How teachers can make teaching of Science interesting?

November 18, 2013

Science study is all about discovery; it cannot but be interesting. While unusual individuals like Rishis of yore or Isaac Newton or Srinivasa Ramanujan in recent times, can start exploring Science all by themselves, many of our generation are fortunate to be taught Science in schools. Luckier than the students who learn Science in the classroom are those of you who teach Science to the youngsters. Here are some tips to make Science teaching and learning interesting

 

1 Explore: As I mentioned earlier, it is all about discovery; learning by doing is as important as learning to listen to the teacher in the class or to repeat the experiments in the Laboratory. Do not structure it too much; let the students not try to match exactly the results the teachers expect, but let them “deviate”; in the process, they will explore and learn. Some of the greatest discoveries in Science happened due to such “deviations”. Who knows you may discover yet another Isaac Newton or Srinivasa Ramanujan right in your class!

 

2 Science has no boundaries: For the sake of convenience we divide Science into Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and so on, but Science is a continuum; do not limit to Physical Sciences alone; Social Sciences are equally important. Let the student discover what she / he is best at; help the student to explore further. It is particularly important in India, where we tend to put Physical Sciences (that need expensive equipment) at a higher pedestal than Social Sciences (that can be done at near zero cost).

 

3 Go out to discover: In traffic-infested cities in India, you have no option but to confine the students to the crowded classrooms. Those of you who are lucky enough to have space around, do encourage students to look at Nature – insects, animals, water, air, fire and more importantly stars; there is so much to explore. The buildings around you temples and cathedrals have so much to teach too. Do not underestimate them. Encourage the students to ask questions; there are NO stupid questions!

 

4 Internet and Gadgets are great: Nothing attracts today’s GenNext (Facebook, Twitter generation) better than Internet gadgets. There are amazing pieces of content – Courseware (OCW), Encyclopedia (Wikipedia), for example, or Apps like “Periodic Table” that are at once absorbing and immersive. Make use of them if your children can afford. There are some amazing games too that are worth looking at; not all games are violent games that keep children hooked for hours!

 

5 Go beyond gadgets: It is equally important for the children to explore Science in everyday life; ask them to discover patterns in “rangoli”, “pallu design” in Kanjeevaram silk sari, “ragas” in music or “moves” in a chess game. Ask them to look at traffic pattern in a busy intersection, disease occurrence pattern in your neighborhhod, or waiting time outside an elevator; they have so much to teach!

 

6 Do not underestimate the power of books: Books will continue to be an important part of Science learning. Amazing books by outstanding authors (in electronic or print form) will continue to engage and inspire. Look at recent options like Pratham Books (thanks to Rohini Nilekani) that are very affordable even for rural children.

 

These are just a few tips; a teachers network will let you find many more! Go explore and lets together create a generation of children interested, excited and inspired by Science. The second half of 21st Century in India will be far more interesting!

(Appeared in Times of India November 18, 2013)

Infosys Science Prizes 2013 were announced on November 12, 2013

November 12, 2013

The fifth edition of Infosys Science Prizes announced on November 12, 2013; the winners areProf Ramagopal Rao, IIT Bombay (Engineering & Computer Science)

    • Professors Nayanjot Lahiri, History Dept., Delhi University and Ayesha Kidwai, Linguistics Dept., Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (Humanities)
    • Prof Rajesh Gokhale, Institute of Genomics, New Delhi (Life Science)
    • Prof Rahul Pandharipande, Mathematics Dept., ETH, Zurich (Mathematics)
    • Prof Shiraz Minwalla, TIFR, Bombay (Physics)
    • Prof A R Vasavi, Nehru Museum, New Delhi (Social Science)

Re-configuring computer education

October 23, 2013

 

IT has been the largest generator of jobs in the organised sector in India over the past five years with about 3,50,000 jobs getting added every year.

  • The maturity of the Indian IT services sector,
  • The emergence of IT product companies from India,
  • The dramatic rise of smartphones / tablets and the huge Apps ecosystem that is driving these “post PC devices”,
  • Cloud computing entering mainstream, and,
  • The dramatic rise of “big data” and “Analytics”

are changing the talent needs of this growing industry.

Naturally, colleges, particularly the premier Institutes are looking at ways and means of responding to such changing needs.

