Apr 04

School of open: making world a more creative and educated place

Every generation since the beginning of human existence has passed its value system, principles, methodologies, and skill sets on to the next generation. This passing on of information and culture has been followed by the development of a systematic approach to learning techniques. Formal structures were created throughout the world to learn and apply these skill sets. During the middle ages, the monasteries of the church became the nucleus of education and literacy. Ireland, during those times, was known as a country of saints and scholars. During the Islamic Golden age, in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was established and became the intellectual hub. Similar institutions of great nature and vision were established in other parts of the globe as well.

In India, the establishment of universities like Nalanda, Ujjain, and Vikramshila have played a significant role in development of higher education. One type of school that laid the backbone of Indian education structure and still rules the psych of an Indian student was “Gurukula,” which is a word formed from the Sanskrit words “Guru” meaning master and “Kula” meaning extended family. In this case, education was imparted for free and students paid the teacher back in some form after the studies were completed.

Though these great institutions added immense value in the evolution of modern societies, education was still restricted to the elite class in most cases. Universal access to knowledge is a historical problem and inclusion has enormous relevance in today’s world. An old adage says that a developed society is the one where the highest level of technology touches the lowest level of society. An organization who is putting this vital imperative into action is the School of Open, an initiative by P2PU and Creative Commons that is making world more creative, open and educated.

The benefits of open

The School of Open is a learning environment that focuses on increasing our understanding of openness and how it fosters creativity and education in our digital age. The School of Open leverages the strengths of community and open source software to increase awareness about an “open” world and the benefits it brings.

This volunteer run global community develops and runs online courses, offline workshops, and training programs in topics such as creative commons, open research, sharing creative works, and more. The school offers a wide range of courses created by experts and users that cover everything from foundations to advanced topics in open models. The courses can be taken on your own or facilitated by an instructor, and they run for a set length of time (weeks). Some of the courses in the facilitated category include Copyright for Educators, Creative Commons for K-12 Educators, An Introductory Course on Open Science, and (my favorite) Writing Wikipedia Articles: The Basics and Beyond. I signed up for it and was glad the materials were comprehensive. The course covers the values of Wikipedia, wiki markup code, how to evaluate the quality of Wikipedia articles, and the art of creating an article on the site.

I strongly believe that in today’s world, creativity gets a boost through participation. The School of Open gives us an opportunity to learn about a topic with other users who share similar interests. A case in context is the course titled “Teach someone something with open content”. The course helps one to learn how to find and recognize open content, that is Creative commons licensed video’s, images, articles, etc, in one’s area of interest and start discussions revolving around the topics. People with an expertise in an area can collect resources and assist participants who have questions in the same area. People who are interested in a field can also chose topics in the field and trigger discussions around the same. The topics can be be anything ranging from history of tanks to intricacies of Linux kernel. At the end of the day, it is education made more open, interesting and participatory.

In his provocative book, Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, Lawrence Lessig, one of the most influential thinkers in the Internet era, provides a strong argument as to how free culture supports and protects innovators. He states that free culture is not a culture without property, just as the free market is not a market in which everything is free. Free culture, like the one exemplified by the School of Open, ensures that innovators and their creative community remains free from what is called as a “permission culture” and maintains a process of creating more innovators, helping people to be more creative, producing better research and giving back.

Inclusion is a key focus of universal access to education, and I strongly believe that creativity and learning are the fundamental rights of every human being. Every human, irrespective of her/his economical status or level of intellect should be given an opportunity to grow. The School of Open is one such organization that helps promote that ideal.

Feb 08

Three key events that scaled up Linux for large enterprises

Friday evening can be a very busy time in Citibank’s Changi Business  Park, Singapore office. Hundreds of mission critical applications hit  the production servers, security patches are applied to servers, hundreds of professionals including developers,  systems engineers, Linux guru’s and management professionals spend the  whole night on the conference calls ensuring the smooth functioning of  servers at this financial giant. The applications that get life over the weekend have monitory value and therefore require robust servers to  host them. These servers need to maximize the utilization of the  applications and should have the stability to run for a longer period of  time without a reboot. These servers should also have the capability to  be scaled up as the infrastructure grows. Bottom line, these enterprise  level boxes need to be tough.

Thanks to people like Richard Stallman, Bob Young and Linux Travolds,  companies like Red Hat and Canonical and foundations like The Linux  foundation for creating and supporting the Linux operating system. The  muscle that today’s data centers have is built over Linux. The operating  has taken the whole computing world by storm. I would actually go a bit  further and say that (and it could be statistically and logically proved as well)  that the rate at which the information is growing, enterprises would not  have survived without the power of Linux. Microsoft windows server cannot support large scale enterprises with  the same efficiency, accuracy and reliability relative to the Linux based servers.

