Why is there no Indian Steve Jobs?

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.

ASR 33 Teletype. A computer terminal manufactu...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.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the fifth D: All ...
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.


27 thoughts on “Why is there no Indian Steve Jobs?

  1. Really awesome post man! You beat me to the post(I was about to write a post on those very same issues of course not in such awesome terms as yours!). I was having a discussion the other day on this, and a friend said that in India, much energy goes in setting up your ecosystem rather than using the ecosystem to nurture your ideas(even cos like flipkart are having to set up Cash on Delivery/own fulfillment network and all to survive and grow to the next level)

    • You flatter me BSAS 😉 But yes, in India you spend a lot of energy on unnecessary things. Would love to read your take on this, and it sure would be better than mine.

  2. You say that our best brains go abroad for further studies. You don’t seem to take into account the fact that these brains opt to go abroad because they are victims of a pathetic cultural attitude towards education. The standard students find classes not worth their while; even if the prof is okay-ish, a “student” pays attention to find some meaning in the dissemination, they find it fashionable to be within the worst rankers of the class rather than take joy in learning something that is new and world-changing, they prefer to keep their academics limited to the classroom environment rather than engage in meaningful discussion and activity outside of the four walls of the studyplace and all they care about is scoring the grades in the exams, irrespective of their love for the subject, their understanding or simply their interest in it. Even they way they score is sad, opting to take advantage of loopholes in the examination system where questions are repeated year after year, thus studying only the previous year’s paper rather than understanding the motivation for the development of some idea or principle and how its application has benefitted mankind.

    With these factors playing out every single day in the life of an Indian student, the truely interested one (who is almost always the most qualified one) will definitely have had his full of these charlatans and thus hope to go in an environment that has more meaning for him/her.

    IITs and IIMs are not at fault. It is the culture that all parents force on their children. I say, demolish the notion of unacceptance of failure, demolish the brain-coma-inducing institutions called coaching classes. Let the student shine on his own merit rather than be a victim of circumstance.

    • Well, the worst rankers aren”t necessarily disinterested in learning, they are merely disinterested in exams. I have seen quite a few bad ranking but otherwise good programmers.

      But yes, our education system screws you everyday and systematically kills your creativity.

      • I never said the worst-rankers are disinterested in learning. I am merely stating the opposite that those who come on top in our education system are not exactly a 100% deserving…

        I never mentioned ranks anywhere, except for the idea where those that are genuinely interested are impeded by those who are not because the disinterested ones do not the good ones to achieve more than they have.

  3. A thoughtful one Sandip.

    Before thinking about manufacturing Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, don’t we need to consider the fact that in IT industry of India, there is apparently no scope for what Gates and Jobs have done in USA. I mean India is not a country that owns a Firefox or an Opera, a Windows or a Linux! We just don’t build things for the whole world to use, we are a service industry.

    When Jobs and Gates were in their development stages, there was a demand for what they were doing or at least companies in USA welcomed innovative products and ideas. Just as mentioned in previous comment, we don’t just need an understanding family, we also need to cultivate that same culture among companies.

    Say even if do manufacture a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, half their life will go in tackling the C-word, “corruption” and the other half in convincing people (both domestic and industrial) that, “Please, believe in us! What we are doing will change the world, we promise.”

    • @Ronak : I thought my huge post tried to make a good case as to why we are a IT services rather than a IT product industry and why there was ‘no scope for what Gates and Jobs have done in USA’.

      • Yes of course. Agreed. I’m not contradicting ^_^

        Just adding a few thoughts in my words and that is why the context of the comment is surrounding to what your post says 🙂

  4. A worthy idea shared. Nice dissection of the issue. A good read.

    Everything shall come to pass. The very reason that we have people talking about this now hints towards that it very well will. All in good time.

  5. Really nice …
    Everything that you have told about B.Tech was quite true… I am myself facing the same problem in my college…..
    I am not saying that this system is completely wrong and worthless …. because it is good for most of the students who always think for marks and job….
    But truly saying, I am very unhappy and uncomfortable with it….
    Keep it up….

    • I too am a student at an NIT and understand this. The sole focus seems to be on getting top grades to get placed in a PSU. Nobody tries to think something creative and innovative which is what engineering is supposed to be. The teachers are hardly inspiring. They are full of crap. In such an environment it would take a million years for an indian Steve Jobs to emerge. Besides our culture is too restrictive and hardly allows anyone to be different. Sad.