A word of caution is in order. Any curriculum has foundational elements that address the long term needs of a professional who goes through 4-6 years of college education (Bachelors or Masters Degree) that is expected to provide the basis for the professionals 40+ year career. The curriculum must be relevant so that the college graduates can find themselves a meaningful employment in industry that employs them (barring a small number who take up academic / government / military jibs). Foundation and relevance are like the cake and the icing on the cake; both are important, but the proportion should not be forgotten. Countries like India have a history where low quality, fly-by-night operators mushroom everywhere, promising relevance (often at the cost of quality); and, Universities steeped in bureaucracy, turn a blind eye to relevance of the curriculum. Luckily, premier Institutes always had the right balance, though sometimes the industry fails to take notice of such response.

Every aspect of computing is getting affected in the past five years. For example,

  • Microprocessors are increasingly multi-core with application specific core (graphics, computing, networking) optimised to do the specific function; developers tomorrow must be able to leverage this “architectural” development.
  • From days of “memory crunch” we are into “memory abundant” days of computing; with FLASH memory entering mainstream, the primary and secondary memory separation is blurring. In turn, specialised applications like “data look up” can benefit from “main memory” computing, as opposed to retrieving data from any number of high-speed disk spindles.
  • Databases are no longer limited to “structured” data (where OLTP systems excelled), but moving to “No SQL data” that too of enormous size, often called “Big data” problem.
  • With Internet penetration increasing even in counties like India, wireless technologies like 3G, LTE and SDN becoming a reality, one finds abundance of bandwidth too (at least in countries like Korea).
  • With “Big Data” available instantaneously thru high-speed Net, “real time” Analytics is becoming a reality, at least in a handful of industry segments (Telecom, Retail and Banking).

Naturally, education of tomorrow’s IT professional has to factor in such changing developments.

How do Institutes of Higher Education address such changing demands?

Definitely, not by encouraging fly-by-night “training” outfits, but,

  • Carefully re-visiting the foundation courses (architecture, programming, compilers, operating system, databases and networking),
  • Integrating “cloud”, big data, Analytics, Apps development, Post PC devices, and,
  • Starting new elective courses that go into the details of Analytics, Cloud and Big Data.

In a sense, the foundation is tweaked so that the students see a continuum of ideas that have evolved; for example, cloud computing as a natural extension of distributed computing, location-independent hardware / software resources, compute elasticity, “eventual consistency” that is sufficient for many “Big data” problems as opposed to “every time consistency” needed by OLTP (banking, online trading, insurance). In the process, curriculum gets richer, relevant and interesting; with so much of online resources and free environments to experiment along with the advice of “open source” volunteers, learning can be far more fun and rewarding. Companies like HP and Infosys have domain experts who have developed courses in some of the emergent areas; Institutions do benefit from them. The maturity of cloud infrastructure permits the creation of “laboratories on the cloud” to test out many of the emerging ideas.

In short, the strategies uses to address the changing talent needs include,

  • Tweaking the curriculum
  • Benefiting from industry expertise
  • Utilizing “open source” materials
  • Leverage “cloud” to provide “on demand” laboratory resources

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at ss@iiitb.ac.in

(Appeared in “The Hindu Business Line of October 23, 2013)

Google Chromebook – has the affordable laptop for the common man arrived?

October 1, 2013

The Personal Computer revolution started in August 1981 when IBM launched its original IBM PC. Over the 32 years PC has grown a lot; more than 350 million PC’s are sold year after year. The performance of the PC has grown thousand-fold; millions of applications have been written for this dominant platform. At least for the first and second world countries, Bill Gates vision of PC in every desktop has come true.

 

PC has morphed in shape and form too. Originally a desktop, it changed in form to a laptop and notebook (some time back Netbook too) form factor that made the PC mobile inside an office / home. With Internet connectivity through phone line (earlier landline and currently mobile phone), PC has become truly mobile.

 

Laptop computers became specially attractive for small business / rural India / common man for three reasons;

 

  • First, desktop took to much space (not many rural homes had a desk in the first place);
  • Second, desktop PC needed continuous supply of reasonable quality electricity, that is simply not available in most parts of rural India; in addition, desktop PC consumed much larger amounts of electricity 100+ watts of power for PC compared to 20+ watts of power for a laptop.
  • Third, PC usage at home and office would necessitate double investment for hardware, and more importantly software for small businesses; in turn, even with marginal higher cost of laptop compared to a desktop PC of similar configuration, laptop was a clear winner.

 

That explains the reason why laptop sales have been increasing in India over the past several years. Yet, laptops were not easily affordable for the common man; Windows OS cost alone pushed the cost of laptop by a couple of thousands of rupees; laptop display of reasonable quality cost lots of money too.

 

Over the last decade laptop manufacturers have focused on reducing the weight and improving battery life. Unfortunately, the weight reduction has not been dramatic; nor has the battery life improvement; weights in the range of a couple of pounds and battery life of 8+ hours alone will be a game changer.

