by January 2, 2000 0 comments

The January issue of Fortune called Steve Jobs the “Chief Aesthetics Officer” of the PC industry. In the same month, William H Gates III re-designated himself the chief software architect for Microsoft. These unrelated, but still ironically distinct appellations, in many ways, bring out the extremes of computing in our times. The age-old question of form vs function is being played out again in all its grandeur, as two of the oldest protagonists in the game go about rewriting the rules for the next round. 

Who’ll win or who’ll make more moolah is not the issue here. The point is that in the process, the two of them, and others like them, are creating world-class products that affect and better everyday lives, and leave behind indelible stamps on the sands of time.

At the other extreme, you have the Jeff Bezos’ of the world, using the technology that men like Jobs and Gates create, to redefine how businesses the world over will function. Again, the issue here is not who’ll win, because all of them could turn out to be winners in an ocean of opportunity.

The question in my mind is very simple. Where do we Indians figure in all this? Yes, there’s a Vinod Khosla who co-founded Sun, and a Sabeer Bhatia and a Narayana Moorthy. But what after that?

This question’s been asked many times before, but let me repeat it once more. Why is it that there are so few “Indian products” that are really world class? Why is it that there’s a paucity of Indians with ideas that can take the world by storm? 

I for one feel that it isn’t because we aren’t world class, or because we can’t think big. I think that it’s simply because we don’t think in terms of products. We tend to think in terms of function. We think of a program that can process accounting data, of what the back-end database should be, of what coding tool to use–even before we begin to think of the product as a whole, of a killer idea for the “product”. 

Another problem is that the creation of a good product goes way beyond good coding. You need people who’re good at designing user interfaces, people who’re good at grammar, and graphics, and even possibly human psychology. All of them have to pull together with the programmer, if we’re ever to develop world-class products here. For example, to make a good multimedia title or a good game, your team would have to look more like one engaged in making a movie, than one engaged in coding menu item after menu item. But we, with our penchant for analysis, seem to deconstruct the whole thing to back-end coding, and not to the rich user experience that is the prime requirement.

The issue is not whether you opt to go the Gates way or the Jobs way. The point is that we’ve chosen neither, and that we seem to be content being, as I pointed out before, programming wise, but product foolish.

By the time you’re reading this, the NASSCOM exhibition will be in full swing at Mumbai. I wonder, how many good products would be on display, as compared to body-shoppers and experts who can do offshore coding. I wonder how much expertise would be displayed in product development, as against expertise in the latest, hottest coding tools. 

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