What made Linux the backbone of data centers? What increased its  adoption among enterprises? What made an operating system that was “made  by engineers for the engineers” incredibly powerful that it is now used  from desktops to data centers and everything in between? I have an  active interest in business and technology history and drawing from this  interest, I deduce three vital events that played an important role  in scaling up Linux and that can answer the aforementioned questions:

Helsinki, Boston, Internet and the year 1991: Linux, as an operating system evolved from a Kernel created by Linus  Travold, a student at that time at University of Helsinki. Linus was  using an operating system called Minix and suggested changes to Andrew  Tanenbaum, the creater of Minix. Andrew rejected the suggestions and as a  result, Linus created his own Kernel. The take here was that Linus took  into account the suggestions of users for improvement of the Kernel.  Years before, the idea of involving users to improve the software was  being pioneered by Richard stallman, one of the top software  philosophers in the world. Stallman left MIT, Boston where he was  working at that time and founded GNU with a goal of producing free  software. Free, here was in terms of freedom and not zero cost. In the  year 1991, the conducive conditions existed that would create Linux and  start its spread. Linus in Helsinki had the Kernel but no shell,  Libraries, compiler. Stallman, in Boston had necessary programs that  could be wrapped around an operating system. With the distance involved,  the only way to get the Linus program together with the GNU programs  was internet. The growth of internet from that point played a major role  in adoption of Linux. In the words of Richard Stallman: “The Internet  would also be crucial in Linux’s subsequent development as the means of  coordinating the work of all the developers that have made Linux into  what it is today.”

IBM and Linux become friends in 1998: When Linux was still within hacker fringes of the Internet, IBM had no  interest in investing in a new operating system. Although it was a risky  proposition for the king of proprietary software offerings, Linux had  one attraction. It could prove competitive for Microsoft. Around  1998, IBM started researching Linux and got involved with the open  source community. A successful stint with Apache project was encouraging enough for the company to put their dollars in Linux. The big blue knew that Linux was getting popularity  not only among the computer science students but also for a lot of  businesses. From getting involved in the community to helping improve  the operating system security through code testing, defect management  and even open sourcing some of its own code, the software giant today  spends more than $100 million annually on Linux development. This  adoption and involvement of IBM in Linux encouraged a lot of big  businesses to formulate their Linux strategies.

Red Hat disrupts technology industry in 2001: Red Hat Linux, at one point, was just a desktop application until Red  Hat forked into RHEL and Fedora. Paul Cormier, in 2001, re-examined the  business model to pitch Red Hat Linux to big businesses. The task at  hand was to adhere to the open source principles and at the same time  scale up to compete with Microsoft’s and Oracle’s of the world. The  solution was keep the source code free but compile the bits and bytes to  enterprise class. The result was Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat’s enterprise offerings now have diversified which includes Red Hat Satellite that have  added immense value to large enterprises in terms of speed, reliability  and scalability.

This article of mine is also published here on opensource.com and was listed on Hacker News, a social media news website by Ycombinator.

Jan 12

Four Linux Distros for Kids

I can see the brightness of curiosity in my 6 years old niece Shuchi’s eyes when she explores a mobile phone or manipulates the idiot box with its remote control or becomes creatively destructive with any other electronic device. She, like a lot of kids her age, love experimenting.

This curiosity reaches its peak when she sits in front of my laptop or her father’s laptop. A lot of times, however, I observe that she is lost in complicated applications that are suitable only to adults. An operating system that an adult uses and the system running it can look like a beast to a lot of kids. These  applications are beyond the comprehension of very young kids and do not provide an ideal (and playful) introduction to computers. Futher, adults’ laptops and tablets do not serve as a good learning environment for any kid (younger or older) who is just onboarding into the world of computing. Besides, letting a kid run wild on a computer with an online connection can be daunting for the parents.

As a big kid myself, and an open source software enthusiast for over 4 years now, I like exploring and experimenting with different software solutions. Pertaining to the problem of finding and setting up an ideal system for my young niece, I found that the open source Linux community has created specialized operating systems and environments for kids. Plus, setting up these systems is a breeze.

Why should kids learn Linux

I have reached a conclusive opinion at this point in my life that children should be exposed to the power of Linux early on. Two of the reasons are…

For the future of computing

I recently read the article, A year of Linux desktop at Westcliff High School, which is an excellent piece by Stu Jarvis in which Malcolm Moore replies to a question by stating, “Here is a survey that reports in 2000, 97% of computing devices had Windows installed, but now with tablets and phones, etc., Windows is only on 20% of computing devices, and in the world of big iron, Linux reigns supreme. We specialize in science and engineering and want our students to go on to do great things like start the next Google or collapse the universe at CERN. In those environments, they will certainly need to know Linux.”

Linux runs some of the most complex infrastructures in the world. For anyone even remotely interested in a career in technology, learning Linux will be a definite asset. Besides that, the adoption of Linux is massive and ubiquitous. Consider this:

  • Linux powers international space stations
  • Linux powers the technology in new cars like Tesla and Cadillac
  • Linux powers air traffic control systems
  • Google, Facebook, Twitter, all use Linux
  • 9 out of 10 supercomputers in the world run on Linux

There is a rational reason that initiatives like One Laptop per Child, which in my opinion is one of the most powerful programs today that is working to bridge the digital divide, use Linux based systems.

For customization and variety

Learning at an early age can be best enhanced in an environment that encourages exploration. There is no other operating system that offers such variety and autonomy to customize the system based on specific needs like Linux. Like toys and clothes for kids, the Linux community has developed specific operating systems that can offer them a fun learning environment. I believe that to boost curiosity in kids, it is important to create a set up that gives them a feeling of wonder.

Programs to teach kids Linux

There are many different varieties of environments that the Linux community has designed for the children, and I haven’t yet explored them all, but of the ones I did, you should be able to find a great solution for teaching a kid you know about Linux and computing.