 

During the year 2007 there was a promise that Netbooks attempted. They were slightly less powerful Laptops, but they could not achieve substantial weight reduction; and, they had only 3-4 hours of battery life; Asus and Acer pioneered such Netbooks; unfortunately, interest in Netbooks receded by year 2010.

 

Starting in 2010, Ultra-books (promoted by Intel) started to show up and they started maturing by 2012. They could bring down the weight and increase the battery life considerably; unfortunately, they are still pricey (in the $ 1,000 range) unlike Laptops and Netbooks in the $ 300-600 range.

Apple MacBook Air used SSD dramatically to reduce the weight (1.5 kg) and increase battery like to 10+ hours; unfortunately, the price point $ 1,000+ makes it unavailable for the common man.

Chromebook from Google represent a new “avatar” for laptop computers. They run completely on Chrome browser that takes the role of could based operating system. With GMail for messaging, Google Docs for personal productivity (word processing and spread-sheet), GDrive as a File store, YouTube for entertainment, Google Calendar and Contacts for Personal Information Management, Google Hangout for Video Conferencing and Google Chat for Instant communications, all running on Chrome browser, Google Chromebook represent yet another viable alternative to traditional PC.

 

Launched in USA in 2011, the first generation was unavailable in India. Google launched in October 2013, a new generation of Chromebook including Acer C 720. Costing just Rs 20,000, Acer C720 represents a new hope for small businesses, individual professionals, students, faculty and senior citizens looking for an affordable Laptop.

 

The combination of Laptop form factor, reduced weight, Instant On, 10+ hours of battery life, excellent screen, full keyboard, cloud-based applications at no extra cost and an attractive price appears to be the “killer combination” that appears to favour Acer C 70 Chromebook as the “winner” for users looking for affordable and useful laptop. Of course, time alone can tell the real success story.

 

 

 

Powered by Intel processors optimized for power consumption, Acer Chromebook C 720 has 4 GB of RAM and 16 GB of SSD (solid State Device) storage that ensures “instant on”; its 11.6” display with 1366×768 resolution ensures you get excellent display for web-browsing, e-books reading, watching slideshows of photographs or full length movies and videos. Weighing 2.42 pounds with just 0.7” thick, it is convenient to hold too. With HDMI port, DS card, USB 3.0 port and 3.5 mm headphone jack multimedia is well supported by Acer C 720 Chromebook. Connecting to the Internet using Wi-Fi (that is widely available, thanks to BSNL Internet pack that addresses the “bottom of the pyramid” users), Chromebook is a full featured Laptop with a good screen, a large Keyboard and Touchpad (for “mouse” functionality), good multimedia support (audio speakers, video rendering) and USB port for additional storage, connectivity. Thanks to Google tools most users can do get most of their work done that includes personal productivity – word processing, spread-sheet, presentation using Google Docs, personal information management using Google Calendar and Contacts, communication (email using Gmail, Chat / Instant messaging and Video conferencing) using Google Hangout, Social networking using Google+, entertainment using YouTube and a whole range of Apps that run on Chrome browser. Google offers 100GB of Storage on Google cloud. Google Play store too is available on Chromebook. Google provides “offline access” for many of the tools including Google Docs and GMail.

 

In my trial over a week I found using Acer C720 Chromebook absolute breeze. It connected to my router the minute it was switched on and with my Google Account I could be productive in minutes. Mail access and browsing was fast; even YouTube videos rendered fast including some online News channels. My Google Calendar, Contacts were loaded instantly; so are my Google+ that one could get on to Google Hangout instantly. My documents, spread-sheets and pictures were all there on my GDrive. More importantly, after a week of usage in just a few seconds I could “powerwash” so that I was sure that there is no trace of my data left behind on the “demo machine” supplied by Acer India!

 

There are Windows-based Laptops in this price range but they make far too many compromises in the screen, weight, battery life, operating system, storage and applications. In addition, there a whole range of Tablets – “post PC” devices – including Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab and Google Nexus Tablets that are great “consuming devices” that do not serves the PC needs of the common man; Tablets with reasonable power, are far more expensive too.

 

 

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

Ten Tech Tools – A must-have for Higher Education

October 1, 2013

Every student and teacher in a University setting – be it science, engineering, medicine, business, law, architecture or music – must have mastery over some key tools that are “must have”. Here are the Top 10 tools (my pick!)

Higher education is all about Lectures, Laboratories and Library; together with the other three Life it makes up for the 4L’s of Learning. I have picked nine tools for the first three and one tool for Life!

