Friday, January 22, 2016

TRAI Open House on Net Neutrality

By some miracle, I was in Delhi, and was able to attend the open house. The telcos made a huge pitch for differential pricing at the TRAI Open House on Net Neutrality, but civil society and the Save The Internet coalition and others argued that the Internet cannot be regulated like telecom networks because users on the Internet are both content creators and consumers.

I made the following points when I got a chance to speak:

1) The original vision of Sir. Tim Berners Lee, was that of a platform that enabled universal access to knowledge. Differential pricing violates this vision.

2) As an entrepreneur, if I have to choose between Free Basics, X Basic and Y Basics, instead of publishing my content and software onto a unified, open internet, my task as a startup becomes much harder. This goes against the government's Startup India goals of making it easier for startups to do business in India.

3) Differential Pricing is a very divisive agenda. With Internet penetration still very low, the telcos and the Internet industry should work together to solve the larger problem of empowering millions of Indians with Internet access. For example, there is a massive amount of work that needs to be done to enable Indians to use the Internet in their own languages.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Net Neutrality and the Death of Distance

Many years ago, I had interviewed Kevin Kelly, the celebrated former editor of Wired magazine. From that interview, it was clear that the telcos and the Internet players would end up clashing one day. The net is a global platform where distance does not matter, while the telco world is metered on distance through different rates for STD and ISD calls. The advent of smartphones and the mobile Internet has lead to a collision of both these worlds. In a world where bandwidth is abundant and cheap, the concept of metering based on distance will fade away. This is the reason that telcos are mortally scared of services like Skype, Whatsapp and others that take away their voice and SMS revenues. The death of distance is a consumer friendly evolution that the telcos will keep resisting till their last breath.

Telcos have also not been terrible at fostering innovation as the failure of Value Added Services proves. In sharp contrast, the combination of smartphones and mobile internet has lead to a thriving app ecosystem. The telcos have only themselves to blame for the fact that the app ecosystem has completely bypassed them. The VAS ecosystem they controlled was extremely unfriendly to entrepreneurs and customers. If the telcos are allowed to decide which app to promote, it could lead to another fiasco. The Internet is a level playing field where innovation and consumer friendliness wins. Private arrangements like Airtel Zero could distort this market through sheer money power, because those who pay to be featured on such platforms would get an advantage over others. However, I have mixed feelings about, which provides some Internet services for free, since those who could not afford Internet would at least get a taste of it.

Tampering with the level playing field of the Internet is an extremely bad idea which will destroy the innovative nature of the Internet. If we go down this path it could take years, if not decades to repair the damage. TRAI has done a great disservice by putting out a discussion paper that articulated only the telco's point of view. I hope the government nips this proposal in the bud and defends net neutrality.

I am quoted in this article in Economic Times. My quotes have been heavily edited, and hence this lengthy preamble.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The doyen of Open Access in India

Met with Subbiah Arunachalam, the doyen of Open Access in Science. He must be in his 70s, but his passion and enthusiasm for Open Access always amazes me. I asked him how he got interested in this area, and he said that when he was at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), he wanted access to a journal, Surface Science, and asked a friend of his in the US to send him a copy. His friend quietly subscribed him to the journal, and Arun started getting the copies. When Arun looked at the cost of the journal, he was shocked, and realized that even IISc could not afford to subscribe to this journal. That lead him to stumble upon the Open Access movement, which aims to make scientific, and other kinds of literature freely accessible. Arun, then started writing to politicians, bureaucrats and academics on Open Access, and got many people interested in the subject. I think he is a great example of how one person with passion and drive can make a great difference. A big salute to you, sir!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Will the Internet kill Indian languages?

India might be home to six of the top 20 spoken languages in the world, but its languages are languishing in the online world.

When it comes to software exports, India is rightly considered a software superpower. With 86 billion dollars in exports, India’s software industry has helped companies around the world achieve significant improvements in productivity. It is time that the industry’s formidable capabilities are deployed to empower Indian citizens to use IT in their own languages.

