When will the next Google or Twitter come out of India? (A guest post)

A former professor of computer science from the Indian Institute of Science, Swami Manohar is the co-founder of LimberLink Technologies, which, among things, runs the annual engineering design challenge Jed-i. He and I have often discussed why we don’t have blockbuster technology products from India. His own first attempt, along with some colleagues at IISc, at building a low-cost handheld device Simputer, back in the early 2000s, proves the point he is making below. This is a guest post by him.

By Swami Manohar

Manohar-recent

Swami Manohar

I’m often asked, “When is the next Google or Twitter going to come out of India?”  I presume, the real question is, “When will there be a company out of India that dominates the marketplace like Google or Twitter?” It is also assumed correctly that such a marker leader has to be an internet technology company. In an age where the formerly lucrative telecom and bandwidth business have become commoditized like salt and pepper, internet tech companies are able to reach the masses.  Amazon aggregates consumer goods, Facebook aggregates people and relationships. In this age, the winner takes all, there is no second player; who remembers social networking site Orkut anymore?

In this environment of competition, companies around the country are on a quest to innovate and become the next market leader.The government has set up a national innovation council with a mandate to encourage innovation. Every corporate house is on an innovation mission, conducting workshops and seminars, and announcing incentive schemes for encouraging innovation among its workforce. The startup ecosystem is also abuzz with young entrepreneurs, angel investors and venture companies busily innovating to create the next Google and Twitter. Innovation, innovation, and innovation.

This one-sided emphasis on innovation is misplaced and based on an incomplete understanding of what makes market leaders.

Making it to the top of the technology market is both easier and harder today than it has been before. Ten years ago, when my colleagues and I built the Simputer, constructing a handheld Linux machine was an engineering challenge. Today anyone can build one. Ten years ago, creating a Google or an Amazon required one to build and manage a very large farm of machines. Today anyone can create an application that requires thousands of machines by buying time and resources from any one of many cloud providers.  Even five years ago, building an app for mobile phones required a mastery of several complex development systems and an understanding of the variations among different phones. Today Android has made it easy for anyone to create applications. On the marketing side, the Appstore concept means that anyone can sell an app to anyone else in the world by simply sending an email. The contradiction is that its easier today to build a technology company because the process is easier and its harder than ever before because everybody’s in the game trying to out-compete everybody else.

So what sets the market leaders apart?  It appears that everyone has concluded that it must be innovation. But if we look at it more carefully, that is an incomplete representation of the whole picture. Innovation cannot be created in a vacuum; the need for it arises when there is a problem to be solved, and is generated to deliver the best possible solution, using solid engineering and intelligent design. It must be noted that not all innovation is executed successfully. The ultimate measure of the success of an innovation is its direct or indirect impact on end user experience.

When Google first started, there were many competing search engines. Google’s simple interface and pioneering ad-based business model moved it ahead of the competition.  Google’s successful user experience was achieved by good engineering and design. Similarly, Twitter’s innovation, without the backing of engineering and design, would have rendered the limiting of communication to 146 characters at a time as just another novelty.

Market leaders deliver compelling user experience using their engineering and design competence. Innovation is a series of steps to deliver the best possible product, the magic ingredient that gives them the leadership. Success is not about innovation, it’s about the user experience.

Let us for a change look at a recent success story out of India: Redbus. Though it is limited to the Indian market at this time it has been acquired at a tremendous valuation for an Indian company.

The key to the success of Redbus is the focus on delivery of a fantastic user experience. Redbus has two user communities, the traveling public and the bus operators. For the traveler, the user experience covers the entire journey — from the start of using the website till the time the actual bus journey is completed  with the traveler arriving at the intended destination. For the bus operators, it is the experience of being able to fill seats in their buses through Redbus and collecting the revenue minus the commission. The delivery of such satisfactory user experiences depends very much on the engineering of the website, the payment and security systems, the back-end, and so on. It also depends on the design of many aspects of the entire system. However, for the end users, these details are irrelevant.

Now, back to our question at the start! The good news is that Indian companies are beginning to deliver on the possibility. The reality is that we need hundreds of high quality ventures to be initiated to result in a handful of global leaders. The good news again is that as mentioned earlier, the startup ecosystem has gained huge momentum in recent past.  So where is the catch? It is in the shortage of engineers with competence in engineering and design.

The average engineering graduate of today is saddled with three handicaps. First, they seriously lack depth in engineering: in the race to be seen as up to date and industry-ready, most curricula have crowded three years of  engineering with so many subjects that there is hardly any time for the student to engage in depth with any one. So the best of students are familiar with a large number of topics but lack mastery in any. Second, the engineering curriculum today is completely lacking in design and design thinking. Our curricula focus on analysis with very little scope for synthesis, primarily because the examination system can deal very well only with questions that have a single right answer. However, engineering synthesis or design by nature is an exploration of possibilities under constraints. Third, engineers are never trained to think about end users, to understand their needs, and to empathize with the human condition, the improvement of which is the end goal of all engineering. The combined effect of these three handicaps serially limits any scope for innovation. It is not that our students are not innovative, but four years of engineering education provides them with so little scope for understanding and experiencing innovation.