  1. Learning Management System (LMS): LMS provides electronic support to the entire learning environment outside the classroom. This includes electronic delivery of slides and other lecture notes, reading materials and case studies; distribution and collection of home works, projects, assignments and examinations; feedback to students by way of corrected answer scripts and optionally online polls, surveys and feedback to teachers from students, typically, at the end of the term. Of the many LMS tools Moodle (Moodle.org) is the most widely used one across Institutes of higher learning in the world; it is free, open source, easy to customize, and, enjoys large base of developers / volunteers to help in customizing and bug-fixing. Blackboard (www.blackboard.com) is another widely used commercial LMS tool. LMS tools have been around for more than a decade.
  1. Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): MOOC represents a new trend in higher education. It is an effort to democratize higher education and take the best learning experience available in some of the best Institutions in the world (Stanford and MIT, for example), to any one in the world, using the power of the Internet. MOOC’s go beyond just the lecture materials and videos (MIT’s Open courseware or IIT’s NPTEL). MOOC provide lectures AND assessment. Coursera (www.coursera.org) started in 2012, is perhaps the best known among several MOOCs today. Pioneered by Professor Daphne Koller of Stanford University, Coursera has courses in Computer Science, Business, Engineering, Medicine and Social Sciences from 70 Universities including Stanford, Princeton and University of Michigan. Interestingly, Professor Daphne Koller is the first recipient of ACM Infosys Prize in 2007!
  1. Inspiring online talks: Teachers who inspire are small in number, but a very large number of students would naturally like to benefit from them. Making many inspiring talks available to everyone on this planet has been the motive behind many experiments including Khan Academy (www.Khanacademy.org), that makes more than 5,000 videos on many subjects accessible to school children. For University students, the best source of inspiring talks is undoubtedly the TED Talks (www.ted.com); these are 18-minute long, very high quality videos of inspiring talks from the world’s best known experts (Nobel Prize winners, outstanding professors from Ivy League Universities and other leading thinkers). As of today more than 1,500 TED talks are available for free viewing online and they have been watched more than one billion times!
  1. Studying together: Students everywhere, and more so in India, like to study together. It is one thing to communicate – talk on the phone, SMS, Chat, email and Facebook; but what is more important is to seriously collaborate and learn from each other. LMS helps to collaborate with the teacher; but a lot of learning happens when students collaborate with other students (seek clarifications, clear doubts, share common ideas, work on a project etc.,). With Internet being available everywhere (at least for University students) what can be better than to use the Net as a key collaborative platform. While there are general purpose tools (SharePoint from Microsoft or Acrobat from Adobe), OpenStudy (www.openstudy.com) is perhaps best suited for studying together with other students in Institutions outside of your own. You can ask questions, connect with other students across the globe and get help. Starting at Georgia Tech, OpenStudy has grown today and benefits 150,000 students in 180 countries! Interestingly, the co-founder of OpenStudy is Chennai-born Preetha Ram!
  1. Virtual Labs: In addition to lectures, lab experiments form a key component of learning. Much lab equipment is very expensive; they need technicians who can be expensive too. A number of attempts have been made in the past decade to make some of the Lab equipment available for students outside the laboratories (often only found in rich universities and research Labs). iLab from MIT (ilab.mit.edu) is the best known among such experiments currently underway at many Institutions, including some of the IIT’s and IIIT’s in India. Using sophisticated software to schedule and interface with a variety of equipment like spectrometer, signal analyzer, heat exchanger and robot, iLab makes costly sophisticated equipment available even to poor students in remote rural areas.
  1. Cloud storage: A key requirement of a learning environment in a university is to keep track of a variety of instructional materials (lecture notes, slides, exam copies, project presentation, Lab reports, field visit reports, photos, audio / video recordings of interviews etc.,). In today’s online world, you need a storage piece that is not tied to a specific piece of hardware (PC, Server, and Mainframe), software (Unix, Windows. Mac, iOS and Android), or even an organization (department, college, university). This is where cloud storage comes in handy. Though Google (Google Drive) and Microsoft (SkyDrive) offer their own versions of cloud storage, my favorite is Dropbox that is a free service that lets you store documents (reports, spreadsheets, databases, PDF files), photos, songs, audio / video recordings effortlessly across multiple devices. Create a “DropBox” folder on every device that you use and the files stored on this folder are available on every device; Dropbox magically “syncs” the content automatically when the devices are connected; in addition, you can access them from anywhere using a Web-browser.

