Mumbai

Mumbai is city that’s going places, both literally and metaphorically. Everyone is moving, all the time. Seemingly every building is under construction or being demolished. I haven’t felt this sort of dynamism since I lived in Bangkok in the late 90s. (And where the traffic is far worse than Mumbai).

We visited Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, where we were shown around before the our lecture. It’s charming old place, built in the mid 19th century to study textile technology, so it’s only appropriate that it’s stayed on the cutting edge of applied technology by becoming a centre of excellence for high-voltage research and computer science. (Photos)

The talks went very well; Shwetank and I got a real buzz from the audience who numbered 300 (we expected around 50).

The organiser, Aditya Sengupta, wrote the next day

Many of my friends, acquaintances and complete strangers came up to me and expressed their happiness for having attended the lecture. The insights you provided were both eye-opening and immensely useful. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We had far more attendees than we had expected or hoped for. It is extremely rare indeed that the auditorium gets filled to capacity – for anything.

When you’re far from home and missing the wife and kids, it lifts the spirits to know that what you’ve done has been appreciated.

Dinner was a meet-up at the Hard Rock Café where lots of Indian blogging and twitter luminaries came to sip a beer with us. I was taught some elementary Hindi (like “Tum khubsurat ho. Aati kya Khandala?” which means “Hello, how are you?” but my accent means I get some odd looks when I use it).

Then, a quick tour around the offices of local company Pin Storm and so to bed.

Strengths and weaknesses of Indian tech scene

One of the attendees, Jayesh, emailed me with the question “what do you think about the technology scene in India? What are the strong points and what are the weak points? And what are the measures for overcoming the weak points?”

Great question Jayesh, and I’m replying here rather than by email, as this is the opinion of an outsider, and I’d love to get Indian people’s views.

As I see it, India’s strong points are the skills and knowledge of its computer students and the fact that it recognised the importance of the computer industry early so began training people early.

It is weaker in shifting courses away from older technologies to the new (apparently there are still institutions where they study WAP and WML!) ; bureaucracy moves slowly while trends in IT move fast.

Although Indian students love Open Source, they haven’t yet shown the same affection for Open Standards (there are a lot of “best viewed in IE” monstrosities here). In any economy development costs increase if you have to tinker your IE-only code to take account of all the other browsers and the endless parade of new devices that come out. Using Open Web Standards means (in theory) write once and use everywhere; in practice, that means only tweaking for legacy browsers and crippled devices of which there is a dwindling number, so Open Web Standards reduce development costs as well as promoting inclusion by being available on cheaper machines or mobiles.

This is the best way for an economy like India’s, where the emphasis can’t be on being the cheapest in the world, as that is unsustainable as an economic strategy: there will always be another nation waiting in the wings to claim the dubious honour of being the primary source of super-cheap labour, but that relies on sweat-shop wages, and therefore perpetuates social inequality and misery. Everything I read before I came, all the newspapers I’m reading now, and conversations with the students I meet suggests that’s not how Indian people wish to see their nation developing further.

Some proprietary standards seem attractive, as they can be made fast – but that’s because but they are made, developed (and sometimes abandoned) with decisions made in secret, according to the needs and ambitions of companies that report to an anonymous group of shareholders that demands feeding with healthly numbers every quarter. Can you always be certain that their needs will exactly align with the needs of a nation like India? (If there is one thing that the current economic crisis has showed us, it’s that the chasing of short term profits for institutions doesn’t always translate into economic health for communities.)

Using Open Standards (and participating in their development) facilitates a sustainable economy that promotes inclusion rather than exploitation by allowing you to work smarter, not cheaper.

Health warning: I’m not an economist; this is just based on my pre-trip research and listening to students here.

What do you think?

2 Responses to “ Mumbai ”

Comment by Pranesh

>I was taught some elementary Hindi (like “Tum khubsurat ho. Aati kya Khandala?” which means “Hello, how are you?” but my accent means I get some odd looks when I use it).

I do hope you are kidding! (which the capitalization of Khandala makes me believe you are).