Room for improving usability and reliability
Let me start by saying that I'm a regular user of public transport. Sometime last year, BMTC released a mobile app that's meant to give users accurate and timely information about bus routes and arrival times. I've been using this app for a few months now. It's particularly useful on routes where buses are few and far between. An accurate foreknowledge of arrivals can save commuters from long waits. How does this work?
Each bus is fitted with a GPS transceiver. The location of each bus is conveyed in real time to a central system. Actually, the update happens every 10 seconds. Once the system is updated, users can query the system from their mobile apps to know when a particular bus is arriving at their bus stop. A more detailed narrative was published recently on Factor Daily. They also published a basic review of the app itself.
The app has its problems, mainly from the perspective of usability. The system itself has reliability issues. Let's look at these one at a time.
What we commonly label as "disruptive" is often the result of breaking the status quo. Disruptions seem to have their cycles and a few important ones come to my mind. In 1800s, we invented steam engines, cracked the math of thermodynamics, giving way to a number of derived industries: factories, locomotives, mills, etc. The lifecycle of this innovation reached its destiny sixty years later with the first ever depression. People could have been smarter and learned their lesson. But they became smarter by inventing Electricity and Magnetism just eight decades later (1880s) than the invention of steam engines. That disrupted status quo and rapid electrification took place across the world. Another eight decades later (1960s) we got transistors, computers and the beginnings of the internet. Six decades since then (2020s), we are in the cusp of another cycle. The sure candidate for next disruption is AI along with bio/nano technology.
I notice a pattern here. All disruptions happen when the previous one is mastered, done and dusted. Today we are within arms length of reaching the limits of Moore’s Law. The situation is primed for the next disruption. Amidst the evolution on doubling computing power every year and a half, the silent winner has been an exponential increase of data over the same period. Every computerized establishment saved cost, did more of the same (old) business in the same business year. Well, we homo sapiens, are too smart to run same (old) businesses. We leveraged data for intelligence and built new markets, new products and new strategies. In the last 2-3 decades of the recent technological cycle, we have progressed enough on big data technologies to enable the next disruption.
Practical guidelines to Indian engineers
Many engineers in India are working side by side with engineers from other parts of the world as part of global design teams. Yet even the simplest of electronics that we see around us has little or no connection with India. Why is it that a country that produces top engineering talent good enough to work with the best in the world looks like just a consumer, rather than a partner, in this global industry? Why do we not see a large number of electronics products that are ‘made in India’ or ‘designed in India’?
Obviously, there is no single or simple answer. Undoubtedly, several other countries have done a lot more to promote their industries. However, in this article I stay away from the policy aspects and approach this question from a purely engineering viewpoint. I take a candid inside look at the engineering community itself and explore where I think some of the missing pieces may be. I do not have any magic recipe for success, but I do make some suggestions based on my experience and introspection.
Industry analysis and opinion
Smartphones play a vital role in our life; it is sort of panacea for us. It has achieved massive growth in the last decade. With such demand of the end product, it is obvious that the supply side has worked in overdrive. Semiconductor industry has seen massive growth due to smartphones. The number of OEMs increased to fulfil the volume demands, pulling more vendors into semiconductor industry to suffice the OEMs’ supply chain requirements.
A few OEMs made fortune in smartphone sales, with revenue exceeding billions cumulatively. Such capital inflow encouraged them to invest more money on product development, to fulfil the end users’ paradoxical requirement of more performance with more battery life (less power consumption) at a lower price. With cumulative silicon sales going into billions, the semiconductor industry responded positively, and focused on stretching the innovation into leading process nodes and other techniques to enhance performance.
If there's one thing that's unique about being human, we can't deny that it's speech. Sure, animals have a way of communicating but that's not in any way as refined as we humans do. The key lies in the way we are able modulate sound waves with the rolls and wags of our tongue. Perhaps, it's for this reason we have phrases such as "mother tongue". Aural communication in the rest of the animal kingdom is limited to coarse sounds that we simply name as moos, grunts and hee-haws. But it's not going to be long before we lose our monopoly of speech.
The best machines could do in the past were beeps and alarms. Those of us who have lived through the times of early fixed line modems can recall the staccato of beeps as they tried to handshake and establish a connection to a server somewhere on the internet. Of course, machines also talk among themselves silently, by parsing bits and bytes. But now the time has come for machines to talk directly to humans via human speech.
Development is more than just writing code
Technology is changing so fast that it's becoming hard to keep track of what's new or where it's going. It's typical for a developer to invest a few weeks learning a framework, a productivity tool or a new language, only to be told to her annoyance that there's something better and shinier that has came out just two days ago. Often there's no clear-cut comparison to suggest that one choice of technology stack is better than another. Developer skill-sets, community support, open libraries, documentation, cost, and application requirements are some factors that influence that choice. The problem has become so acute that some developers spend days or even weeks researching and get indecisive. Wouldn't it be nice to have a place that introduces technology to beginners?
When I say "beginner" I don't mean in the sense of someone in college or just starting his career. You could have years of experience in one technology and still be a beginner in Data Science, Big Data, Virtual Reality, IoT or any of dozens of new technologies that are coming up. I've found from personal experience that often initiations are in the form of Getting Started Guides, Setup & Installation Guides or Hello World examples. This fails because it's telling folks how to use something rather than explaining what it is or why it's relevant.
Ever watched the Ted talk by Simon Sinek, How great leaders inspire actions? Not yet? Then I encourage you watch this 20-minute talk. This video covers the most fundamental thing that most companies fail to address: connecting with customers! Often companies focus on their products, going into details about the technical features, price, engineering innovation, etc. However, they fail to address the basic thing that is needed for a successful sale: Why they are offering the product? Answering this question bridges the gap between product and market. Revenue is an outcome, not the sole purpose of a company’s existence.
Let us take an example of a conventional sales pitch for the embedded computing platform: System on Module (SoM).
“We offer SoM that has a SoC, memory, power circuitry, Operating System, and BSPs, all integrated on a small form-factor board that offers you a platform for building your next embedded product”.
Sounds exciting? Well, it depends. However, it does not generate a great interest. Now, how about the following as a sales pitch?
Image source: Kumar, M., 2013, ‘Digital Privacy, Internet Surveillance, and The PRISM – Enemies of the Internet’, The Hacker News; Security in a Serious Way.
The world we have built around us is due to human ingenuity as well as engineering skills. Tools play an important role in this. It's not an exaggeration to say that most engineers think about the tools at their disposal before starting to give form to their ideas. To sculpt something, you need first good chisel and hammer. To build a bridge, you need precision measuring instruments. To dig a tunnel, you need a boring machine. In today's digital economy, you need connected servers, software platforms and algorithms.
Tools improve both efficiency and effectiveness. The problem with the use of tools is the intent. A knife can be used to cut fruit or to kill your neighbour. A cook and an arsonist use fire in very different ways. Now imagine what will happen when a powerful tool is created with bad intent but the public is told that it is for their good. Aadhaar seems to be in this category.