage in their own unique ways.

The right way to proliferate the OLPC in these countries would have been to align with philanthropic foundations that would put up the money to deliver OLPC devices to poorer countries.

Then, this recent OLPC tie-up with M$ has come as an absolute shocker. The initial focus on the "constructionist" learning model will now vanish with M$'s focus on the dollar. Young students starting out with XP will become robotic users of mobile computing devices and applications as defined by M$, rather than develop as creative human beings capable of personalizing open source software to their unique situations through incremental or deeper changes.

I am glad Walter Bender has seen the light and moved on to Sugar Labs where he will continue with the constructionist learning philosophy.

Since Sugar is open-sourced, we would love to put it on our own hardware, the Encore Mobilis which I designed and built with a small dedicated team of engineers at Bangalore, India. We are justifiably proud of our own product but also appreciate the good features, like Sugar, in competing products. I am glad we will now be in a position to offer Sugar on the Mobilis, should we decide to, and provide our users more choice.

Good luck, Walter, and keep the open-source flag flying!! Freedom of choice is important for all of us. Let a thousand flowers bloom.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Creation of an Ecosystem

My mentor during my stay at Stanford is currently visiting Motorola India Research Labs in Bangalore on a temporary posting. He used this opportunity to invite me to make a presentation on our Disease Surveillance project to a group of senior people at Motorola India Research Labs this morning. It was a highly interactive session in which about 15 researchers took part and asked some very interesting questions on my project. Rajiv's objective was to get the local Motorola team interested in supporting our project in some collaborative way. A one-hour session went on for over 2 hours and was then followed by lunch. So I think it was great exposure
for our project. I also got to meet a set of very smart, young people who are excited about the potential applications of mobile technologies to social problems.

Thanks, Rajiv, for arranging this talk. Let us keep networking and propound our ideas in every possible situation. That is how we can create an ecosystem for social entrepreneurship in India.