Editorial/Operating theatre
Angels of Silicon Valley
Letters to the Editor

No one doubts Mr Bill Gates and Microsoft are guilty of nasty business practices. The information technology giant did the dirty on the internet browser pioneer, Netscape Communications. It is presently playing cat and mouse with palmtop maker, 3Com, and rival operating system languages like Linux. But there is a difference between being a below the belt competitor and being a monopoly.

The United States justice department�s antitrust division has convinced everyone Mr Gates is a ruthless businessman. Yet its case Microsoft is a predator continues to be shot through with contradictions. This is clear in its suggestion to US judge, Mr Thomas Penfield Jackson, that the company be broken into half. The first Microsoft would own the operating systems, including the ubiquitous Windows. The other would get applications like the internet services and software programmes like Excel. This sounds dramatic. But, it is questionable if it will serve the customer, on whose behalf the US government is waging this battle.

The justice department�s case was built around the argument Microsoft used its monopoly power to see off rival products and throttle innovation. If so, why is it then asking for the creation of two monopolies. It has been suggested the best, most competition inducing, solution would be to crack the operating system monopoly. In other words, allow three or four Microsofts to market Windows programmes. Another suggestion has been that Microsoft be made to reveal the source code of Windows. This would allow anyone to come out with a version of the operating system.

The justice department opted for a crude axe job because it feared the unpredictable fallout of fragmentation. For one thing, Microsoft�s shares would be sure to plummet, angering millions of shareholders. This could even endanger Wall Street�s present bull run. Customers would probably have found a market filled with alternative, possibly noncompatible, Windows systems confusing. To a remarkable degree, the trust busters seem terrified of a consumer backlash.

This is curious. An antimonopoly action whose enforcers are uncertain of consumer support is almost an oxymoron. The single most important reason for breaking up big companies is to benefit customers. This is the weak point of the action against Microsoft. Because it earns from both the operating system and downstream applications, the US behemoth has had a strong motive to moderate prices. If it jacks up Windows� prices, it cuts into its sales of Windows based applications. Therefore it is quite likely that twin Microsofts would increase prices all around. The justice department hopes that a Microsoft applications firm would hedge its bets by producing non-Windows based programmes. But this could take years to have any impact. How much incentive is there to develop an alternative WordPerfect if one operating system has 90 per cent of the market?

The only moderating factor is that Microsoft only really dominates the personal computer. But this is becoming yesterday�s machine. The firm has fared poorly in the market for operating systems for servers, it is nowhere in the palmtops business and is struggling for space in that for cellphones and websites. However, the government cannot use this argument. That its monopoly situation is being overtaken by technological development is the core of Microsoft�s legal defence against breakup.

It is expected that between Mr Jackson passing a sentence � he is not bound by the justice department�s suggestions � and a likely appeal, it could take years before Microsoft�s fate is finalized. It says something about the tricky nature of high technology economics and markets that traditional antimonopoly action is finding it hard to ensure that when it breaks down the big it does not hurt the small as well. This is the trust busters� nightmare. If breaking up Microsoft bites customers the hardest, future trust busters could find themselves facing a less than believing public.    

This is, very appropriately, the age of young achievers, of bright-eyed young men and women who achieve lift off, as it were, at a very young age, and race into space, and its millions of stars, and millions of dollars. No plodding through the years for them; no clinging to such antiquated notions like seniority and date of entry into a particular grade. Cyberbabies, no less. Almost from the laps of adoring mothers to the cradle of crores, rocked gently by the expanding businesses they have set up.

The media have begun calling some of them the angels of Silicon Valley, where there are more Indians earning millions than any other community. K.B. Chandrashekhar, Kanwal Rekhi, Suhas Patil, Rakesh Mathur and Ram Sriram are among those who have established concerns that have become billion dollar enterprises in a very short time. They certainly are not the only ones; there are many many more, some perhaps earning relatively less than these five, but earning very large sums indeed.