  6. Enjoyed reading the post. I agree with your points – I am running my own startup now in Bangalore and I did one previously in Seattle. It’s true that Indians in valley are more successful than in India. Add a few more reasons I have personally experienced –

    1. The difficulty of doing business in India – Recently I read its ease of doing business index is worse than Nepal and Chad in Africa. I experience this every day

    2. Local market that can buy your product – Its better now; Still most businesses and SMB’s in India are hard to work with and difficult for startups to survive

    3. Availability of talent and commitment – Need to hire 10 people to get one great hire here. Its a model that works for services but not for a product startup

    With all this mentioned, although I don’t think India can ever compete with the valley, I can see a lot of greenshoots that will grow into large companies in 15-20 years.

  7. Excellent article that succeeds to circumvent the heart of the problem at hand. Equipped with the right points while simultaneously analysing them into a really simple but extraordinary article is what has instantaniously converted me into a fan of your journalistic talent. My advice for you would be to start a professional tech blog ( like Mashable, CNET, TechCrunch etc.) with a focus on the Indian Sub Continent. I have a strong feeling that your insightful coverage of the Indian Tech Industry would have a profound effect on the young budding entrepreneurs of tomorrow!

    Thanks for taking your time out to write such wonderful posts!


  8. This article is a fine piece of work and explains in detail, all those things about the Indian education system that need to change. First of all, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and several others, dropped out of their respective educational institutions in order to achieve what they did. Most of their classmates may be in excellent professional positions just as the alumni of our IIT’s and IIM’s are. Having said that, I have a few thoughts to support your arguments. In India, the problem of a lack of creativity and critical thinking starts very early. Most parents, with the best of intentions, introduce their children to some form of religious material in several forms – they could be prayers, recitations, verses, etc. This requires rote memory and ‘mugging up’ without the slightest understanding of what it means. On to a more colourful scenario- I had drawing/painting classes in my kindergarten and primary school. All the sketches had numbered sections where each number corresponded to a specific colour. When I wanted to draw my own pictures or apply my own colours I got whacked black and blue by a red-faced, black-hearted, grey haired vacuum headed teacher.

    Fast forward to where I’m sitting in my atomic and nuclear physics classes expecting my learned professor to unravel the mysteries of atomic weapons and probably throw in some more constructive stories involving nuclear reactors. For my electronics papers, I wanted to know where all these electronics and circuits I was learning about were applied. What I got instead is hours and hours of theories, idiotic laboratory practical sessions and zero application. The same goes for mathematics- endless, mindless theorems, corollaries and impossible diagrams which have no connection to the real world whatsoever. Chemistry would have been the most interesting subject but was my most hated because the teachers simply did not know any application of what was being shoved down our throats.

    After I won a few rounds of memory games and finally got out of college, I started playing the piano/keyboards/synthesizers for a local band. The manuals explained how wave generators and built-in oscilloscopes create sound waves and why different types of filters are required to shape a wave or a series of waves, pitch correction and finally how harmonics and audio effects can be applied to produce the desired sound. This was what I was searching for in my electronics classes. Creativity killed, opportunities lost, quasi authority unchallenged and finally a robot following orders produced – that’s how the bloody education system works in most institutions around the country.

    I did a one-year exec-MBA from IIM, Bangalore. Among the various places across several states in India I’d studied in, this institution was the only one where professors would first ask our thoughts and experience on a subject, make us research on our own and then compare our findings with the frameworks established by the gurus of that field. This approach – though quite basic in other countries, was present only in the most elite institutions of India.

    After unlearning and relearning and undoing the damage done to my mental ecosystem and gaining several years of work experience and global exposure, life comes full circle as I have to deal with the ‘new guys’ who can follow orders to the letter but cannot think on their own. The massive gap between real life and text book education will soon be beyond the limits of any bridge unless there are drastic changes in the way we think, raise our children and impose authority. On the positive side, not everything that happens in our colleges is a complete disaster. For sure, it is a great way to get a job and make a decent living. It may also be the next best thing to dropping out of college and pursuing your dreams. A parting thought – there are 6 Indians in the list of the top 15 college drop out billionaires (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_college_dropout_billionaires). .. and our most famous Dhirubhai Ambani wasn’t even in college to have dropped out.

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