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November 5, 1999
Bangalore IT.Com does better this year
M D Riti in Bangalore
"Generators," hissed a well-dressed man in a dark business suit, standing in the middle of the aisle between stalls.
"If he hadn't mentioned the equipment he was selling, I might have taken him for a body shopper," punned an e-commerce solutions vendor from Hyderabad who was escorting me through a part of Bangalore IT.Com 1999.
'Benefit from IT' says the slogan for Bangalore IT.Com, the infotech exhibition that proclaims that it's the biggest in Southeast Asia for this millennium.
Just whom did they intend to benefit, was the question that many industry people are left asking. Was the main objective of this mega show the same as that of IT exhibitions worldwide, and that is to improve business for the Indian infotech industry?
Or was it meant to showcase Indian and global IT, and display it to the average citizen of Bangalore, in order to educate the uninitiated about IT?
The Karnataka government and its IT secretariat appear to have set out to achieve a combination of both, and fallen between two stools in the process.
Karnataka IT secretary Sanjoy Das Gupta said that the five-day event is expected to generate business worth $125 million by attracting 40,000 business visitors from the world over.
In the same breath, he also said that about 300,000 general visitors are expected to come to the show every day.
"How can we do serious business when potential customers have to elbow gawkers out of the way to reach us, even during business hours?" asked the irate stall manager of a company in the Software Technology Parks of India pavilion.
On every single one of the five days of the exhibition, general visitors outnumbered business visitors two to one or more.
Although a specific time of day was set aside as business hours 10.30 am to 2.30 pm, you could see children running merrily in and out of exhibitors' stalls, grabbing colourful brochures, throughout the day.
Even the ticketing system seemed to be geared to encourage the layperson, with businessmen being charged Rs 100 and the public only Rs 25 per head!
Except for a few companies that had hardware or CDs that they could sell to the home PC user, most businesses admitted that after lunch hour, all they did was talk to a stream of visitors who knew next to nothing about IT.
Perhaps this was why company representatives who knew next to nothing about the products or services they were exhibiting manned a majority of the stalls.
Questions that were even superficially technical threw them into a flurry of confusion and had them running immediately to a senior stall manager.
About 250 student volunteers, dressed in blue jeans and pale shirts, manned the registration counters for business visitors at the entrance, giving the place a yuppie ambience.
When Rediff quizzed the IT secretariat about the value of the business transacted during the exhibition, which was held at the KEONICS Electronics City just outside Bangalore, from November 1 to 5, they said, quite rightly, that it is impossible to estimate this.
Any good exhibition just facilitates interaction between companies and potential customers, and actual transactions mostly take place after the event.
In fact, a good business relationship originating from an exhibition could generate tens of millions of rupees of sales over a span of a decade.
How then did the secretariat confidently ascribe numbers to the volume of business anticipated? Could they have been including the ticket money, which we estimate should be more than Rs 7.5 million?
This time the exhibition was loosely divided into several special interest business pavilions like software solutions, infrastructure, e-commerce and home.
All the firms operating out of STPIs all over the country were put under one roof. None of the big global vendors of ERP, like BaaN, Peoplesoft and SAP had stalls in a special ERP pavilion.
"We were also surprised to see that this pavilion boasted of as many as 19 occupant stalls... until we discovered that as many as 10 of these were IT and general industry trade bodies like MAIT, KASSIA, CII and FKCCI, which had absolutely nothing to do with ERP!
"Interestingly, the ERP market now seems to lie more in the SME (small and medium enterprise) segment. An ERP solution with a fast implementation process called Evolus that says it can be completed in just two months as against the six months or one year that BaaN or SAP usually take, caught our eye. The concept and the finance for this package came from a Swiss IT professional but it was developed in Bangalore by local engineer B Vishwanath and has now also got Rs 43 million funding from IDBI."
The e-commerce pavilion was booming with 40 participant companies. Many had nothing to do with hardcore e-commerce. There was, for example, the Bangalore based Fusion Software Engineering, which could have fitted into any pavilion as the nature of its work was just that: any IT work at all that came its way.
