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Book Review: A pioneer of India's Internet saga

The Wave Rider: A Chronicle Of The Information Age: By Ajit Balakrishnan; Macmillan; 2012; Rs 599.


 


Whenever  India’s information technology  story  is   told,  writers  --especially of the instant-headline or TV ‘breaking news’  variety --  tend to think it happened  like  the Big Bang, with TCS, Infosys and Wipro. I have found it unsettling,  when many of the young people who  form part of the IT professional community in India, also display such  sweeping ignorance of the event and people who in the 1970s  to 1990s,  paid the foundation – through policy, entrepreneurship and innovation—upon which these so called bellwether It companies built their name and fame.


 


Ajit Balakrishnan, the founder and Chief Executive of Rediff.com,  the pioneering Indian  Internet entity, belongs to this  coterie of people and  companies whose  vision helped create what is today the India brand of IT.   In the early 1980s, he helped  a small Indian computer maker, PSI Data Systems to put together  a desktop microcomputer even before the world woke up to the IBM PC. He battled bizarre government regulations that prevented PSI from importing an operating system software to fuel their machines.


 


By 1991, inspired by what he saw in the US, while attending  an executive course in Harvard, he mulled over the possibility of replicating in India, the model of  AOL and CompuServe  who provided what were then known as Bulletin Board  Services.   When the government-owned VSNL, introduced Internet in India, Balakrishnan leased some lines from them and on Christmas day 1995, launched  rediff.co.in, India’s first Web server.  He quickly realized that no one wanted to pay for services  like email  -- the trick was to offer such services free and still carve out a viable Net business. It took Balakrishnan and Rediff  almost three years to get this new act together – but  when it came, Rediff Mail grew at a phenomenal 94%  to quickly reach  some 4 million users. 


 


When the financial carnage of  2001 came, Rediff  which has a successful IPO in the US  had to face class action suits, manipulated by clever lawyers in the US acting on behalf of investors who saw their shares tumbling.  It  took  till 2005 to  weather that crisis – and   Balakrishnan’s book details how he did it, resisting offers to sell the company.


 


Not an autobiography in the conventional sense, Wave Rider is a very personal memoir of a true Internet pioneer. Balakrishnan continues to share his  views on current happenings in  the technology arene through his columns  in Business Standard; and helps set the agenda for higher education through his long association with the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, where he is Chairman of the Board of Governors. Rediff continues, 17 years on, to be a respected Indian brand on the Internet.   How that happened is a story that needed to be told – and Balakrishnan has done it with  pride and passion --   Anand Parthasarathy  December 17 2012 .( For a few days watch a video interview with Ajit Balakrishnan  by Rashmi Bansal,  in our tech video spot on the home page www.indiatechonline.com  )



 





    


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