 

  1. Scholarly search: As you go past the first couple of terms in any University, you soon realize the need for reading a lot of research papers on a daily basis; you also need to organize the papers you read /referenced and finally the papers you author. You need to organize bibliography too; there are specific ways in which specific journals expect the author to cite references, including web references, and formatting & re-formatting for submission across multiple journals can be a non-trivial task! Later, when you meet other colleagues in conferences or apply for jobs, you need a count of citations of your papers (a first-level indicator of the quality of the paper) as well as impact factor of the journals a first-level indicator of the quality of the journal) you publish or plan to publish. Though there are tools from IEEE and ACM to help you with some of these tasks, Google Scholar is perhaps the best tool for your scholarly search. As a source it indexes the full text of scholarly research (both free and paid sources) across many disciplines; unlike expensive options like Scopus (from Elsevier) or Web of Science (from Thomson),  that only rich universities can afford, Google Scholar is free. Interestingly, one of the two architects of Google Scholar is IIT-Kharagpur alumnus Anurag Acharya.
  1. Personal library of research articles: Todays students and faculty members in Universities have access to good Library that subscribes to hundreds of journals. As a growing researcher one starts building personal library of scholarly literature that includes “must read” papers. Till the year 2000 when many journals embraced the digital world, most Libraries of Universities (except those that were part of rich Universities) could not subscribe to scholarly research journals. Things have improved in the past decade, thanks to Consortium-based subscriptions like INDEST. Google Scholar type services provide good indexing and abstract services, but access to full text is still limited to Libraries. There are many attempts to create “personal library” of full-text papers including services from IEEE and ACM, but JSTOR (www.jstor.org) is my favorite particularly for those outside of Computer Science area. JSTOR – a not-for-profit organization – meets this demand; over the years, JSTOR has digitized and indexed a very large number of journal articles and makes the full text accessible to even Libraries with limited budget. Current issues of many paid journals too are available after a “moving wall” (a specified period after the journal is published)
  1. E-Book Reader: As the Gen Next moves to an all digital world, todays students and faculty members need access to scholarly search and personal library of research articles as well as full texts and technical reports (often embellished with multimedia, hyper-text references to Web-sites and even some Lab equipment (as in MIT iLab). In short, access to e-Book Reader is a must; the reading experience must be great, the collection must be rich, there must be a way to book mark, there must be a provision for resonantly large collection (dozens, if not hundreds of books) and the interface must be intuitive. While there are a large number of formats including open formats like ePub from IDPF (idpf.org), my favorite is Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle. Apple iBooks is an application that is extremely good to read, annotate, share and search eBooks (from multiple publishing formats), though only available on Apple products (Mac, iPad, iPhone). Amazon Kindle is a hardware device as well as an application that can be used over multiple OS (Windows, Apple Mac and iOS); Amazon has launched an India-store as well. There are still several issues on the formats and the business models that are being fought in the courts, but as “a budding tomorrow’s professional”, you should start getting used to one or the other e-Book Reader.
  1. Data-based decision tools: Unlike the earlier nine tools, students and faculty members in Universities should start looking at ways of getting the facts right about many events, things and organizations around us. Search engines like Google and Bing give us pointers to data, but not often data itself; also the data is inaccurate, not from reliable source or dated; in fact the data is not good enough for any meaningful decision making. As tomorrow’s decision makers, it is important that University students cultivate a habit of data-based decisions. In this direction Wolfram Alpha, from the same people who gave us Mathematica is something that you all must watch. Wolfram Alpha calls itself “a computational knowledge engine”; it provides data about a town, an Institute, a country or about a phenomenon in a meaningful way using “curated” data and not mere pointers to websites that have information. Try “MIT”, “New Delhi”, “United Kingdom” and “Bangalore Weather” on Wolfram Alpha to get a feel for computation knowledge engine. It uses extensive computation and uses a very sophisticated knowledge engine. Such services will evolve over the years but it is high time you start getting used to such a service that goes beyond lecture, laboratory and library into a life skill!

All the best

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

(Appeared in EDU Magazine, October 2013)

The real contribution of Apple – mainstreaming a technology year after year – iPhone 5S mainstreams fingerprint authentication

September 22, 2013

A lot has been written about Apple introducing two new phones iPhone 5C and 5S on Sep 20, 2013. Long queue of Apple fans surprise Android fans as to why such an “inferior” and “expensive” phone is attracting attention. It is likely that Apple would have sold more than 5 million new iPhones, something that Apple achieved earlier too.

For many techies like me, who have been looking at technology for decades, the real contribution of Apple in the mobile phone and tablet category is the mainstreaming of a particular technology.

In the last week’s launch of iPhone 5S Apple has mainstreamed “finger print authentication” of a smart phone.