The good news once again is that several product and technology companies are taking the time and effort to enhance curricula in engineering colleges. It will be good if they bring in an emphasis on design, in the broadest sense, into the engineering curriculum. In particular, design, as in synthesis, needs to be brought in right from the first year of engineering, rather than relegating it as advanced topic. Further, there are no courses that deal with user experience design anywhere in the engineering curriculum. This lacuna has to be fixed at the earliest. Very few institutions in India have a strong design focus: examples include IIT-Mumbai, IIT-Guwahati and IISc’s CPDM.  Other institutions and universities should include multiple aspects of design in their  curriculum. This is definitely not a recommendation to include a sequence of two courses called Introduction to Design and Advanced Engineering Design, and saddling students with two more courses to be completed. There is already an overload of coursework.  What is needed is the restructuring of existing courses in engineering to weave in aspects of design.  If a fraction of the energy and resources spent in fostering innovation is reoriented to encourage engineering and design, innovation will follow.

Global success stories are scripted by passionate entrepreneurs with strong foundations in engineering and design by delivering compelling user experiences.  Innovation is simply the magic ingredient that binds it all.

20 comments to “When will the next Google or Twitter come out of India? (A guest post)”

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  1. The author missed out the Engineering Design Program which was started at IIT Madras only about 5-6 years ago which exactly tries to address this issue.Most of the courses are very much similiar to those in Mechanical engineering. But some new courses on Product design and User experience replace some of the old advanced courses in mechanical engineering like Thermodynamics.Even in the traditional courses, there is a lot of emphasis on design.

  2. I have to say that your article was very interesting to read. However, I don’t think the level of education or complex engineering design are what make an innovation successful. I believe the idea how simple it maybe, needs to be marketed and sold from a perspective that is understandable and appeals to the general public. No complex engineering design or degree will be able to achieve this. Furthermore to prove this point, few of the most successful companies (Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) have creators that don’t have a formal degree.

  3. Seema, May be it is ONLY my perceptions but Just want to say Thank you for Standing Strong for next generations Global leaders who are going to come from rural India and who wants to open their Global Headquarters next to their native HOME and have satisfactions of what they are creating is really contributing back to Global society.

  4. Wonderful perception!

  5. My only understanding from the article (and reinforced after reading the convoluted back and forth in the comments section:

    We like it when the odds are against us; and its only then that we go ahead to create something different. Once done – we do not spend time commercializing it but bask in the self-satisfaction/ adulation of having done something spectacular.

    Instead of worrying about when the next Google/Twitter is going to come – would rather worry about why potential blockbusters (can name atleast 1 every quarter and forget Simputer; there was one long long before that – Yantra which was at that time the lightest, smartest and the most amazing laptop in the world made in namma bengaluru) have never taken off.

  6. Thank you for this extremely insightful article.
    Customer and end-product focus is what should primarily drive each and every individual working on a certain project. This comes through passion, and if it thrives as a corporate culture (very difficult), even our existing Infys and CTSs (so called labor mills) could become the Googles of India.
    Interestingly, since your whole point is centred around astounding design and the engineering laws that is bent to make it real, it’s surprising how you’ve not mentioned of Steve Jobs (and Apple), who’s done just exactly that. In fact, for user experience and design, Apple got it right first. And multiple times.

  7. Kudos for a brilliant article Swamijee. We as a people have been so obsessed with embellishing our career with an engg/mba degree of repute that we tend to see the problem of innovation from within the myopic eyes of education. Necessity breeds innovation, education merely gives us the process framework. Americans are not so ahead because they have a better education system (co-incidentally!!), it is because they are not averse to change and innovation that their education system is one of the best in the world. Time has come for us to shed excess baggage but looks like this country just doesn’t want to; case in point, anti superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar being gunned down brutally in Pune last month.

  8. Animesh Mishra says: -#1

    An immature article which strives to sound ‘different’ & ‘innovative’, and ultimately proposes a baseless impractical ideology, that entrepreneurs necessarily need good college education to succeed! Although , I agree that the education system of this country is complete bullshit, but that’s the way it has always been, even in the U.S.A! Colleges do not give birth to entrepreneurs and they probably never will. Even in MBA, students are taught to follow their boss, and become educated servents! Whereas, entrepreneurs are individualistic and they would rather do something of their own & fail than, working for some bullshit IT support guy in Infosys or Wipro!!

    • Swami Manohar says: -#2

      The primary point of the article is that depth in engineering and design are critical components of global success stories. No where do I equate goog engineering to mean a college degree. Especially, the current BE degrees are mostly one more hoop for students to jump in their quest for jobs (like Kaustubh points out, there are just sequence of tests to crack on the way to a job). See a related Forbes post (http://forbesindia.com/article/scientist-entrepreneurs/in-search-of-creative-engineers/33779/1) that expands on our view of engineering education today and what we are attempting to do to change it.