Qimo

http://www.qimo4kids.com/

Qimo for kids is a Ubuntu-based distribution designed specifically for children. The operating system comes pre-installed with a lot of educational applications for children ages 3 years and older. It comes with GCompris, a perfect suite for children aged 3 to 10 years. It consists of over 100 educational games that teaches basic computer use, reading, art history, telling time, and drawing pictures, as well as Childs Play, a collection of memory-building games.

One of the things I like best about this distribution is that it uses XFCE desktop , which is a lightweight desktop that can be installed on older machines. The hardware requirements are low and it is absurdly easy to repurpose an old laptop or a desktop system. We had an old PC at home, and Qimo resurrected it. This operating system was my choice for my niece because of its simple child friendly cartoon desktop and assortment of educational applications.

Sugar

https://www.sugarlabs.org/

Sugar was designed for the One Laptop per Child program. It is an easy to use and kid-friendly operating system. Children who love exploring will figure out things quickly in this environment, even if they cannot read or write yet.

From Sugar Labs:

Information is about nouns; learning is about verbs. The Sugar interface, in its departure from the desktop metaphor for computing, is the first serious attempt to create a user interface that is based on both cognitive and social constructivism: learners should engage in authentic exploration and collaboration. It is based on three very simple principles about what makes us human.

Ubermix

http://www.ubermix.org/

From Ubermix founder, Jim Klein, in an Opensource.com interview:

Ubermix comes pre-loaded with a number of applications for education, productivity, design, programming, Internet, and multimedia construction. Education oriented applications like Celestia, Stellarium, Scratch, VirtualLab Microscope, Geogebra, iGNUit, and Klavaro, as well as educational games like TuxMath, TuxTyping, gMult, and Numpty Physics all bring with them plenty of opportunities to learn.

Internet applications we all know and love, like Firefox, Thunderbird, Chrome, Google Earth, and Skype are all there. Common productivity apps like LibreOffice, NitroTasks, Planner Project Management, VYM (View Your Mind), and Zim Desktop Wiki are too. Kids interested in design will find the GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus, Dia, Agave, and even TuxPaint for the younger ones. And apps like Audacity, Openshot, Pencil, and ffDiaporama help round out the media offerings. These, and many more, make Ubermix a powerful launchpad for student creativity and learning.

Edubuntu

http://www.edubuntu.org/

Formally the Ubuntu Education Edition, Edubuntu was developed in collaboration with educators and teachers. It embeds a variety of educational programs and a suitable learning environment. An advantage to it is access to the Ubuntu software repository. The education community has extensively used this operating system in schools and organizations to provide an enriched learning environment for their students. It’s a great operating system to teach older children about Linux; it can have a steeper learning curve in comparison to Qimo and Sugar.

This article of mine was originally published here on opensource.com

Jan 02

Open Source as an alternative to proprietary for small businesses

Is it safe to use? What alternatives do I have? Is it easy to install? These were some of the questions that Amandeep, a New Delhi based owner of a small scale clothing company threw on me when I pitched a few open source solutions that could make his day to day operations efficient. As someone without any I.T knowledge and exposure (but a sharp business sense), these were brilliant and relevant questions. These questions are not restricted to Amandeep but transcend beyond that and reflects apprehensions of a significant number of small scale business owners, especially in India. My interactions, however, shows that a lot of these businesses are constantly looking to grow, enhance their productivity and most importantly save costs.

Approximately 7500 miles away from Amandeep in New Delhi lives Nabeel Hussain. Nabeel is a new product development and digital marketing specialist actively engaged in Waterloo, one of the top entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world. As an entrepreneur, he is always faced with the challenge of managing limited resources while building traction. He has a plethora of technology solutions at his disposal and the technical know how to utilize these solutions. Additionally, whenever required, he has a robust support system to advise and guide him to the best available solution that fits his needs. For Nabeel, open source solutions provide an inexpensive alternative for crafting early stage prototypes for his ideas and validating them with customers. From using WordPress and its library of plugins, to venturing into openshift origin, and Joomla, he has the knowledge to make use of top notch technology to reduce risk, manager resources, and build traction for his venture.

These two different scenarios indicate a categorical gap in the knowledge of entrepreneurs when it comes to adopting open source solutions. Although there is some geographic gap between the entrepreneurs in the developed and the developing world, as well as a gap that spawns from business exposure/experience, the problem is wider than that. There is a difference in productivity and efficiency between entrepreneurs who utilize open source solutions and those who do not. The situation becomes clear when we look at those small scale business owners who are technology pros versus those who are not.

A significant number of businesses, in India in particular and in the developing world in general, are of a mom-and-pop business nature. Based on my recent interactions with these small scale business owners, I see widespread misconceptions pertaining to open source software. The questions that Amandeep from New Delhi asked me are critical in nature. In order for small scale businesses to adopt open source solutions, it is vital to address these misconceptions.

Is open source software really safe?

The question arises from the basic process that is followed to write code using open source way. If any hacker can read your code, then why can’t they use the knowledge to their personal benefit? Most of those sorts of malicious attempts fail because there are a lot of committed people looking over the source code, finding problems, and fixing them. More eyes tame bugs quickly. And security by obscurity is no security at all. What strikes me at this point of time are the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, “Public security is always more secure than proprietary security…For us, open source isn’t just a business model; it’s smart engineering practice.”