While one cannot, technically speaking, call such organisations body shops, its senior officers readily admit that they take up both onshore and offshore projects in any specialisation whatsoever, ranging from avionics to banking, provided they need have no special domain knowledge.
There were also interesting companies like E-Infochips, which launched their Web marketing product called e-Extractor, priced at just Rs 500, at the exhibition.
This tool, which was developed indigenously by this Ahmedabad based company, helps Internet users to extract special interest email addresses from search engines for their mailing lists.
Other firms were marketing courses designed by IIT Kharagpur, reminding us of the funds crunch that has driven such premier institutes into selling their expertise as they were meant to all along.
Interestingly, Bangalore based software giant Infosys has also positioned itself in the e-commerce pavilion.
Equally interestingly, many of the biggies readily admitted that their presence at the exhibition was mostly an image building exercise and not much business was likely to come their way through this forum. Others, like Wipro, were conspicuously absent from the show.
"We are just showcasing Honeywell's software operations in India," said a company spokesman to Rediff. "We did get a couple of leads for potential projects," said J Shantaram, business development manager of Infosys. "But our main goal is to gain visibility amongst our potential employees."
This seemed to be a major part of the agenda with the companies who specialise in projects, requiring skilled manpower in large numbers and suffering from high employee turnover. Many companies had big cardboard boxes, with wide slits on their lids, bearing the legend `Careers with us'.
Large numbers of students could be seen frantically scribbling bios and pushing them into the boxes, reminding us that Karnataka has the largest number of engineering colleges in the country and that a majority of the graduates remain unemployed for years.
In keeping with the latest fad, the catchword at this exhibition was e-governance. The Karnataka government hosted the three-day national seminar on the subject to coincide with IT.Com '99.
Exporter giant TCS was also busy promoting e-governance tool named KisanNet, which the company claims is designed to manage the transactions of agricultural marketing yards and farmers' co-operatives through the Internet.
The companies that were really doing brisk business were the sellers of hardware, mostly imported, like Zenith Computers, which said that it had received enquiries for Rs 4 billion.
Companies like Pentafour were doing brisk business selling small software packages on CDs. So were the large numbers of firms offering courses in everything ranging from Web design to programming languages.
Only the ERP courses found no takers.
Inexplicably, there was an almost permanent long queue outside the US pavilion, possibly because it was closest to the entrance, but also possibly because the general public thought that it might give them insights on how to emigrate successfully.
Once they actually got in, they were in for a big disappointment. American participation was advertised in a big way by the organisers, with the US even being made a partner country at this show.
One of the five days was even named America Day, with American cultural programmes held at a luxury hotel.
If all this bonding could have been translated into dollar revenue, it might have been a much more worthwhile enterprise. However, almost a third of the firms present here were fully Indian and the rest were the Indian representations of the American companies.
Many even turned out to be companies started by Indians in India but with offices in the US.
There were also, as expected, a handful of products which had no connection whatsoever with the IT industry and were obviously just out for building brand amongst the consumers visiting the exhibition.
These included Agarwal's Eye Hospital, which shared a stall with a firm selling herbal beauty products. Then, there was Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises Limited, a firm that specialises in building roads: it is currently building the Bangalore-Mysore and the Hubli-Dharwad bypass highways, with US collaboration.
And, of course, there were the ubiquitous woollen underwear.
"IT professionals going abroad always come to us for their requirements of warm wear, so we thought we should support this exhibition and be here," said a representative of Bangalore Eastern Stores, a popular woollen goods retailer from Commercial Street.
Similarly, there were realtors hawking flats and business spaces and travel agents promoting family holidays.
There is no doubt that the exhibition was a great success with the general public of Bangalore and nearby towns, with families queuing up for hours in the hot sun for tickets, squabbling at ticket windows and picnicking under the trees in the parking lot.
Occasionally, their enthusiasm had to be curbed by the large police force deployed there. "It looks as if the families of Bangalore have decided to come here for their weekly outing, instead of doing the usual rounds of the city's parks like Lalbagh, Cubbon Park or Bannerghatta safari," remarked a disgusted businessman as he drove out.
If the Karnataka government has a twin agenda of promoting IT business and educating the public under the same roof, how can they aspire to provide a serious forum for the infotech business?
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