      The related point is that just passion and vision are not enough. You need depth of engineering, design talent AND entrepreneurial acumen to create global success stories. And nowhere do I say that IIT degree is a pre-requisite for innovation. In fact, I have been known to be critical of the IIT system and it can be attributed to the fact that I do not have an IIT degree 🙂 (obtained my BE from Government college of technology, Coimbatore)

  9. Gulam Ali Khan says: -#1

    Very well written.

  10. Shashank, Founder & CEO, Agora Analytics says: -#1

    Its a thought provoking article. And many reasons expressed find an echo with me but there are differences too. The biggest difference is best expressed by this joke (PJ) – UP government has decided to give a laptop to each BPL family, so that they can download roti’s from the net. I guess, one of the biggest reason for failure is the ecosystem. Think about it, in US, one can be an engineering major and also study medicine or biology alongside. One can approach a prof in a school with relevant idea and you get admission in the school just to complete that research project. Try doing that in IISC or IIT – oh, you do not have a degree of blah,blah. Google spends over 5B USD per year to fund futuristic research projects, which may not result into anything. Find out what Reliance does instead – spend a billion in feeding politicians and bureaucrats. I remember meeting google Australia chief once and he talked about how he approached Larry to get funding for his project – “I need 400 Mil to develop a unique project about which I cannot tell you for next 6 months”. What came out a year later – google maps. Parallel – met a startup in green space, they had a technology to optimize power consumption of telecom towers, the guy happens to meet Mr Tata and he likes the concept directs his next level to engage with the startup. A year later and several thousands spent on travel, they gave up. If it wasn’t for the 25Mil guaranteed payment to Oracle by US government just based on a ppt Or IBM buying the first version of OS and giving it to Microsoft and then paying them to develop it; these companies wouldn’t have existed. Real reason for Simputer’s failure – Indian government; today Mr Sibal has caught a Sardar from pardesh to sell Chinese assembled laptops. People at responsible places, both government, institutions and industry, in India, do not see beyond the next few weeks – the moment majority of them will be replaced by forward thinking men- this dream will come through. Its only my hope that it comes by during my life time.

    • Swami Manohar says: -#2

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, especially about the right role of government in encouraging innovation, The current approach of giving funds to Councils, innovation cells etc, is misplaced. Instead these funds should be better utilised by the government offering to be the early adaptor of technologies and solutions that pioneering startups come up with. i.e government must be the first large scale paying customer. Many of them will fail, but that is the best way of encouraging innovation.

      Large companies are like governments, have huge inertia and so it is difficult for them to be nimble to run with innovations.

      Solution? As I mention, individuals with passion and vision need to plug along while ensuring that deep engineering and design talents are brought to bear on the solution. The ecosystem is a lot more conducive for success now than 5 years ago. As you can see, I am an optimist 🙂

    • Swami Manohar says: -#2

      Regarding your point about trying to get admission without degrees, but with only a research project: It is possible in IISc (one of the best academic environments in the world to work in, and I speak from personal experience) and I have known at least one instance where a medical doctor with a dozen years of experience as a doctor got admission directly to the PhD program in computer science, based on his passion and research work he had done to demonstrate his passion. He successfully completed the PhD and is now pursuing a good CS career. The point is given the inflated value that degrees from IISc/IIT have in the market, any such alternate paths must be extremely exceptional, otherwise you will have a crowd of people trying to get through this easy path.

  11. good article,but does not prove anything.the author is asking “who remembers social networking site Orkut anymore?” well orkut was very famous in its time,but as technology changes,product become obsolete.Same question can be asked ” who remembers simputer anymore?”
    Introducing courses of designing in IIT will not cause “next Google or Twitter coming out of India” .Face the facts.For innovation you don’t need a degree ,you need passion and vision.and if engineering and designing were passions of iit then why so many iit engineers are leaving there core domain behind and opting for mba.Fact is they are just chasing money like every one of us.And for innovation it can happen any were .remember dell,microsoft amazon.

  12. M Valliappan, We CAN Control Corrosion in India says: -#1

    Situation for developing innovation in India is not encouraged by the approach of Indian Industries/End-users. Limitations exist in India for converting raw innovation into a commercially viable model. IT Companies in India do not prefer Raw Innovation. They look for branded component of high commercial value developed outside India as plug-in for their systems. Naturally their choice is directed at innovation from western countries. In science and engineering areas the innovation capabilities are scaled on the basis of academic qualifications. There are numerous scholarships and grants awarded to establishments that house PhD qualifications originating in and out of India. The output is only Impact Factor for their publications.

    It is a Himalayan task for the people without acclaimed academic credentials. They have to shoulder all risks. Our government systems and well established private industrial research and development houses do not stupendously search for knowledge, expertise and resources available within India to establish collaboration for indigenous innovation.

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