Professor Narasimhan is no more

Professor R Narasimhan the “Bhishma Pitamaha” of Indian software industry passed away yesterday (September 3, 2007).

Starting in TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), it was Professor Narasimhan who recommended the setting up of Electronics Commission (Prof MGK Menon was the first Chairman). It became Department of Electronics and later Ministry of Information Technology. He was instrumental in building the first general purpose digital computer in India way back in 1960. When IBM “walked out” of India in 1976, it was Professor Narasimhan who took charge as the first Chairman of Computer Maintenance Corporation (CMC Ltd later and now part of TCS). He was also instrumental in the starting of NCST (National Center for Software Technology) (now part of C-DAC). Through his individual contributions that include seminal ideas in pattern recognition and his guidance to generations of Computer Science professionals in India, he has contributed a lot to the early Computer Science literature in India. His out put was prolific; couple of years ago he completed a text on AI and Language Processing at a ripe age of 77!

His insightful vision led to the naming of NCST as National Center for Software Technology with emphasis on “software”; not many could see the larger role “software” would play in the long run at that time (Indian software industry benefits from his vision today).

Interestingly, not many understand the contribution made by many researchers (including Dr Narasimhan) that separated hardware (processors) and software. IT industry would not have grown to its current size of $ 2,000 billion today without such a separation. Software interestingly is nothing but a set of “bits & bytes” that stays as a file on some storage device (Floppy, Tape, Disk, CD or DVD) attached to some computational device (computer, phone). Of course, those “bits & bytes” code complex algorithms (like MP3 compression or a “rendering” algorithm for some complex object or a “pattern recognition algorithm” to decode DNA sequence or a complex set of financial calculations). Once loaded into a processor (may be a microprocessor from Intel / AMD or a DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chip), the software gets “executed” – the processor processing the “software” converts the “static” software into the actual “magic”. But for the separation of software and hardware it would not have been possible to create such a wide variety of software applications – banking, telecom, hospitality, healthcare, automotive or industrial automation. Separation of software and hardware permitted “independent” developments; though not all software runs on all hardware, most software pieces run on multiple hardware (for example, a “browser” software runs on many hardware platforms including many PCs and many mobile phones). Since the software by itself does NOT do any processing, but remains static (until loaded on to a processor) it can be “moved around” – copied, sent as e-mail attachment, uploaded or simply sent across – leading to “any time, anywhere” processing. Many services like “anytime, anywhere” banking (ATM, Credit card), ticketing (e-ticket, mobile ticketing) would not have been possible without such a clear separation of hardware and software.

It is important to reinforce such deep thought processes pioneered by tall individuals like Professor Narasimhan. With his passing away an amazing chapter of Indian IT ends. Hopefully, he will continue to inspire generations of computer science researchers in India.

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