Then there is another set of Indians who have amassed fortunes almost as impressive, the latest among this lot being Sandeep Chawla, Rakesh Kalra and Kishen Kumar, who we hear have been involved in the matchfixing business. Add to this list some others: Abhishek Verma, Romesh Sharma, the former wing commander, Satnam Shah, even though he�s a bit long in the tooth, his daughter, Priya, and others of that breed, and you have another set of Indians who have risen like meteors to levels of wealth that ordinary creatures like us cannot even comprehend.

There are some characteristics both types share: driving ambition, a steadfast determination to achieve what they set out to do, and the use of all their skill and intelligence to do it. That, of course, is where the resemblance ends.

The cyberbabies have used the system, and used it well; they have acquired knowledge and skills, and brought to their knowledge a remarkable degree of innate talent and ability. They have used their skills and proved more than a match for those who have been and still are in the field; they have left them groping around as they set up their enterprises, brought to them insight and dynamism and of course the steadfast concentration on the mission they set for themselves.

Was it only education? Hardly. The institutions they have been to have turned out some very fine young minds, true, but it would be incorrect to ascribe the success of the cyberbabies to the institutions alone. Or, for that matter, to their innate gifts, which they obviously have. The great difference has been the sort of attitudes and priorities that they have got from their homes � parents, grandparents, siblings, and everyone else. Not in sermons and sanctimonious lectures, but more by example. The classic precept and example. That, most certainly, got them off to the start they needed.

They built on systems, added to them, leaving them enriched, again by precept and example, for those who have come and are coming after them. They have strengthened, reinforced, and stretched the systems to their limits.

And what of the other lot of �achievers�? Those who sought also to get rich quick but chose other means? Was it the same, impersonal educational and training systems that they used, but which failed them? Not in the least. They are, all of them, well educated, in the sense in which we in India mean well educated, which means they have the right degrees and have been, many of them, to the �right� colleges and institutions.

What differentiates them from the cyberbabies, going by what one gets to know from the media, is a lack of a sense of honour. What is called izzat, a word that cannot be translated very easily. Izzat in its best sense; not that oafish idea of izzat which makes a young goon kill his sister for falling in love with someone from another caste or religion. Izzat which means the ability to hold one�s head high, so poignantly depicted by Balraj Sahni in the film Garm Hawa; the izzat that makes one dismiss with contempt the idea of doing something demeaning, of cheating or defrauding others. The cyberbabies have this izzat, and it brings, in a real sense, izzat to us all; their families, friends, the society in which they live, and to their country, which sorely needs it.

But beyond this there is something else that those other �achievers� have been subject to; the instilling in their minds at a very early age, of the notion of greed. �Don�t you want this lovely toy, koochie poochie? Mama will get it for her little jewel.� �You like this dress, Pummy darrling? Here are ten of them.� Mothers who mince by on stiletto heels and waves of French perfume to kitty parties and fathers who spend most of their time doing �deals� and then drinking heavily well into the night � these creatures seek to assuage their consciences by stuffing their fat, neglected children with all manner of goodies and food. The taste for good living as an end in itself then begins to grow; with the passing of years these fond parents give Bunty �darrling� and Vikki �darrling� use of their BMWs, unlimited amounts of cash, bodyguards to be their proxy macho figures, and the freedom to roam the world. But these lifestyles need to be kept up, and the most doting of parents grow old, so then the easy ways offer themselves, ways they have been encouraged to take to, to perfect, and exploit.

They have been taught the magic mantra � keep close to political and bureaucratic power, lay out the cash for it, and the world will be yours. Invest not in securities, but in powerful people; employ strong arm men to get you what you want, and then use the powerful people to protect you. They had the world meaning all the glitter they grew up in and saw around them; the cars, the farm houses, the life styles, the lavish trips abroad, designer clothes and designer girlfriends, and the flashbulbs going off as they entered the latest parties.

