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January 30, 1999


A can of dreams: Vinod Dham, father of the Pentium, challenges IIT lads to believe in the impossible. Priya Ganapati
at Techfest 99, IIT Bombay

When Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he set out to scale Mount Everest, he simply said, "Because it is there."

Email this story to a friend. But explorers of the mind, like Vinod Dham, have just the opposite reason for their obsessions: "Because it is not there".

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Dham, who is credited with designing the Pentium processors, loves impossibilities. After all, that gives him the opportunity to invent.

At the Techfest 99 celebrations on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology here the star value was provided by Dham, Infosys Chairman Narayana Murthy and celebrated mathematician Sir Roger Penrose. Penrose joined in through videoconferencing from London.

But it was the unassuming Dham who won the day.

Everyone wanted to see the father of Pentium. For most students Dham's legend begins and ends with the processor from Intel.

Fewer know about his Silicon Spice start-up. "Silicon Spice? That is probably the name of the fifth Spice Girl after Geri Halliwell," guessed a budding engineer from Pune!

Yet, the 1,800-seat Convocation Hall was bursting at seams. People squatted in the aisles and even crowded at the doors that had been kept open.

A few minutes into Dham's lecture revealed the stuff inventors are made of: The ability to dream a dream.

Dham suggested that Rs 9,999 would be the correct price for a PC that could be taken to the Indian masses.

When a student pointed out that there is not even a memory device available at that kind of price in the market today, Dham smiled, "If there isn't one you have to design one."

Backstage, he explained that Intel has no incentive to reduce prices. It is competition from AMD and the likes that brings prices down. He felt that India must innovate and build its own low-cost chips that can get basic computing done. This will help increase penetration of computing, he believed.

Dham's lecture was on 'The emerging Age of the Internet'.

"The three technology drivers on the Internet today are PCs and networked appliances, connectivity and communication, and content. Web based services will soon displace software services. There are ISPs who are maintaining client company databases like payrolls, HR records and billing. The Internet is changing the way business is being done," he declared.

At this point, a volunteer who had been changing slides for Dham missed one. When Dham asked him to return to the previous slide, the now extremely tense volunteer, found Microsoft PowerPoint had crashed!

But when the performance was repeated after a hurried reboot, the audience was in splits. Unfazed, Dham laughed, "It is not his fault. It is Bill Gates'." Thunderous applause and whistles met that.

With the slides finally sorted out, Dham elaborated on the advantages of online services. Convenience and lower costs of doing business were his top two reasons for e-commerce becoming popular.

"I do most of my shopping for books online at It is so convenient. I order a book on the Net and the next morning it is delivered to me," he said.

Dham believes that the largest revenues in e-commerce come from computer hardware, software, travelling, books, music and gifts.

He is, however, not impressed with all the talk about India being a major player in the software sector worldwide.

''I keep hearing about this and feel good exactly for a nanosecond. But what the real statistics show is that out of a $500 billion world market for software, India's market for software comes to just $3 billion. That is about 0.6 per cent of the market share," he pointed out.

He then rolled out some tips for the Indian IT industry:

  • Create a venture capital fund that will fund more companies and start-ups in the industry.
  • Catalyse the available marketing skills. Get some gurus from the consumer marketing segment, if necessary, and ask them to identify segments and market products.
  • Upgrade India's IT infrastructure, especially the telecom infrastructure.
  • Move up the food chain by going away from bodyshopping and towards marketing.

Dham also believes that the IT industry cannot develop in isolation. "While we are building the information highway we need to make sure that the real highway is there too. We cannot ignore basics like continuous electricity, clean water and basic hygiene," he warned.

Later, in a chat with a reporter, Dham lamented the state of affairs in the country. Despite living in the US for over 20 years, he came across as someone who has constantly been in touch with the economics and politics of the country.

"Today when I open the newspapers I see only politics and about which government has fallen and who's pressurising whom. There is very little talk about the economy in the country. We really need to get the economy going for that is what matters at the end of the day," he advised.

If his audience was all ears, it was all eyes too. One reporter wanted to know what tie he was wearing and whether the wristwatch was a Rolex!

Dham managed to remain nonchalant about this too. And when he could not decipher the make of his tie, he had an eager IIT volunteer squinting at the label!

Dham, who's been in India for a week now, is extremely disturbed about the recent attacks on Christians across the country. "It is a very disturbing. We have always been tolerant of other cultures. Tolerance has been our tradition. I am extremely unhappy over these attacks," he said.

Wipro to get a dash of Silicon Spice

Dham revealed that Silicon Spice Inc is entering a partnership with Wipro Infotech to provide a significant part of software for a product developed by Silicon Spice.

Later in an exclusive chat with Rediff, he explained that "We are building a 'telecom processor' which, if successful, will be as ubiquitous in the telecommunications sector as the Pentium is in the computer segment."

Dham, however, refused to divulge any details about the product pleading security reasons. "We would not like to talk much about our product now as it is too early. Much of the information on the product is confidential right now," he said.

Wipro is expected to write the code for the software that will be integrated on to the chip. "It is more of an arrangement in which we will be using the skilled software engineering expertise that Wipro has. Wipro would need to understand the architecture of our product and write the code for it," Dham explained.

Dham is keen on a greater relationship with Wipro but only if the managerial teams of the companies can hit it off. "Two or three years later, if both parties are happy and if our management is comfortable working with them then Wipro can internally develop parts of the processor which we would then be buying from them," he told this reporter.

Narayana Murthy

The Infosys Technologies chairman had an hour-long lecture that was full of neatly cut out advice: Don't be cynical. Cynicism subtracts value. Move away from the realm of rhetoric to the realm of action. Unless you have a social conscience you cannot be successful. Look at every lacuna as a possible opportunity. The country needs to go heavy on family planning and the government should concentrate on it.

At this point the audience was in splits but an unperturbed Murthy continued.

"The key thing is that all of us must believe in what we are doing. If you are pursuing excellence in what you are doing you are adding value to society," he said.

Sir Roger Penrose

The third lecture of the day was through a videoconference by Penrose who attempted to explain why human intelligence is impossible to compute.

But most of it was lost on the student community that had difficulty following Penrose's British accent over a very bad connection. Besides, Penrose's argument was very technical and the tired young minds were not just ready for another class of mathematics. Students kept walking off every now and then.

Yet, overall, the Techfest turned out to be a fun gig for the students. Banners across the campus proclaimed 'Technology is addictive. Ask us. We are the techno addicts'.

Touch screen kiosks were all over the place with short quizzes on technology that could win you free food and cash.

The about 8,000 students across the sprawling campus had activities to keep them occupied till late in the night. Actually, the fun came out with the darkness. There were cyber cafes and virtual reality games that had a mile-long queue of students waiting to try them out. Also a bunch of sci-fi movies were scheduled for the evening.


'If we base our strategies in high-tech on low
cost of labour, things are likely to backfire'

- An interview with Vinod Dham

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