A walk down IT lane

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 20, 2012 20:12 hrs

Rediff.com gave me, and probably many other Indians, our first email addresses, chat room experience (complete with those emoticons) and a source for news in the late nineties and early noughties. The site and the brand, thus, have a special place, personally. You are reminded of the heady anticipation with which you waited for a dial-up connection to take you into the World Wide Web; the eagerness with which you checked every email, including spam; and the minutes spent at an internet cafe just to “chat with an online friend”.

This should explain my enthusiasm when I started reading Ajit Balakrishnan’s latest book, The Wave Rider, which promised to give a round-up of how information technology emerged both in India and in the US, and how the sector shaped up during and after the dot-com era. The highlight of the book is the narrative by Mr Balakrishnan, who is founder, CEO and chairman of Rediff.com. It is interspersed with accounts of some very interesting situations he faced while guiding his own dot-com in India’s then-inconsequential internet space.

The book has its high and low points. It is interesting to read how

Mr Balakrishnan took the decision to list on Nasdaq in 2000. Back in India, till that time, no dot-com had even dared to think about initial public offerings. The Securities and Exchange Board of India was still mulling over the whole dot-com business cycle. You can sense the dilemma the entrepreneur had to face when he had to choose between taking his fledgling company public on Nasdaq and merely watching someone else do it, as his bankers advised him. Soon after listing, Mr Balakrishnan was hit with a class-action lawsuit. He writes, “In all my life I had never faced a lawsuit or seen the inside of a courtroom in India and here I was facing one in the tough courts of lower Manhattan.” Probably it was these incidents that taught him how things worked for listed internet firms; how lawyers and bankers made money; how an entrepreneur cannot really keep his business away from “defaming” headlines and voices on the street that happily penalise a business for every move made.

Apart from the personal narrative, which I enjoyed the most, the book connects the dots of technological evolution — these portions can seem somewhat drab to the average reader. For instance, Mr Balakrishnan states that the spinning device that came up in 1660 marked the first wave of technological transformation. He adds that this was followed by coal-fired steam that powered industrial machines and railways, which created the second technological wave. Electric power and steel formed the next wave, which was followed by mass production across industries. The fifth wave of technological revolution, according to the author, has its origins in microprocessor chips.

The Wave Rider has a non-chronological structure. It uses established industrial theories and research from across the globe and links them with the emergence of information technology. So just when you are ready to read about Rediff.com – the first website domain name registered in India, in 1996 – Mr Balakrishnan flashes back to describe the turmoil in the Indian computer industry. Then he reminisces about his college days at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, when he had little interest in the computer system. Finally, he describes the eventual domestication of computers.

You can’t help but chuckle when the author details some investment bankers’ (two of them, to be precise) attempt to engineer the sale of Rediff. His subsequent reaction could lead the reader to conclude that the entrepreneur has never claimed that he started the company to sell it to the highest bidder, eventually. Mr Balakrishnan’s response to both investment bankers was: “Sir, how good a price would it take to have sex with your wife?” But the CEO goes on to analyse his reaction. He reasons that he is a king-orientation type (one who chooses to maintain a tight control of his enterprise) and not a rich-orientation type (who maximises his wealth by selling pieces or all of the business to others). That said, he also admits the many mistakes he made with regard to Rediff.com. “Entrepreneurs have to make about-turns, discard fondly held truths about their business overnight and move on to the next thing,” he writes.

It would have been a bonus for readers if Mr Balakrishnan had added his views on how Rediff.com’s role in tapping the American capital market was closely watched by the innumerable dot-coms that had proliferated in India a decade back. You may be tempted to skip a few theories like those related to machine, steam, telecom fibre evolution, and even a chapter on computer language. However, The Wave Rider would be incomplete without this background information to show you the dawn of the information age.

A Chronicle of the Information Age
Ajit Balakrishnan
Pan Macmillan India
Rs 599; 228 pages

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