Vickram’s View: Kolachi Diary

September 20th, 2006 |
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Kolachi is one of the traditional names for the port city of Karachi, in Pakistan’s coastal southern province of Sindh. The city too is a peculiarly South Asian blend of old and new, crowded marketplaces competing for space with massive concrete office blocks housing an overwhelmingly large part of Pakistan’s business — well over one third of the economy comes out of this bustling city of 12 million. It also has a vibrant arts and culture scene.

On the other hand, the city has become notorious, as it attracts every shade and flavour of alternate lifestyle and politics, including that of a dangerously violent iconoclastic lot. But as is often true and seldom well perceived, people on whom silence is sought to be imposed find their own ways to be heard — notably on the Net! The media scene in Pakistan is also pretty lively, although much less visible than in India.

It’s been a hectic few days of meeting people, learning about some interesting new stuff. The Pakistan Software Houses Association, commonly known as P@SHA, held its third National Awards event with a full day conference on the 14th, which helped save me some schmooze time, and joining a dozen CEOs at a lunch on Saturday networked me with a few more of them. The conference, organised by association president Jehan Ara of Enabling Technologies, had well-qualified panels discuss issues core to the development of Pakistan’s small and growing software-based industry. I thought the level of discussion was pretty high, at least as good as any such event in India.

The conference area was walled by an exposition by award nominees, including six student projects. The students, from local colleges, had an interesting spread of subjects, including four that focused on disabilities — robotic arms, Braille readers and the like. I wish the universities were as Web-savvy as the IT industry has become — I could have linked to the encouraging work they have done and continue to do.

The awards session, followed by dinner, was well attended, doubtless due to the excitement generated by the awards, the entertainment, laid on by Black Fish, a comic improvisation quartet, and the food. Following doubtless the excellent example set by the Web, interactivity was key to the entertainment, with young techies and CEOs alike coming up on stage to add that community touch.

Some of the awards caught my attention — one is a really cool totally new application/service for mobile phones that picks up audio, video and still camera picture files from the phone and uploads them directly to a web site. It deletes them from the camera at the same time, leaving its memory completely free for endless recording (well, as long as the battery lasts, anyway). It will be physically showcased at DEMO this fall in San Francisco, from the 25th of this month. I hope I can talk to PixSense CEO Adnan Agboatwala in the next couple of days, and get him to tell his own story. The level of interest in India for such mobile applications is quite high — Adnan has told me that a lot of the early bird testers for the beta have come in from India. Incidentally, check out the slideshow for 14 September on the page linked to his name — that’s him on the stage in the white shirt, lampooning job interviews with Black Fish.

Another interesting chap: Rehan Allahwalla of Super Technologies Inc., also working the merge of phones and the Net. He offers a service (he calls it DIDXchange, and it effectively gives people flat rate telephony internationally at incredibly low prices. It synergises DID and SIP, and his efforts to promote its application for social development has won him a nomination from the World Communication Awards 2006 for the Best Changemaker, with the winner slated to be announced in November 2006. While rates for international telephony have been falling steadily from India, I am amazed how much cheaper yet it is to call from Pakistan. But he described something that really made sense to me, that, if successful, will go far to making Net access ubiquitous in cities like Karachi, and then hopefully spread out across the countryside.

He wants to start a sponsored broadband hotspot service, free to use in public areas of Karachi. His plan is to get 50 parks set up with connectivity to kick off the service. According to him, several cable Ethernet distributors are already functioning in the city, offering public access at cheap rates, but this is not broadband by any definition. Such ‘always-on’ users are also not included in publicly available statistics on broadband connectivity, which according to him report only 50,000 connected people in the entire country.

Free hotspotting has taken on different forms elsewhere in the world, with Meraki beta testing its rural home community sharing mesh networking WiFi service in Mountain View, California this summer, and due for commercial launch later this fall. Other rural communities, such as AirJaldi in Dharamsala, India, and Djursland in rural Denmark, have been running for some time now, and represent a growing trend to connect rural people in ways that I for one see as urgently necessary. To see this coming up in other developing countries here in South Asia puts a smile on my face.

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