Developing code in an open source fashion is an expression of a technique. Software, in our world, should be treated as a service which can be customized based on the specific needs of a user, rather than merely as a product.

I know a lot of people involved at different levels of open source projects. All of them are driven by their commitment to reach technical and professional excellence, and to add to the existing body of technology knowledge. The entire ecosystem of open source is built on that commitment. The Linux operating system, for example, with its proven track record of stability and security, forms the backbone of complex infrastructures and data centers world over. The same benefits that help Linux and other open source tools succeed at the enterprise level can be reaped by small businesses, too.

A couple of months back, I read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. An otherwise helpful and insightful book, the author seems to host a thought process that open source is contrary to the developers’ right to make a profit. A lot of people who think that way do not see the forest for the trees. They see free software, they see Linux, but they miss the multi-billion dollar ecosystem that surrounds open source. Its true that Brian Behlendorf, the person who orchestrated Apache web server, did not make a dime off it, but the immense value that this server has added to the economy and the legions of small to medium size businesses that use this infrastructure is an important contribution. Free software developed by a community is not tantamount to insecurity.

Are there quality alternatives available?

Gone are the days when open source was produced only by the engineers, for the engineers. From word processing to calendar applications to servers and to setting up telephone communication networks, small businesses can benefit hugely from open source solutions. Let us take the example of word processing, an activity that almost all small businesses, irrespective of their field, carry out.

Microsoft Word is the premium software in the area but it is cluttered with features that a lot of small businesses won’t ever use. The bloating of Microsoft Word has cost its simplicity. There are easy to use, simple, free, and open source word processors available out their. A few of these that I have been using (and suggesting to small businesses) as an alternative to Microsoft Word are:

  1. Apache Open Office: This software primarily consists of six tools for managing office tasks, namely: Writer as a word processor, Calc as a spreadsheet tool, Impress for multimedia presentations, Draw for diagrams and 3D applications, Base as a database tool, and Math for creating mathematical equations.
  2. AbiWord: Developed in 1998 with the help of gtkmm, this open source word processor includes both simple word processing features to sophisticated features like multiple views, page columns, and grammar checking.
  3. LibreOffice:This is my favorite and always at the top of my recommendation list for anyone looking for a free and efficient word processing suite. Although the features are similiar to those of ApacheOpen Office, LibreOffice is better when it comes to community support.

There are dozens of other excellent alternative solutions to proprietary software and thousands of open source projects that can serve small businesses. It can sometimes be difficult to select the software which best matches specific needs, but there are plenty of people globally willing to help you make those decisions and help take small businesses down the path to an open and productive future.

This article of mine was originally published here on opensource.com

Sep 08

Open source to bridge the digital divide

I vividly remember my first experience using the Internet in 2000. The amount of information I was hit with by typing my first search term, university, was far beyond my wildest imaginations. This plethora of knowledge filled my mind with wonder, excitement, and enlightenment. I suddenly had the power to read, analyze, and learn about anything and anyone. The knowledge created by some of the greatest minds in the history of mankind was at my disposal, free of cost and just one single click away. I felt empowered.

Fast forward to June 2012. I met a village boy, Rajan, at a local orphanage in my hometown of Amritsar, Punjab. Rajan was dynamic in his conversations and I am sure that given the right facilities, had the potential to live a far better life than he was living. I am not naturally more talented than Rajan, but I had all of the resources available to raise my standard of living that my friend did not. I was born in an economically well off and highly educated Indian family. Is success then only a matter of fate? Is it only dependent on which family a person is born into? Isn’t the world losing talent and passion of those millions who, if given the gift of knowledge can make a positive impact in our world?

This case of massive disparity transcends Rajan and engulfs millions all across the developing countries. According to Linux4Africa, an initiative to bridge the digital divide, in Germany, there are 600 computers per 1000 persons. In Mozambique, Southeast Africa there are 6. I strongly believe that human progress is not possible without access to and use of information. Inclusion and collaboration are not abstract concepts in business and society. No individual can create a meaningful life without having an exposure to the digital world. The situation reminds me of a famous adage that a society becomes developed when the highest level of technology touches the lowest section of society.

Establishing cost effective infrastructure, primarily providing access to the Internet is part of the solution to bridge what experts call the digital divide. The digital divide is undoubtedly a monstrous problem that humanity faces today and it becomes critical to find mechanisms that provide cost effective solutions to this gigantic issue. There have been laudable initiatives and experiments in this direction, some of the most notable being the establishment of the The World Summit on the Information Society and the recently launched campaign by Mark Zuckerberg, Internet.org.

How the digital world works

Connecting the world is the first quintessential step towards digital literacy for everyone, however, the solution does not stop there. Filling the digital divide gives birth to the problem of the knowledge divide. Giving a child access to Facebook or Twitter is useless until the child knows how the digital world actually works. Until someone knows how to use information wisely to her benefit and the benefit of those around her, the initiatives and efforts to just provide Internet access are futile. Providing Internet access and filling in the knowledge gap have to go hand in hand to alleviate the standards of living of millions of people who need it the most.