Mainstreaming means three important things –

  1. Integration of a technology into all aspects of a product
  2. Making it affordable
  3. Making the user-interface intuitive enough, that you do not need a thick “user manual”

Compaq laptops had USB-based “finger print” scanners to let only the “owner” access the laptop for more than a decade. It was an external device, costing about $ 30, and had the only purpose of a “gatekeeper” – nothing else. Several laptop manufacturers had such a solution; but, iPhone 5S brings fingerprint solution integrated into the “Main button”, at no extra cost and as intuitive as pressing the button! Also such a “personal authentication” is useable by all applications. Apple has a set of API that allows third party application developers to integrate “fingerprint” authentication in an intuitive way!

In 2007 launch of iPhone, Apple mainstreamed “touch” technology. In the past six years billions of user take “pinch” and “drag” for granted to “zoom out” and “zoom in” web pages and photographs. It was mainstreamed by Apple. Microsoft had Windows Tablet Edition that attempted to use “touch”; many “touch screen” monitors have been around for ages, but none of them integrated “touch” across the product and many first-generation “touch screens” were expensive!

In 2008 launch of iPhone 3G Apple mainstreamed 3G, particularly in USA and many other countries outside Europe. Through an exclusive arrangement with AT&T, Apple introduced users to a “consistent” broadband and data access that made voice, data and video seamless across “roaming” and across all applications. By integrating voice, eMail and browsing with the added convenience of roaming across the 3G network, Apple mainstreamed “mobile computing” (much beyond mobile E-Mail that was the real contribution of Blackberry).

In 2008/2009 launch of AppStore Apple mainstreamed Apps and delivering Apps through AppStore as a new way of delivering consumer applications. Suddenly the “barrier to entry” for application development got lowered and a huge “cottage industry” got developed which is estimated to be about $ 50 billion today! There were third party AppStores before. Palm, Microsoft Windows and Blackberry had App Stores, but none offered the scale, tools and a ready market that Apple offered.

In 2010 launch of iPad Apple mainstreamed “tablet” as a new category of computing devices, what Steve Jobs called “post PC devices”. By mainstreaming “Flash RAM”, iPad was convenient, instant on, battery good enough for couple of days use and an amazingly good display that made iPad compelling as eBook Reader, watching slide shows and videos (many from Google YouTube!) at a price that was affordable

In 2010/2011 launch of iPhone 4 Apple mainstreamed Retina display  with 326 dpi resolution; with 300 dpi said to match the resolution of human eye, this is what Steve Jobs called “the limits of what human eyes can see”. It did create enough controversy among the scientific community. What is important is the integration of superior display technology across the device – for better display of photographs and videos, better rendering of books, newspapers and magazines, better rendering of Web-pages, and of course, better capturing of photos and videos with dramatic improvements in camera technology. Once again Apple’s main contribution is “main streaming”; Amazon and Samsung had better display; Nokia had better camera, but none could match iPhone 4’s holistic experience.

In 2012 launch of iPad Mini Apple embraced “Phablet” as a category that combined phone and tablet functions. While Samsung and others (Google has been experimenting with Chrome laptops and 7″ NexusTablets for a while) had equal success with sale of phablets, the huge apps base particularly in the education segment made iPad Mini a category by itself, particularly for the budget-conscious and one-hand use that characterised student use.

In 2013 launch of iPhone 5S Apple is only continuing the trend of mainstreaming one more technology – namely, fingerprint authentication. Apple May or may not be selling the largest number of phones and tablets (that may go to Android). But what should not be forgotten is the fact that year after year Apple has been mainstreaming a technology – that is taken for granted by EVERY user – both the users using Apple products and those using non-Apple products. That is the real contribution of Apple. That partially explains the Apple fan club enthusiasm year after year, even two years after Steve Jobs is gone!

——-

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

Roots of sound pioneer Roy Dolby’s India link

September 15, 2013

Dr. Ray Dolby passed away on September 12, 2013 in USA at the age of 80; he is an unusual entrepreneur, who created a “niche” area and made amazing products by starting a company (Dolby Laboratories); ensured that the products continuously evolved and dramatically improved, over full five decades. In addition, he ran a profitable corporation successfully without getting too greedy or developing arrogance; and, along with his wife contributed liberally to philanthropy.

After his undergraduate education Dr. Roy Dolby moved to Stanford for his Masters Degree in 1957; he moved further to University of Cambridge for his PhD degree in Physics in 1961. He took an unusual step of working for United Nations for the next couple of years that took him to India for an assignment at New Delhi in UNESCO. As part of his assignment, he had to record several pieces of Indian music (both the classical and folklore); that assignment took him to several Ashrams in North India in UP and Punjab.

