Archive for April, 2008

The Future of IITs

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

The experience, rather than the course content, seems to be core to the success of Harvard Business School in its last 100 years of its existence, according to its leading alumni quoted in a recent FORTUNE magazine article (Click here to read “Happy Birthday HBS” by Geoff Colvin). In his article, Colvin has surveyed many CEOs who are HBS alumni.

This article got me thinking about what lies at the core of IITs that will determine whether they’ll stay as relevant in the next 50 years as they have been in the past 50 years.

(For those having any doubts about the pre-eminence of IITs in the last 50 years, I’ll quote David Baldacci from his recent book “Simple Genius”:

“What’s your take on Champ Pollion? Let me guess, he was first in his class at MIT.”

“No, he actually was second in his class at the Indian Institute of Technology, a school many in the field consider even more prestigious.”).

Some day, I’ll attempt to poll leading IIT alumni for their views. For now, let me give my personal views as an IIT alumnus (IIT Bombay, Chemical Engineering, 1985).

What I remember most from my time in IIT is the problem-solving approach it teaches you – an approach I learned there and have never forgotten in my professional or private life thereafter. In a highly competitive environment where we underwent continuous evaluation (two tests a week, and so forth), we were taught to ponder about unknowns and discover ways to make them knowns. It was not about cramming up course content and regurgitating them during these tests. IITians were always evaluated by how well they’d absorbed the course content and could apply it to solve problems. The following DILBERT comic strips illustrate this very well:

PIC1

PIC2

Many times, you had to think around a problem just to get off the block to solve it. For example, you needed to think of “2a” as not only equaling a + a, but also as (a+b) + (a-b). If you couldn’t (as I couldn’t very often!), you could spend hours and still not make any progress.

In summary, I think it’s the problem-solving approach you learn at IIT that’s core to its success.

I’m sure other IITians might have different views. Vote for yours below.

Having said this, I must admit that IIT makes you a bit obsessed about solving problems – whether they’re worth solving or not, which is something I only learned later during my MBA days. MBA teaches you tremendous goal-orientation: start with the end objective in mind, work backwards, identify problems that help you achieve the objective, solve only those problems, don’t worry too much about the rest. I might be able to validate my view when I survey IITians who went on to do MBAs at IIMs and other B-schools.

Talking of problems and a problem-solving approach, let me leave you with one that most IITians would never have thought they’d be asked to solve!

PIC3

Why Apple Didn’t Get Into PDAs – And the Single Versus Multi-Function Device Debate

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Explaining why Apple didn’t get into PDAs, Steve Jobs said in a recent FORTUNE magazine interview, “when we were pressured for years to do a PDA, I realized that 90% of the people who use a PDA only take information out of it. They don’t put information into it”.

Jobs says later in the interview that, for the 90% of the people, cellphones should pretty much do the job, so the PDA market would shrink considerably when more powerful cellphones came out.

Which is exactly what has happened.

I guess I belong to the other 10%. I do take the trouble to enter information into my Palm PDA and the payback has been great. Which is why I find my Palm PDA indispensable and I will not be replacing it by any mobile phone anytime soon, if ever. I find it is much easier to enter information into my Palm (m105 earlier and then T|X for the past one year) than into my Nokia mobile phone. I do accept that retrieving information is just as easy or difficult from both my Palm and Nokia. So, as Steve Jobs rightly predicted, for 90% of the people who only retrieve information, a mobile phone would be just as suitable. So, combined with the fact that you can do many more “cool” things with a mobile phone, why bother with a PDA?

In my personal experience, if you take the trouble to enter information into your PDA, the benefits can outweigh the additional efforts. For example, if you maintain your calendar in your PDA, you can whip it out anytime when you’re on the move to schedule those difficult-to-obtain meeting opportunities. Whereas people using their Notebook PCs to maintain their calendars have to start it up before they can access their calendar. Even assuming they can do this when they’re on the road, it often takes so long that they tend to say that they need to “check my calendar and get back”. Some meetings are so difficult to obtain, so when you get the opportunity, you got to grab it immediately – the opening may not be there when you get back to your hotel or office, check your PC and get back.

This brings us to a slightly different but related topic. “Best-of-breed versus integrated”, “multi-function versus single function devices”, “breadth versus depth” – these are some of the names by which the tech world has been debating whether it’s better to install different software products for different functions or install a single integrated package for all functions; and, similarly, whether it’s more effective to have a separate printer, copier, scanner and fax machine, or have everything rolled into a single multi-function device.

Like we’ve seen in the case of Apple’s decision not to produce a PDA, one major factor that influences this decision is how people use individual devices. For people who only retrieve information, a mobile phone may be sufficient, whereas people who enter information would want a separate PDA and mobile phone.

In my personal experience, other contributing factors are the primary purpose of purchase within the backdrop of the relative importance of other features and the state-of-the art of the technology.

In some cases, I find individual devices better. Like I said before, I prefer to use a separate PDA for maintaining my calendar rather than doing this on my PC or mobile phone. In other cases, I have found a single multi-function device more convenient. For example, mobile phone MP3 players. I have been an early adapter of MP3 players integrated into mobile phones and, like I wrote in 2006, they have changed lifestyles. (Click here to read this blog post). No wonder the Apple iPhone includes the iPod.

My opinion has changed sometimes along with changes in the state-of-the-art of the technology. For example, eight or ten years ago, I used to believe that, in trying to do many things, multi-function devices end up doing nothing too well. Which was quite right at the time. However, when I bought my first multi-function device (HP Photosmart 2210) around four years ago, my impression began to change. Last year, I was completely converted into an MFD fan when I bought my HP Photosmart C6180 multi-function device. It’s a 4-in-1 that can print, copy, scan and fax. Even if its copying and scanning are slower than what you might find in standalone copiers and scanners, that hardly matters to me because I use these features rarely. Besides, as a single multi-function device, it takes up lot less space compared to four separate devices, and that’s a major benefit.

This debate has been going on for years now and, personally, I don’t think we’ll see an end to it anytime soon.