In contrast to the healthy state of Indian software exports, the state of Indian languages online is a picture of malnourishment. Hindi is the fourth largest spoken language in the world with 360 million speakers, but, on Wikipedia, it has a mere 101,297 articles, and ranks 49, as on 1st April, 2014. Hindi ranks just below Nynorsk, one of the two official languages in Norway. It should be noted that Nynorsk is not even the most popular language in Norway, a tiny country with a population that barely crosses five million. That honour goes to BokmÃ¥l (literally "book tongue"), which is the preferred written standard for 85–90% of the population in Norway.

The state of the other Indian languages is no different, as can be seen from the accompanying table. How has Hindi sunk so low that it is lower than a languages which is not even the most popular language in a country with five million people? Even as the Internet flourishes in India, why are Indian languages stagnating online? What can be done to salvage the situation and give Indian languages the pride-of-place they deserve in the online world?

Why so malnourished?

The average Indian language IT user has to traverse such a vast range of hurdles, that it is a miracle that there is any content in Indian languages at all. The most basic starting point for computing in Indian languages, the keyboard, was not easily available until the advent of smartphones and their software-driven, touch screen keyboards. In many parts of the world, if you buy a computing device, it would come bundled with a keyboard for the national language of that country. Not so in India, despite the fact that the number of speakers in most Indian languages exceeds the population of most European countries!

Then, let us talk of font, the most basic necessity for computing in any language. A really good font is a marriage of art (calligraphy) and technology, and we have no dearth of either skill in India. The average English user probably has a choice of 60-70 high quality fonts to choose from. The average Hindi user has a choice of 3-4 modern Hindi fonts that they have to install themselves. The catch is that most average users would never go through the trouble of installing a font themselves. It is for this reason that there are only two categories of Indian language users online -- journalists who are supported by their in-house tech departments, and “early adopters” who are undeterred by the challenges of installing fonts, keyboards and other bits of software.

In his classic book, “Crossing the Chasm,” technology marketing guru, Geoffrey Moore talks of how there is a vast chasm between early adopters, and the other two categories that follow them on the technology adoption curve -- the early majority and the late majority. While early adopters are willing to put up with imperfections and embrace change, the early majority want to enhance their productivity and want technology to work flawlessly. The Indian language computing market (or Indic Computing, in short) is stuck in the chasm between the early adopters and the early majority.

(Image Credit:

The early majority and the late majority categories form the significant bulk of users and these users are not going to fiddle with installing fonts, keyboards and other paraphernalia. To entice them, computing devices will have to work out of the box, in Indian languages. In other words, Indic users have to be given parity with the English world, and devices should work in Indian languages with the same ease and efficiency that they do in the English language. A user should be able to unpack his device and get started with using it in Hindi, Gujarati or any other Indian language with a minimum of fuss.

The way forward

India’s Domestic IT industry is dominated by users in the English language, who constitute approximately 15 percent of the country’s population, adding up to 180 million people, in a population of 1.2 billion people. India has around 213 million Internet users, which adds up to a 17.5 percent penetration. To expand the market, and bring the next 300 million users into the digital world, we must empower them to access IT in their native languages. Not doing this could significantly limit the headroom for growth, and stunt the domestic IT industry.

Enabling computing in Indian languages is essential for growing the domestic IT industry. This will unleash the next wave of innovation in the app ecosystem, software product development, Internet services, e-commerce and other related areas.

The Indian Government has a group called Technology Development in Indian Languages (TDIL), which has developed many Indian language technologies like fonts, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) etc. However, these technologies need to be re-packaged in such a manner that they reach millions of users. The software industry has created bits and pieces of the ecosystem, but these efforts are disaggregated and lack scale. A few smartphone vendors have brought smartphones to the market with Indian language interfaces. However, this capability needs to be brought to market at affordable price points. To get the next 300 million users online in Indian languages, industry, government, hardware and software companies will have to work across the value chain to deliver a great user experience. The alternative is to sit back, and watch Indian languages die slowly in the Internet age.