Those were the days of analogue audio recoding; both “spool” and “cassette” type. Dr. Dolby used to carry loads of audiotapes to do the recording. He got very frustrated when he found that concerts of amazing quality that he personally listened to, were terrible on the recorded tape, primarily due to “hissing” noise created by Sitar & Veena – two common Indian string instruments – and the ceiling fan noise (common in many concert halls in North Indian towns, particularly Ashrams). Many of us would have talked about the frustration to our friends or complained to the higher-ups, particularly if our assignments were with UN. The genius of Dr. Roy Dolby converted the challenge to an opportunity.

“Cutting out hissing noise” became his Mission; by “amplifying low level high frequency sounds during recording, and cutting them out during playback time”, “Dolby Laboratories” managed to produce much better sound in audiocassettes; “Dolby” became synonymous with “high quality audio”. The October 2005 Issue of “Electronic Design” has a full article devoted to this. Dr. Dolby completed his UN Assignment in India and went back to Cambridge and with an initial savings of $ 25,000 started the company UK in 1965 (the company moved to USA in 1976); the rest, as they say is history.

Dolby Laboratories started with their first product Dolby 301 with “Type A Dolby Noise Reduction”. Over the years the company created products for stereo & surround sound, embraced the “digital world” and pioneered high quality sound for “movies” (including Star Trek); and, recently addressed the need for high quality sound in mobile handsets and smartphones. By following an unusual business model of directly making professional grade audio equipment, and only licensing its technology for consumer equipment and by capitalizing its intellectual property through dozens of patents (Dr. Dolby alone had more than 50 patents) yet charging very low royalty, Dolby Sound touches more than 7.2 billion consumers today! Dolby Sound is used by more than 17,00 films! With more than 1,500 employees Dolby Systems has won several Emmy, Grammy and Oscar awards.

An inspiring engineer, deep technology, amazing products and an admirable corporation – thy name is Dolby; it is nice to see its India roots!

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. He had discovered the “Indian connections” several years back, when he had a chance meet with Dr. Dolby in an Airport Lounge! These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

(Appeared in Times of India, September 15, 2013)

Cutoff marks – Do they cutoff the opportunities too?

June 29, 2013

Come June every year, it is ”admissions time” and one starts hearing “cutoff marks” used by different Institutions. It could be Delhi with so many constituent colleges or Bangalore with so many autonomous colleges, but the story is same. Students are frustrated with artificially high cutoffs like 99.999, if not 100%; parents are aghast with the insensitivity of Institutions; and, the general public gets a feeling ”it must all be a farce”. Why is it so only in India?

 

It is not unique to India, but nowhere else it is this acute. The reasons are varied though.

 

First and foremost, as a country we have not been successful in creating large enough number of high-quality Institutions in the past 65 years. The regulations in India punish the honest ones and reward the dishonest ones! Naturally, much larger numbers of students seek admission into far less number of seats. China has done an amazing job of creating a large number of first rate Institutions with large capacity in the past two decades, and, we should learn from them.

 

Second, is the lack of transparency. Most Institutions do not publish as a standard practice, the actual percentage of students who finally joined the college. What you get to see is the first set of announcements; since the same students apply to dozens of colleges, the actual position is known only after several weeks! No one bothers to share that information transparently. It is due to this reason that the applicant to student ration in IIT’s is higher than MIT or Stanford! It is worthwhile emulating USA that has SAT (after High School) and GRE (after Undergraduate degree) as Common Admission Test for admission to all colleges across the country.

 

Third, is the lack of coordination among Institutions; students in India have the option of studying anywhere, but they have to apply for every Institution or a group of Institutions) independently, often at great cost and effort. A small country like UK has an online system UCAS, that processes millions of applicants from around the globe, to thousands of courses spread across hundreds of Institutions. With its IT prowess, Indian companies are able to build such systems for overseas clients, but not for any clients in India! One hopes that in the near future systems like UCAS in UK that addresses the entire life cycle of the admission processes – information, guidance, counseling, actual application, tacking, final admission and publishing tons of useful reports for guiding students, parents, education administrators and policy planners.

 

Fourth, is the societal issue; parents not going through a rational process, but using all forms of pressures to get admission for their wards into Institutions, and admission decisions of even well-run Institutions not respected by the Civil Society. In the process, even courts are brought into the picture. Courts should interfere, if there is anything illegal about admissions, but in India courts sometime are forced to decide, even if a question is out of syllabus or whether an IIT has been very harsh with a set of students in their evaluation! Plus the artificial barriers created in the name of equity to rural / urban, poor /rich, advantaged / disadvantaged that creates more division than inclusion!Good institutes and their administration with excellent governance must be trusted by the Society at large; with less legal and social pressures colleges too will play a more natural and transparent game that will benefit everyone in the long run!