The open source methodology of executing projects offers a potential solution to the aforementioned problems. There have been a few great experiments and initiatives that have seen success in providing cutting edge infrastructure and knowledge in rural areas at a cost effective manner. A few pioneering initiatives are:

  • The School Sector Reform Plan
  • Open Learning Exchange (OLE) in Nepal
  • One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)
  • Implementation of Ubuntu to provide a solid solution to the problem of connectivity in rural India by the social enterprise Airjaldi

Both the digital divide and the knowledge divide can be resolved by imbibing the aspects of open source. The foundations on which open source software works can be implemented to permeate the digitization to the lowest parts of the society. Three of my thoughts on how the efforts to address these problems can be made more effective and why open source matters to that end are:

The challenge grant model

I recently finished a great book by John Wood, the founder of Room to Read, in which he discusses his innovative method of involving communities to create libraries. The same approach can be experimented to fix the digital divide problem. The idea is to see which communities are motivated enough to bring knowledge to their doorsteps. Once these communities are detected, local leaders can be involved in taking the ownership. This community based approach creates stronger partnerships between social enterprises, public sector, and most importantly the beneficiaries of the solution. Involving the local people of a city to help create an infrastructure makes those people stakeholders in the entire solution.

Participation

Participation is the spinal cord of open source software. The usage of open source software in bridging the digital divide will remove the barriers to participation. To understand how the technology works, it is vital to have access to it and the freedom to explore it. Using free operating systems, like Ubuntu and Fedora, and open software, like XJounal and Kojo, can empower people without restrictions.

Cost

The successful use of the Ubuntu on workstations by Airjaldi exemplifies the importance of using open source software. Airjaldi is able to provide superior network solutions to rural parts of India in very cost effective manner. At places where establishing infrastructure is an issue and affordability is low, open source software becomes the only solution to connect the people.

To put the power of information in the hands of those who need it the most requires low cost yet sophisticated solutions. It requires the support of new approaches, like open source.

 

This article of mine is also published here at opensource.com

Jul 05

Book Review: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft

 

Here is the story of a man who has one of the most unusual business carriers in the last century. Software, music, space,  sports or the complex (and exciting) world of human brain, Paul Allen has made a mark and a lasting contribution in each of these fields. Idea man is a point-blank memoir of terrifying lows and triumphant highs of one of the most influential people in the world who has helped transform the way we live. In his well written, polished book,  Paul gives a detailed account of his successes and failures (and the lessons learned along the way) that resulted from a life full of passion and curiosity. Here are my two cents on the same:

Winning Points:

Microsoft, Bill gates and the business of software: The first part of the book covers details about Paul Allen’s intricate relationship with Bill Gates and the early days of Microsoft. It is a gripping account of two high school friends who went on to become billionaire founders of one of the powerhouses of the corporate world. Their early days at Lakeside, their restlessness to hunt new ideas, their love for computers , their struggle to come up with  BASIC programming language interpreter for Altair 8800, the fascinating story of scaling up Microsoft from a fledgling start-up to a software behemoth, their disagreements on various issues pertinent to their partnership , all of it is extremely engaging and can keep you awake until 3 AM (I suggest picking up the book on a weekend).  With Paul Allen with his industry changing ideas and visions and Bill gates with his business acumen and his “pitiless” execution abilities,  it was among the strongest and the most formidable business partnerships of all times.  Contrary to many media reports, the book takes a neutral stand on Bill Gates and discusses his relationship with both Gates and Microsoft objectively. The section of the book dedicated to the challenges Microsoft was engulfed with for more than a decade from the lawsuits to the brutal competition it faced in the internet and social space from Google, Apple and Facebook forms an interesting read. Allen further provides insights of how these challenges led to the breathtaking fall of the Goliath from grace.

The pursuit of passions: In the first few sections of the book, Paul Allen discuses his wide variety of childhood interests and passions. Paul left Microsoft before it went public and in a short period of time, his stock options turned him into one of the richest persons alive. As was noted by his attorney shortly after the IPO: “This wealth should enable you to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it…”  This wealth enabled Paul to make investments worth billions of dollars in every field he was passionate about. Ho soon bought NBA’s Portland Trailblazers, Seattle Seahawks, got involved with SpaceShipOne project (the first privately funded spacecraft) and invested billions in America online and Ticketmaster. The most notable of all his ventures is the Allen institute of Brain Science. Through its brain Atlas and mapping, the institute has pushed forward humanity by enabling scientists and researchers all over the world in their projects. Much of the data and the research is open to the academic community worldwide. Although this second part of the book is less interesting and engaging than the first, it provides some insights into the world of sports, entertainment and science. Allen has been particularly open minded in accepting his various flaws in these plethora of investments.

Loosing point:

The biggest and the grandest success that Paul Allen had can be categorically attributed to Microsoft, the company he co founded, and his association with Bill Gates.  Albeit he made huge investments and lived a lavish life of a business mogul thereafter, he never had that amount and scale of success. His visions and ideas have transformed industries but majority of those ideas worked and were best realized while he was with Microsoft.  Maybe, execution was never his strength, at least relative to his co-founder at Microsoft.

Final take:

Highly recommended. Not only Paul Allen provides an unclouded description of Microsoft’s early days, this business book is full of forward looking approach and what the technology has in store for our society. One last section is dedicated to the field of Artificial intelligence and the challenges faced in that area.  Anyone interested in history of technology or software will find the book perceptive. For others, there are rich details of many interesting things.