(Note: An edited version of this article appeared in Hindustan Times edition dated June 17, 2014.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Marathi Journalism in the Internet Age

On Saturday, 6th July, 2013, the Observer Research Foundation held a conference titled, "Marathi Journalism in the Internet Age." The conference was attended by around 30 journalists from various Marathi publications, and Satish Lalit, the Public Relations Officer of the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Dr. Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman of ORF welcomed the participants and said that when he was advisor to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, Vajpayee used to say that IT was "India's Tomorrow." However, those who speak Indian languages have no role to play in India's Tomorrow. This was leading to a new secessionist movement with people moving away from their mother tongues. He added that the grossly inadequate development of Indian languages on the Net was one of the biggest barriers to inclusive development. He said that what is important to India's development cannot be left to the private sector and that the government must actively support Indian languages online. In particular, he proposed that advertising support to online Marathi publications should be stepped up dramatically. 

Anant Goenka, Head of New Media for the Indian Express Group Internet penetration in India is very low and nothing that people need to use the net in Indian languages is easily available. He said that a Flipkart in Hindi or Marathi would be a wonderful idea. He claimed that when Loksatta, the Marathi newspaper of the Indian Express group launched their Android app, they got 10,000 downloads within a week, most of them from expensive Samsung Galaxy phones, proving that the Marathi language audience had purchasing power. 

Lalitesh Katragadda, Head of the Emerging Markets team of Google joined this meeting over a conference call and gave an overview of Google's work in Indian languages and the road ahead. One of the points he made about Indian language computing being taught in schools was taken up by the Chief Minister's PRO, who said that he agreed with this demand and would place it in front of the CM. Incidentally, Prithviraj Chavan, the Maharashtra CM had started a company developing fonts and other Indian language technologies after completing his MS from UC, Berkeley. 

This was followed by an interactive session that was jointly moderated by Vinayak Parab, Editor of Lokprabha and myself, where the participants spoke on the challenges facing Marathi online journalists. Vinayak said that journalists had a huge role to play in establishing Marathi language on the Internet. He said that he was part of a group of 25 journalists who had met the Maharashtra CM and successfully petitioned the Maharashtra government to use Unicode. 

I mentioned that Wikipedia, Red Hat and Google have come together to create the Indic Computing Consortium. I made the point that while Indic scripts are complicated, may other scripts like are far greater in terms of complexity and yet have a significant presence on the Internet. India has all the technical capabilities required to solve the problem but lacked thew will to do so. If we worked in a focused manner to build the tool set for Indian language computing, we can solve this problem, once and for all.

Some of the key takeaways were:

1) Fonts render very differently on different platforms, and this is a big problem for publishers.

2) Most of the hits that Marathi newspapers are getting nowadays are from links they post on their Facebook pages. This is because search in Marathi is used by very few users because keyboards and input methods are significant barriers to entry. 

3) Many newspaper have e-paper versions that do not show up in search results. These papers should move to Unicode. 

4) Some Marathi sites are now beginning to leverage YouTube to generate more viewership. During the recent Uttarakhand tragedy, one Marathi newspaper posted videos from Uttarakhand which were in Marathi. However, by translating the videos and captioning them in English, they generated many more hits. 

5) There was a strong pitch from the journalists that Google AdSense and Google News should support Marathi. The web sites of Marathi newspapers are seen as a cost center and are therefore resource starved. I got the clear sense that the online journalists were itching to break out of this rut and were keen on seeing their online editions bring in revenues. Some journalists also asked if we could build tablet/smartphone tools that could convert Marathi handwriting into documents. 

6) Satish Lalit, the PRO to the Maharashtra CM said that the government was creating a new advertising policy and invited the online journalists to sen in their representation demanding support for online publications. He said that the Inscript keyboard had been made compulsory across the Maharashtra government. He said that all Maharashtra government press releases are being sent out in Unicode and a PDF copy of the same is also attached. The CM's Facebook page was recently launched and a blog set up. He said that in his travels across Maharashtra, he has found people in remote districts like Gadchiroli access Marathi news over the Internet because the printed papers would take time reaching the districts. In his role, he said that he used to scan 20 newsp0aers every day at 7AM in order to prepare a daily news digest for the CM. That job has become much easier nowadays due to online publications. He also said that he uses Whatsapp extensively to keep in touch with people. 

7) It was suggested that the number of glyphs in fonts should also be standardized.

Some of the action items that were identified were:

1) Create a forum for Marathi online journalists so that online journalism is recognized as a distinct skill. Since mostMarathi online journalists have received very little training, the group has decided to create a handbook for Marathi onlinejournalists. ORF promised all the support needed for setting up this group.