 

(Appeared in Times of India, June 29, 2013)

How can youth benefit from IT?

April 15, 2013

 

Today’s youth in India are truly the “Gen Next” and use IT extensively to make their personal and professional lives productive and enjoyable. Four key examples:

1 Learn every moment:

In today’s competitive world, learning is very important. Thanks to the Net – lectures, library and laboratory are fundamentally changing thru e-learning, digital library and remote laboratories. Online courses and videos (NPTEL from IITs, Open Courseware from MIT, iTunes University from Apple) and the whole MOOC (Massively Online Courses) make it possible for any student to access the world’s best knowledge repositories practically free. Thanks to Digital Library  (IEEE / ACM Digital Library, for example), all scholarly journals and conference papers and several books are available online. Remote laboratories make very sophisticated instruments and Robots available over the Net.

2 Keep-up with friends:

For youth, it is important to keep up with friends. In today’s Facebook dominated world, it is so easy to keep up, using mobile phones, smart phones, tablets or PCs. With wireless bandwidth improving constantly (2G, GPRS / EDGE, 3G and 4G), the reach is improving and the falling cost make things more affordable. Other communication options including SMS / MMS, Email, Chat, Skype have brought the whole world at your fingertips.

3 Shop smart:

Today’s youth can shop online for books (Amazon or Flipkart), mobile phones & gadgets (eBay or Infibeam), music (iTunes or Flyte), airline tickets (airline websites or Yatra) or train tickets (IRCTC); one can also get the best deal for any item of your choice at the click of a mouse. In the physical world, one has to physically visit multiple shops to get to know the best deal; in the cyber-world, there are integrators like MakeMyTrip for multiple airlines, or RedBus for multiple bus operators. You can use the credit / debit card or directly use online banking offered by practically all banks.

4 Enjoy and get entertained:

Finally, it is important for youth to enjoy good food, great music or fun party, all helped by technology. Ordering pizza for home delivery, booking a seat in a restaurant for you and your friends or throwing a party, can all be done online. For music buffs, who enjoy devotional music or Bollywood music, there are many options of buying music, listening to streaming-music or tune into FM Radio.

In short, IT has made inroads into all aspects of your day-to-day life. The challenge is to keep the priorities right, manage time and costs, and avoid information / communication overload.

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

(Appeared in Education Times of Times of India on April 15, 2013)

How does IT help senior citizens?

April 1, 2013

Senior citizens in India often settle down in cities to take advantage of their professional connections. Information Technology helps them in four key functions.

1               Keep in touch with family and friends

With increased globalization, today’s senior citizens in India find their family members and friends spread across the globe. Earlier form of communication thru postal mail is just not feasible. Luckily, electronic mail and Video conferencing have suddenly shrunk distances. With free web-based email programs like Gmail and Yahoo Mail, one can be in touch with people around the globe effortlessly; with “chat” facility one can have interactive communication, often supplemented with voice / video, thanks to VoIP (Voice over IP) available in services like Skype.

 

2               Manage savings

For senior citizens, banking and financial services are important – getting pension credited, renewing fixed deposits and other investments (mutual funds and stocks). With practically all banks offering CBS (core banking services), one can do banking from the convenience of a home. Most CBS solutions offer online stock trading option as well. With Post Offices planning to introduce ATM, Core Banking and other services, and most insurance companies offering services online, senior citizens can manage practically all savings without depending on others.

 

3               Keep up with current developments

Professionals who have turned 60 and become senior citizens continue to be active till they turn 80+. Many of them will like to keep up with current developments in their profession as well as civil society. Luckily, most newspapers (Times of India, for example) are available free online. Most professional journals (IEEE Computer, for example) too are available at very low cost (Rs 1,000+ per year), permitting professionals to keep abreast of developments in their profession, not to mention “Current Science” that is free online.

4               Monitor health

Senior citizens need to monitor their health. While annual regular checkups are a must under the careful supervision of medical doctors, lots of informational articles can be read by accessing “Mayo Clinic” or ‘WebMD” sites. “GetActive” is a handy device (cigarette box size) that measures the number of steps, distance travelled and walking time throughout the day and upload the data to your personal web-site effortlessly (you simply plug into the USB port of an Internet-connected PC); it has memory for 30 days. Similar services would soon be available for blood pressure, glucose levels etc. If you have a smartphone like iPhone many free ”apps” allow you to monitor heart-rate, eye sight etc.,

Most of these services are free. All one needs is an Internet-connected PC!

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

(Appeared in Education Times of Times of India, April 1, 2013)