 

Jan 22

The impact of open source on business and social good


I vividly remember that my early opinions about open source software were built around certain questions that made most natural (and perfect) sense to me at that point of time in my life. The questions like “why would someone sell a software product for free” or “Why should anyone participate in a project that does not reaps any financial rewards” formed the basis of my rationale . That was the time when I had not embarked on my professional journey and as a consequence not experienced organizational life. My myopic view towards the open source methodology of developing projects and the profound impact this methodology has on the business world in general and the organizational structure in particular began to broaden after my first intense exposure to the Linux operating system in Bank of America Merrill Lynch. My understanding about the magnificence of this operating system and the  the process by which it is constantly iterated made a 180 degrees transformation. This  consequently cultivated appreciation for the entire process of peer production and the impact it has on today’s businesses, both big and small.

Today, mass collaboration is changing the foundational structure of businesses and reshaping the way these entities operate in our highly competitive environment. Collaboration, fuelled by open methodologies and peer production is forcing management to rethink their strategies. Organizations that have previously created walled cities are breaking the barriers and creating public spaces where all can grow and contribute to push forward the boundaries of their businesses as well as the boundaries of industries they operate in.

In his excellent article “The nature of the firm” (1937), Ronald Harry Coase, the great British economist made a strong argument that one of the reasons for the structure of vertically integrated organizations is the “cost of transaction”. Perform a transaction inside your firm only if it is cheaper than performing it externally or in the marketplace.  The internet boom and the development of open source software and pooled infrastructure has made it possible for the web based businesses to keep these transaction costs low. Don Tapscot, the author of Wikinomics, dissects by saying “Transaction costs still exists, but now they’re often more onerous in corporations than in the marketplace.”

Despite of all the benefits in terms of quality, speed and wealth that open source and the collaborative mode of undertaking projects have generated, there is still some misunderstanding and gap in the appreciation of these significant changes. Some people and business still restrict their comprehension of open source as free software that sucks up the wealth of a healthy capitalist society. These people and businesses do not see the forest for the trees. They see the free software as a threat to the enterprise but miss the multi billion dollar ecosystem that this free software has created from which businesses of all sizes and types are benefiting.

Following are two cases which reflect the impact of “open source way of doing things” on the businesses:

The rise of collaborative organizations:

The digital revolution, also called the third revolution, has changed the entire landscape of the business world. After the industrial revolution, no other revolution has changed the fabric of the society as the Internet revolution has changed it. It has given rise to organizations that thrive on volunteers, peer production, and collaboration. Wikipedia, the Mozilla Foundation, WordPress, Red Hat, and many more are competing today with some of the best financed and resourceful enterprises across the globe. The parameters of this competition are not only governed by cost but defined by quality as well. In 2005, the British Journal Nature conducted a comparative study and found that Wikipedia is as accurate as Encyclopedia Britanica. A Wikimedia trafic analysis report in 2012 shows that Google Chrome has a larger market than Internet Explorer and my second  favorite brower Mozilla Firefox has a significant market share. Likewise, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is widely implemented in almost all the big financial corporations not only because of the cost but also because of the stability it adds to the complex technology infrastructures in financial companies.

Even some of the organizations that have a history of opposing and harpooning open source developments are now opening up to collaborations to create win-win situations. Microsoft is the biggest example. Its wholly owned subsidiary, Microsoft open technologies group, follows a community driven approach to create innovative solutions. One of its recent announcement was the launch of VM Depot, a community driven catalog of open source virtual machine images for Windows Azure. IBM, a company that became a giant by selling everything proprietary, is another big example and its engagement with the Apache web server project and Linux are well known. In 1999, IBM announced its support to the Open source Linux project and since then has contributed consederable financial and technical resources to the Linux comunity. It played an instrumental role in establishing the Apache software foundation and the Linux development group. Not only did the “big blue” save millions that would have gone into developing its own operating system, it learned and mastered the workings of a new type of business model that was set to change the software industry forever.

Organizations and institutions across sectors are opening up for new partnerships and utilizing the vast amount of “unique skilled talents” not available within the confines of their companies. Initiatives like InnoCentive, Human Genome project, MIT and Harvard University’s edX, offer platforms and opportunties for world changing innovations.

The big boost to entrepreneurship:

The internet is one of the best things that have ever happened to humanity. Not only it has opened the world to an individual (and vice versa), it has become a nucleus of global economic activity. More and more people today are making their living by selling bits and bytes. The cost of starting a web based business is extremely low relative to starting businesses that relies on physical channels. This low cost of bootstrapping a business combined with the creative nature of the internet has encouraged millions to launch their own ventures. The low cost of starting a web based business has become possible primarily because of the availability open source software and infrastructure. The free LAMP software stack, which constitutes Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, have made it possible for creative and thoughtful people with ideas to start businesses on the internet which are playing a positive role in pushing forward human race.

Open source movement and methodologies have contributed significantly to the business world and created ecosystems that have positively impacted all the industries and billions of people across the globe. This movement has largely been fueled by thousands of volunteers. These volunteers contribute to these projects for a wide range of reasons which include growing their networks, enhancing  their resumes, refining their skills and just for doing social good. In the words of Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, “We are gathering together to build this resource that will be made available to all the people of the world for free. That’s the goal that people can get behind”. What struck me as I finished the last sentence was a quote from the movie Pearl Harbour, “There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer”.

