It’s become rather fashionable for people to complain that our IITs and IIMs have failed to produce any Steve Jobs or Bill Gates . I hear it like a broken record particularly in TOI forums (I can empathize if you don’t read TOI, neither do I; but the comments are pure entertainment, a must read if you are bored), fueled no doubt by Aamir Khan’s redoubtable portrayal of the most condescending self righteous character in the history of Indian cinema, Rancho of 3 Idiots.
Lets sit back and think for a moment. Did Steve Jobs and Bill Gates do their work in isolation? Did they single handedly make the computer revolution? The answer is NO. They sure made a huge contribution but to make that contribution possible they had a support ecosystem, a thriving technological and economic climate not just in their country but particularly more so in the region they lived.
There were researchers and innovators before them who made leaps in innovation to make the field fertile for Jobs and Gates to one day create their magic and there were contemporaries of Jobs and Gates who helped them either directly or indirectly by building complementary products and services around their innovation. It is notable that both Jobs and Gates were from places known for their tech innovation, Steve Jobs was in fact at the heart of Silicon Valley where all the action was and was surrounded by engineers all through his growing year. Had he been from Montana or Nebraska things would have been completely different. Had Bill Gates school, not procured a Teletype Model 33 ASR terminal, which many universities didnt have at that time, things might have been very different and he would have finished his degree at Harvard and become an accountant.
On a macro level, when Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace were figuring out bits and pieces of the design and programming of the Analytical Engine, we were still a English colony that had risen up in the first revolt, the Sepoy Mutiny, against the colonialist. While Alan Turing was working on the design of the Automatic Computing Engine at the National Physical Laboratory in London and the ENAIC was being commissioned, Bengal was hit by a massive famine and we were on the verge of Independence. Now fast forward to the 80s, when the personal computer revolution was underway and the US was witnessing immense technological and economic growth, we were still under the Hindu rate of growth (a meager 2% at best) and most offices barely had a well functioning calculator let alone a mainframe or mini computer. Ask why? Well, for one there were severe import restrictions owing to the Permit Raj and the prevailing socialist thinking that mandated all computer systems and components had to be indigenously developed. Foreign ownership was limited to 40% and therefore prevented companies from setting up shop here. There were very few private companies and even those were protected by the Permit Raj and for more than a decade would have no incentive to increase efficiency and reduce labor by using computers. The government too needed to employ people rather make things more efficient and replacing hordes of typist and actuarial staff with computers would be unthinkable. The unions, who still don’t take kindly to computers and technology, would have lynched any MD or bureaucrat who dared to even propose introducing computers. So basically there was no domestic demand for computer hardware or software; as such research agencies (all government funded till then) and engineering colleges had no incentive to teach anything remotely related to computer science, we were still producing electrical, civil and mechanical engineers and they too mostly went unemployed.
In terms of funding, while Steve Jobs had Mike Markulla to fund him, VCs and angel investors are only a recent phenomenon in India. The Indian Steve Jobs of the 80s would have had to go to a public sector bank (may be IDBI or ICICI or SBI) for loan but the bank would require a guarantee like a piece of land which he wouldn’t have had; not to mention this Indian Steve Jobs would have had to bribe the General Manager with say 10% of the loan money to authorize the loan, if at all it was sanctioned. And assuming this Indian Steve Jobs got past all these monumental hurdles, he would have to get a permit from the government to manufacture computers and the government would tell him exactly how many to manufacture, demand and supply be damned. And exporting to Japan, forget it. He would have to bribe a few dozens government officials and ministers to be able to do that.For his factory, he would have had to deal with a whimsical labor union that would go on strike every fortnight and the factory would be closed for months on end (despite getting the CM to cut the ribbon and inaugurate the factory). Not to mention any established competitor to this new budding Apple would have it in the bud through it’s government contacts and bribing government officials. The Indian Apple would be dead even before it was born.
And suppose the Indian Apple did finally succeed in launching an Apple I and an Apple II, the extremely weak IP protection laws would mean that any Tom, Dick and Harry could copy the design, right from hardware, software to look and feel and launch it’s product under a different brand name, say Orange, which would further lead to proliferation of other computer brands like Mango, Banana, Papaya, Sita Phal etc. The whole ‘different-ness’ and ‘insanely great-ness’ of Apple would vapourize. The same would hold for any Bill Gates trying to develop a MS DOS; no sooner had he sold the hundredth copy of MS-DOS, there would be other clone OSs. And say, this Indian Apple did take matters to the court, by the time our snail pace Indian court passes a judgement it would be the time for launching an iPhone.
Which is why my friend, it would have been impossible for an Indian Steve Jobs or Bill Gates to survive, let alone prosper. However, we had people like Narayan Murthy who were still able to enter the technology sector and worked around the edges developing software for American firms where their IP would receive better protection. Infosys worked on services rather than products because you can’t just copy and paste or reverse engineer services, whether or not you have IP protection. Even now, our IP protection laws for software is pretty weak and it would not be a good idea for the government to suddenly increase the strength of IP laws pertaining to software. It has to be a gradual process so that our firms can cope up with international competition. Suffice, it to say an Apple (or Microsoft) in India would have a very tough time protecting it’s software or design, let alone sue another company because it’s tablets had similar black rectangular bezel or dare suggest that the other company should not make tablets that are thin or rectangular.
Culturally, America is a country where failure is easily accepted unlike India where getting 99 out of 100 in Math is considered a crime. Here, if you can’t make it to a good engineering college, your life is pretty much screwed and getting in a good college is far far tougher than anything is the US. And once in a engineering college, the focus is strictly on exams and academics rather than any experimentation. I am sure you all heard a lot about this bit on 3 Idiots so I will not go there.
One more thing. In case you haven’t noticed, both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are Americans. So are Bill Joy, Larry Ellison and a host of other software industry stalwarts. No other developed country could emulate that, much less a poor country like India. UK doesn’t have it’s Silicon Valley, Germany too has added only a little bit to computing (the MP3 format from Fraunhofer Institute being a major one); at least nothing that we can readily recall. So simply money or education alone does not produce Steve Jobs. It needs a whole host of factors for one to emerge and which is why there is only one Steve Jobs and one Bill Gates. The only other man who could be comparable to Jobs was Edison and he was of a different era. People like Jobs happens once in an era; it’s not like getting some straight As in the school gradesheet that you should grumble if the neighbour’s kid has it and yours doesn’t.
I am sure after reading this some will ask the question why the research output of Indian institutions is low. One simple reason would be that our best research brains go and join US universities for their masters and PhD because of a host of reasons. The other would be that the focus of even an M.Tech program is way too much on exams and scoring marks and less on research, it’s even worse in B.Tech. The faculty in most IITs and IIMs have nearly twice (sometimes more) teaching hours than their American counterparts and a far weaker faculty-student ratio; with that kind of handicap and fund crunch we could cut our profs some slack on this end.
So when will we have our Indian Steve Jobs? Certainly not before 2020. May be 2030 or 2040. Until then you can keep trolling TOI comments sections and complain to your heart’s content how other Indians from IITs and IIMs are lazy ass over pampered elite who can’t become Steve Jobs while the Indian Steve Jobs of tomorrow is probably taking his/her baby steps and staring at an iPad with awe. I, for one, will be patiently waiting for that Indian Steve Jobs to emerge.