2) The group will petition the Maharashtra CM and ask the Maharashtra Government to create tools like dictionaries etc and make them available for free, in order to promote Marathi computing. It was suggested that the Maharashtra Government could make a one-time payment to CDAC and acquire their fonts and other Marathi language technologies and release them as open source. 

3) Dr. Kulkarni said that he will also reach out to the newly appointed NASSCOM president, R Chandrashekar, who was former IT Secretary of India, and request him to support this initiative. 

Credit goes to Dr. Kulkarni who has taken up this cause with a lot of passion. The organizing committee consisted of Anay Joglekar of ORF, Nilesh Bane of Maharashtra Times, Vinayak Parab of Lokprabha and myself. This event convinces me that online journalists can be a powerful support group for us in making Indian language computing popular, over the next few years.

Monday, June 03, 2013

RIP Atul Chitnis

One of the biggest names in the Indian FOSS community, Atul Chitnis, is no more. Several months ago, I was saddened to hear that he was diagnosed with cancer and, since then, I have followed his updates on Facebook. I must say that Atul put on a brave face and went down fighting (and cooking!).

Atul was one of the pioneers of the open source movement, popularizing Linux and open source with his numerous articles. Many years ago, as a part of the Mumbai Linux Users Group, I kept hearing of how popular the Bangalore Linux User's Group was and saw its popularity for myself when I was in Bangalore. I don't remember the year, but it was a wonderful feeling to attend the BangLinux meeting and see around a 100 FOSS enthusiasts gathered there. Over the years, I spoke at a couple of Bangalore Linux (later renamed to FOSS.IN) events and sought his help during the policy battles around OOXML and Open Standards.

With Raj Mathur and now Atul Chitnis passing away, the FOSS community has lost two of its pioneers, who will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A quest for change in education

For the last few years, I have been increasingly interested in the area of Open Education Resources (OERs). MIT's Open Course Ware was one of the pioneers of OER and the manner in which it was used across the world was truly fascinating. Khan Academy took the concept of OERs and made it wildly popular – the 3000 videos on its web site have been viewed more than 133 million times!

Why this interests me is because I believe (as do many others) that education is one of the most critical inputs for India's development. Well, more than an input, I'd say this is the critical factor that decides whether our country descends into chaos in the next few decades or emerges out of poverty and takes a place of pride on the world state as one of the developed nations. Think of it as that moment when an aeroplane gathers speed on the runway and generates enough thrust to break free from the gravitational pull of the earth and soar into the sky. If we educate our youth and make them skilled and able citizens of India, we will soar into the skies. If we don't, we will land with a thud. As simple (and scary) as that.

Over the last few months, I've been trying to understand the education space in India and within that space, how OERs can help the Indian education system. It is no secret that there is a huge demand supply gap with the need for educational infrastructure and teachers not being matched by the Indian education system. Even among teachers that I have spoken to, there are huge gaps in the skills imparted to them. It is obvious that, as a country we still have a tremendous amount of work in terms of breadth and depth – breadth, in creating a network of teachers that reaches the remote villages of India and depth, in terms of ensuring that these teachers are equipped with sufficient skills and knowledge to teach their students. To understand this, I have been visiting educational institutions across India and I will be writing and documenting these experiences as I go along.

One of the first such educational institutions I visited as part of my quest was appropriately named QUEST, which is short for “Quality Education Support Trust.” QUEST is an NGO that works on enhancing quality of education and has its office in Saloni Village in Wada District, an underdeveloped tribal area of Maharashtra State in India. Some of the teachers I met their had done their BEd from premier institutions in India, but I was shocked when they told me that they had no training in how to teach in real-life situations. QUEST has been working to fill that gap.

Saloni village is a two hour drive out of Mumbai and by the time we reached the QUEST office around 9.30AM in the morning, the heat is above a blistering 40 degrees celsius. Accompanying me in the car are Nilesh Nimkar, an educationist working for the last 15 years in tribal belts of Thane; and Rammohan Khanapurkar, a young techie working with the ObserverResearch Foundation. Together, they have implemented Moodle, an open source Learning Management System, which has been customized to Marathi, for the benefits of the teachers who are being trained by QUEST.