Perhaps they heard of the cyberbabies and laughed indulgently; hard work is for the mentally retarded. Because they had it all anyway. And did it matter if there was contempt in the eyes of some when they entered a room? If a little slime stuck to their impeccable dinner jackets? Not really, except when they got to the fetid confines of Tihar jail, and were produced in court, with flashbulbs going off, true, but only when there was a sheet over their heads.

A long journey, from jail to the fat spoilt childhood in an airconditioned nursery, but a clear one. One that the perfumed mothers and wheeler dealer fathers need to think about, before they load their little �darrlings� with toys and rich food, before they pour the acid of greed and soft options into their soul. It is they who create these other �achievers�, and then sit, wailing, in their fashionable flats.

Meanwhile, as the doors close on various jails, on lawyers huddling with these jowly, sweating clients, let us, for just a moment, indulge ourselves in the achievements of our cyberbabies; and not just on their achievements, but the promise of the future, their future and ours.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


Parasitical birds of a feather

Sir � Should the �sister act� in Madhya Pradesh really be cause for surprise (�Sister act by Mamata of MP for fasting Uma�, May 4)? Politicians are a fraternity of parasites living off the people they are supposed to represent. True, the battle for spoils makes it necessary for one group to be constantly at odds with another. But meeting points are not that rare. Especially in today�s coalition politics where ideology has been sidelined to accommodate whoever will help a party to come to power. Consider the present, giant multi-party ensemble ruling in New Delhi right now. A similar feat might be in Kalpana Parulekar�s mind. Prabha Rau, the Congress�s woman for Madhya Pradesh affairs, can rest in peace.

Yours faithfully,
J. Sen Sarma, Calcutta

History begins at home

n Sir � The building at 7 Hazra Road might not be a claimant to the preserved buildings list because of once being a residence of Chittaranjan Das, but it has its history (�CMC honour for Amartya�s house�, April 24). The house used to be called �Ranjan Abaas� and belonged to Niranjan Mukherjee, Rai Bahadur Nrishingha Ranjan Mukherjee (once magistrate of Dacca) et al, who were of the lineage of Dakshina Ranjan Mukhopadhyay, a well known figure of Bengal renaissance. Nrishingha Ranjan was Aban-indranath Tagore�s brother in law and the family had close relations, social and matrimonial, with the Tagores of both Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata. Its history can be traced to Gangadhar Thakur of Allahabad.

The house was later sold for the establishment of a girls� institution in the memory of Aparna Devi, Chittaranjan Das�s daughter and mother of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, former chief minister of West Bengal. Ray, in his youth, is known to have spent hours playing tennis in the lawns of Ranjan Abaas. Sujata Devi, daughter in law of Das, in whose memory an auditorium was later built inside the premises, frequently visited the Mukherjees because the Das family were their close neighbours residing on Nafar Kundu Lane.

Many members of the Tagore clan, such as Parul Tagore, Indira Devi, Pratima Devi, Tagore�s daughter in law, Gaganendranath Tagore and others used to drop in. Gaganendranath drew a number of sketches and did a few portraits in oil of the more famous Mukherjees, including Sulava Devi, Abanindranath�s sister in law.

Yours faithfully,
Indrajit Banerji, Calcutta

Sir � I was delighted to read in �Unholy row over habitat� (April 20) that the Bishop�s House is listed as a heritage building by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. I was at the same time shocked to hear the bishop, Reverend P.S.P. Raju, believes history to be of only �academic value�. Is this how Raju regards the long history of the diocese of which he is the bishop? It is strange to see a religious head so intent on destroying history just to generate income.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Mullick, Howrah

Last word

Sir � All the hullabaloo about Hrithik Roshan replacinng the ageing Khan trio �Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman � in the Mumbai film industry is nothing more than media myopia. He is being promoted by his father, Rakesh Roshan, in a sensationalist manner. Behind all this is Bollywood�s well masked communal sentiments. A single film, Kaho Na ...Pyar Hai, that shows the younger Roshan display his biceps, cannot make him a star. These fanatics should be treated by eye specialists.

Yours faithfully,
Saima Afreen, Calcutta
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