This article of mine is also published here on opensource.com.

Jan 07

Resolutions and 2013 reading list…

Resolutions are here to stay

I have a consistent track record of “not” following all my new year resolutions through to successful completion. Since 2009, when I first initiated this annual review of the elapsed year and setting goals for the year ahead, there has not been a single year when this resolution strategy has worked to my satisfaction. One of the most gratifying feelings of this year came last weekend when a consultant friend of mine in Toronto told me that he shares the same story too and that I am not alone.

In hindsight, I find that despite of these failed attempts, making resolutions and setting targets is an important “starter” for the new year. It increases productivity, boosts morale and most importantly, it structures the thought process. In fact, I am experiencing that year after year, my resolutions are becoming more rational reflecting increased levels of self-awareness. Out of all the stranded resolutions, there have been a few successful ones too. In 2009, back when I was working as an engineer in India, I vividly remember that two of my resolves were to actively look for an international opportunity in software industry and read 15 books by the end of that year. The international opportunity to work in Singapore didn’t come around the time I had planned. But it did come and brought rich professional and personal experiences with it. I did not read 15 books by the end of 2009. In fact, the count was somewhere around 7 or 8. But I wonder if I had been able to read even 5 books had I not set a target for myself.

A few days back, while reading an article authored by Peter Drucker, I came across the idea of feedback analysis. Peter discusses how constructive it can be to write down the goals and evaluate those at the end of the year to see the progress. This kind of an exercise can give a clear picture of what “not” to pursue.

2013 must reads

Like last year, here I am again with my reading goals for 2013. Out of books that I have shortlisted to read by 1st January 2014, here are 7 that are on top of my list and the reasons for picking them:

Wikinomics: I started this book yesterday and it seems to be one of the most persuasive and finest books on collaborative innovation I have ever come across.

The age of unreason: I have always aspired to read this great work by Charles Handy. Charles is rated among the Thinkers50, a list of most influential management thinkers in the world. What attracts me to this masterpiece is that it grew in reputation decades after it was published after the ubiquitous virtual world, internet and outsourcing proved his vision to be provident.

The Essential Drucker: TIME magazine last year wrote that “over a career that spanned 60 years, Peter Drucker single-handedly invented the field of management”. The insights of this “superstar CEO’s go to guru” are generations ahead of their time. The Essential Drucker is one of the finest representation of his works and thoughts.

My years with General Motors: Alfred P. Sloan Jr. has been one of the most inspiring business leaders. The book, as per the reviews and recommendations of friends, is full of shrewd lessons from managing a giant corporation to product development to corporate structure.

Ubuntu unleashed 2013: I love everything open source and everything built around collaboration strategies. Ubuntu is one of the finest operating systems out there and its been some time now since I explored Linux Fedora.

The four steps to epiphany: I have been ardently reading Steve Blank’s blog since the last 6 months now. Steve is one of the most sought after entrepreneur cum thinkers based out of Silicon valley. As an engineer in a graduate level business program, I believe this book will provide an enriching experience.

The Origin of species: This scientific literature by Charles Darwin, is the foundation of evolution. The book is a carry forward from my reading list for 2012.

Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest political leaders in human history, once said that “A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying”. Well, for me and many others like me, becoming a saint is neither possible nor desirable. What we can do is to make an earnest effort to bring down the count of these “sins” every year. Resolutions, irrespective of their success rate, seem to be one of the best tools at disposal.

Jan 02

Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads: On Managing Yourself

1422157997Forests have fallen by writing books on topics centered around personal management and self improvement. A significant majority of them, especially the ones with gawky titles do not make much rational sense to me. I believe that one can learn and grow more by reading auto/biographies of business and political leaders than by reading the kind of books that claim to teach an MBA in 10 days. I find them superficial and detached from the realities of life.

Things, however, take a 180 degree turn if two of the world’s most influential management thinkers talk about subjects like “managing yourself”. Management gurus like Clayton M. Christensen and Peter F. Drucker have defined the course of management and invented concepts that have not only pushed forward the boundaries of management theory but have profoundly influenced the way corporations operate.

The book HBR’s 10 must reads: On Managing Yourself, consists of 10 articles by top business thinkers. A quick surf on the names of authors who contributed to this splendid book was enough to fire my curiosity. The insights presented on self improvement and self management by Clayton Christensen and Peter Drucker are especially inspiring and worth sharing. I will discuss Clayton Christensen’s article in this post and Peter Drucker’s definitive article in one of my subsequent posts.

In How will you measure your life? , Clayton beautifully ties the successful principles and models implemented in organizations to the individual development.  He believes that innovation theories and models that help build strong companies can also help people lead better lives. The article uses management practices to answer three questions relevant to (almost) everyone’s life. How can I be happy in my career? How can I be sure that my relationship with my family is an enduring source of happiness? and How can I live my life with integrity?

The great american psychologist, Frederick Herzberg, who gave the world “The dual structure theory”, asserted that money isn’t the most powerful motivational factor in a person’s career. It is primarily the opportunity to grow in responsibility, contribute and be recognized.  I think money is a consequence of these prime motivational factors. People who have the most gratifying carriers in their lives are usually the ones who pursue their passions and have a hunger for taking ownership and responsibility. In the words of Clayton, “More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling and investing in companies. Doing deals doesn’t reap the rewards that come from building up people”. These are powerful and thought provoking words.

