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India@75: A look back at the country's key tech milestones

India@75: A look back at the country's key tech milestones
Photo Credit: 123RF.com
12 Aug, 2022
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India may not have started at the forefront of tech innovation, but over the last 75 years the country has caught up with the rest of the world. As we approach 75 years of India's independence, the country today is inviting chip makers to make cutting edge chips in the country, managing tech infrastructure for some of the largest companies in the world, and is the second largest market for smartphones. Here are some of the key milestones that helped the country get where it is today.

India's first computer

The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Automatic Calculator (TIFRAC), a first-generation main-frame computer developed for scientific computations, was commissioned on February 22, 1960 at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, which was founded by Homi Jehanger Bhabha. 

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It made India the first country in Asia and Japan to have built such a machine, which was eventually christened TIFRAC by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on 15 January, 1962, according to documents obtained from the TIFR Archive. Before developing this digital computer, Indian scientists at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata had built an analogue computer.

The main assembly of TIFRAC, which had vacuum tubes was housed in a massive steel rack measuring 18 ft X 2.5 ft X 8 ft. It was fabricated from modules of 4 ft X 2.5 ft X 8 ft, according to an article written by project head, the late Prof R Narasimhan, who was also instrumental in setting up the Computer Society of India and served as its first President. A manual console served as the input/output control unit of the computer that had a ferrite core memory of just 1024 words. This amounted to one KiloByte of RAM of a Computer Word of 40-bitwidth. Today a typical PC, or even a phone, counts RAM in GigaBytes.

The birth of Indian IT services companies

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IBM’s exit from India in 1977 opened up the sector to private domestic companies like Western India Palm Refined Oil Limited (Wipro) and Hindustan Computers Limited (HCL) with the government announcing a minicomputer policy. The policy encouraged technology companies to set up their computing and software manufacturing facilities in India.

While HCL and Wipro did step in to fill the vacuum by venturing into PC models like the HCL 8C and Wipro86 in the 1980s and had a good run for nearly a decade, their hardware businesses too took a beating in the late 1980s, leading them to venture into consulting and outsourcing services. The minicomputer policy itself didn't truly come into play till 1979.

India’s oldest (now also the largest) IT company, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), was founded in 1968 by a division of Tata Sons Limited. Its early contracts included punched card services to TISCO (now Tata Steel), and an Inter-Branch Reconciliation System for the Central Bank of India, also started to bag big projects from overseas markets.

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Likewise, Narendra Patni, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate and later a consultant at Forrester came up with the idea that the work of digitizing legal records could be outsourced to India. He founded Patni Computers Systems (PCS) in 1976 and also felt the need for a dedicated team for its software. 

He hired N. R. Narayana Murthy, an M.Tech from IIT Kanpur to head the team. Murthy handpicked his core team and hired Nandan Nilekani, S.D. Shibulal, K. Dinesh, and Kris Gopalakrishnan among others. PCS started winning offshore software contracts under the leadership of Murthy, who later left the firm with his army to create Infosys, which is the second largest IT services firm in India today.

From $100 million in 1990 to $1 billion by 1996 and $5.7 billion in 2000, today, the Indian IT services industry has crossed the $200 billion revenue mark, reaching $227 billion in FY22 with an overall growth rate of 15.5 per cent — its highest ever growth since 2011, according to industry body Nasscom's Strategic Review 2022.  

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Low-cost space missions

India’s fascination with space exploration has been growing for more than six decades, and getting more ambitious with time. Chandrayaan-1, the country’s first ever moon mission, was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in October 2008 and operated until August 2009, was a budget spaceship, built at a cost of ₹386 crore, or $76 million. The mission resulted in several goals achieved during the orbiter and India subsequently became the fourth country across the world to place its flag on the moon.

Next, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was India’s first interplanetary mission to Mars, and was launched as part of the Mangalyaan mission on November 5, 2013. It was inserted in orbit on September 24, 2014. 

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Mangalyaan's budget was less than ₹450 crore (around $74 million). In comparison, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, launched in 2013, cost $671 million. The next MOM, Mangalyaan-2 too is planned for observing the Martian surface features, morphology, mineralogy and atmosphere.

ISRO revealed that the Chandrayaan-2, the country’s second mission to the moon launched on 22 July 2019, has also made a significant discovery related to the moon's ionosphere, even though its lander, which carried the rover inside of it crashed while landing, and was destroyed in the process.

India Stack and Aadhaar

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Aadhaar was started as a pet project of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2009 and the project was taken over by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government later, resulting in the widespread use of Aadhaar cards.

The driving force behind Aadhaar — and the entire DigiLocker concept launched in 2016 — is India Stack, which is a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allows government agencies and private companies to deploy cashless and paperless technology products. These APIs are maintained independently by their owners but the India Stack drives adoption by developers.

The Centre constitutes the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for the purpose of issuing these unique identification numbers, a project Infosys' Nilekani who was appointed as the first chairman of UIDAI.

That said, the widespread use of Aadhaar and its ensuring data breaches, etc., have also brought into focus the need for privacy regulations. Nearly 132 crore Indians reportedly had Aadhaar, as of October 31, 2021. The coverage of adult population is nearly 99%, and it is globally acknowledged as the world’s largest digital identity programme. World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer described Aadhaar as "the most sophisticated ID programme in the world". 

While India has had its successes in enabling and adopting technology over the past 75 years, with the completion of the fifth-generation (5G) connectivity technologies’ auction, 5G services are likely to be rolled out in the coming months, which in turn will enable more innovation. 5G will enable a smarter and more connected world, with a focus on technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), blockchain and edge computing. The next 75 years may be even better.