Some of the work that QUEST has been doing to improve education quality has been so simple that one wishes more people adopt it. For example, over a hundred teachers affiliated to QUEST are now using the Moodle forum in Marathi, to exchange ideas with each other on improving education quality. I find about 25 of these teachers assembled at the QUEST office in Saloni village for a workshop. When I quizzed these teachers about the benefits of the Moodle forum, they said that many teachers who were too shy to ask questions in a classroom would open up and ask questions online. They found that the forum had an impact on education quality because they could post problems and find solutions quickly. One teacher said that he was struggling with slow learners in his class and the ideas from other teachers in the forum helped him bring the slower kids up to speed. The teachers were so enthused by the online forum that many of them spent their own money to buy netbooks and data cards to connect to the forum. One of the key factors for the success of the forum was that the teachers were given a 15 day training in using the Inscript keyboard in Marathi, which helped them use the online forum more fluently. Khanapurkar says that the usage of the forum shot up once the training was completed. For the Indic computing community, this is a point worth noting, for ensuring the success of Indic computing.

Another intervention that QUEST has made for improving education quality is the creation of videos that explain how teaching can be done in an actual classroom. In one such video, a teacher is teaching the Marathi alphabet “Na” to a class of kids who are around two-three years old. She uses more than 20 words with the alphabet “Na” in it, emphasizing the “Na” and makes her students repeat the word. Then she asks each of the students to give her one word with “Na” in it and finally tears up a newspaper into pieces and asks the students to underline every occurrence of “Na” in the piece handed over to them. The video serves as a powerful example of how multiple methods of learning (auditory, kinesthetic etc) can be combined to serve the core concepts being taught. The video is barely ten minutes long, but the teachers say that it has made a difference to the way they teach alphabets in their classes. Nimkar tells me that QUEST sometimes uses as many as eight cameras to make these videos, and pay particular attention to capturing the reactions of the students. Such videos can be a powerful means of upgrading the skills of teachers in India.

Most readers will also agree with me that we need a fundamental rethinking of the education system in India. Critics say that India's education system was created by the British to fulfil their need for clerks who could keep the colonial empire running. Be that as it may, our system treats students as inert objects whose only task is to soak in the information dished out to them, and regurgitate/ vomit it at exam time. When I completed my graduation, I looked back on my five years in college, and the ten years in school, and came to the sad conclusion that those were my most wasted years of my life. Therefore, when I saw Kiran Bir Sethi's video on TED, I looked forward eagerly to meeting her and seeing the Riverside School that she founded.

Kiran got a standing ovation for her TED talk and a well deserved one too because she is teaching her kids at Riverside to be doers instead of being inert absorbers of knowledge. If India is to emerge out of this immense morass of corruption and incompetence, we need more people who believe that they can change the world for the better, and then go out and do it. As Indians, we whine about corruption and wallow in our miseries because our education system loads us with inert information but teaches us nothing about what to do with it. At Riverside, Kiran worked on a program called Design for Change that is transforming kids into individuals who say, I CAN’ instead of ‘Can I?’ Riverside kids have lobbied and campaigned for child-safe zebra crossings and for parts of Ahmedabad to be closed to traffic and dedicated exclusively for children.

I believe this kind of education is the need of the hour for India. If we as a nation do not believe that we can make change happen, we will continue living in the mess we have created and that is a horrible thought. If we teach our children how to make change happen, we can emerge as a strong, powerful and well developed nation in the next few decades and rout poverty from our country. Personally, Kiran's work also appealed to me enormously because in the last seven-eight years that I have worked in public policy and advocacy, I have seen with my own eyes that making policy change is not a difficult as people imagine it to be. The Indian government might be a byzantine and complex organism but there are definite ways of making it work. The Design for Change program started at Riverside has now become a global movement encompassing 35 countries of the world, which encourages children to work on challenges like health, environment, education and others facing our world. Search for “Riverside School Ahmedabad” on YouTube and you see some amazing possibilities how our education system can create better students and a better India. I hope these videos become more popular, and more and more educators rethink how they teach their kids.

The good news is that QUEST and Riverside believe in OERs and are willing to share their work with the rest of the world. In that, I see seeds of hope for a better future for India's students, teachers, our education system, and ultimately for India itself.