The organizational theory that answers the second question deals with how strategy for resource allocation is defined and implemented. There are thousands of organizations that mismanage the critical resources at their disposal and shortchange their investments in initiatives that are vital for a long term gain and sustainability of their businesses. The consequence of this mismanagement of resources is usually very different from the strategy the organizational management intends to follow. Likewise, in life too, if there is no sense of purpose or a strategy defined, people will fritter away the limited and critical resources (time and energy) they have at their disposal. The author talks about how, many of his HBS classmates lived fractured personal lives primarily due to a lack of a definite purpose. Like organizations, it is important for individuals to think about a metric by which their lives will be judged.

One of the most reflective sections of this articles discusses the authors own experience in cultivating a clear sense purpose in his life. As a Rhodes scholar in Oxford university, Clayton had very demanding academic commitments. Since having a clear sense of purpose was essential for him, he devoted one hour every night reading and thinking about why God put him on Earth. He further discusses, how he was conflicted about weather he could take an hour off from his academic life but instead stuck with it and ultimately figured out the purpose of his life. Based on my limited readings about lives of other great people like Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, etc, this is not an aberration. People who go on to achieve great feats  align all their activities and short term goals to the ultimate purpose they defined for themselves.

The section that discusses integrity and the related question makes an interesting read as well. The financial theory that states that ignoring the sunk and fixed costs and instead base decisions on marginal costs and marginal revenues when considering alternative investments can have implications for corporations. It many times causes bad decisions. Similarly, this marginal cost doctrine gives birth to  mentality that allures people to do wrong “just this once” . This consequently, can lead people astray. Both in the business world and the personal world of many individuals, disasters happen because of lack of integrity that usually gets ignited by “Just this once”  thought. Justification for dishonesty in all its manifestations lies in the marginal cost economics of “Just this once”. Having principles and sticking to those principles builds conviction and plays a positive role in the long term. In the resounding words of Clayton Christensen, “Its easier to hold to your principles 100 % of the time than it is to hold to them 98 % of the time”.

As someone with a keen interest in management theory, I found this book in general, and the articles by Clayton Christensen and Peter Drucker in particular, engaging. The way Clayton connects different dots and relates seemingly unrelated concepts provides a thought stimulating experience.

Dec 24

A political moral lapse…

In 1956, Lal Bahadur shastri, one of the most remarkable lives of the twentieth century, resigned from his post following a train accident that killed around 150 passengers in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Such was the integrity and ethical standards of leaders of those times.

Since those times, our political “class” has deteriorated so much that  it has become a completely morally bankrupt segment. Today, I made my best efforts to think of politicians (they don’t deserve to be called political “leaders”) who had some integrity and deserved to be called leaders. Sadly, I could not think of many. A significant majority of them do not have the grits to take the ownership of all the unfortunate mishappenings in our so called “culturally rich society”.

The gory details of what happened on 16th December in a moving bus in one of the most crowded capitals in the world “freezed” my mind and thoughts for a few minutes. What has shocked me more since then was the response of the top officials of the Delhi police force and the government. Each of these statements reflected how much they loved their chair and position and how indifferent they are to the pains of people they are supposed to protect. It reflects how inefficient and incompetent our government machinery is.

In one of his comments, the commissioner of the Delhi police said that the police should be appreciated for cracking the case in a very short period of time. Appreciated?? Despite of its tinted glasses (which is unlawful), the bus in which this horrific incident occurred was never stopped at any of the checkpoints. The police force stood ignorant of everything going around them.  Yet another time, the police force showcased its impotency by not preventing this horrendous accident from happening in the first place. The only time the police showed its “machismo” was when it opened water cannons and tear gas on the youth of this country demanding speedy justice. Shame on you Delhi police.

Then comes another surprising comment from the chief minister of Delhi that the girls should not go out at night. I have come across a lot of “dumb” political comments in my life and this one beats a vast majority of them. Instead of asking women to stay at home, why don’t you take some action and create an environment in which people can move around safely? Why doesn’t your government takes strict measures to prevent these kind of cases to occur? Why do you always have to work “inefficiently” on cure than on prevention?

Our prime minister broke all the records by first not coming out and connecting with the people and then by saying “Theek Hai (alright?)” at the end of his speech. May be the victim battling for her life spoke more words and stronger words than the PM did. I have always appreciated Dr. Manmohan singh for his scholastic abilities. Probably, he should have retired as a scholar and never taken up this position.

The debate over the punishment of the accused in this case is appalling in its own regards. If a beast becomes threat to a society, you usually have two solutions. The first is to make your best efforts to tame it. If multiple efforts fail, you take certain alternate measures that end the threat it poses to the innocent people in the society. I believe that punishment for any act of brutality and immorality against ordinary and innocent people should be harsh. The need of the hour is to send a strong message to those “beasts” that any uncivilized act in a civilized society will have zero tolerance. The people who inflict fear on others should experience fear themselves. To uphold humanity, government needs to have strict laws.

This entire incident also raises an important question in my mind. Do our social structures like schools and colleges teach us gender sensitization and tolerance?

I hope the girl gets well, the accused are “severely” punished and someone from the police or the government comes forward and takes the ownership.

 

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