The annual SKOCH Challenger Awards for the year 2004 were given away by Dr. S. Narayan, Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister of India. "While these awards enable dissemination of best practices and help to share knowledge, we (Indians) have proved to have the ability to turn knowledge into commerce and mind into money," he said.

The Awards were given in two categories - Challenger and Channel. The 'Challenger' category recognises and acknowledges excellence and exemplary efforts made by individuals and organisations for their contribution towards building an ICT-led competitive advantage for the country. And the 'Channel' category recognises the most outstanding partners, distributors and vendors that delivered highest standards of service and support to customer.


Lifetime Achievement: Dr Deepak B Phatak, Professor, KReSIT

Dr Deepak B Phatak, Professor, KReSIT receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for Lifetime Achievement from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

While our IT Man of the Year Ajai Chowdhry was lobbying the government to cut excise and other duties on computers, Dr D.B. Phatak of the Kanwal Rekhi School of IT in the IIT Mumbai, was finding a technical solution to the same problem. Over 80 per cent of a computer's computing capability, he argued, is never used. So, why not aggregate all the excess computing capacity in one place in an office, he argued. And from this was born the concept of the 'thin client-fat server' - have individual networked PCs with very little computing power, and let them dip into the main server to do all computing. But, while that's theoretically appealing, does it work in practice, doesn't work in the office slow down dramatically.. the questions keep rolling. To answer this, Dr Phatak set up an Affordable Solutions Lab at the IIT Mumbai, and actually got companies to test what he was preaching.

Today, the LIC has bought 10,000 thin computers and saved about Rs 10 crores. While the amount looks small in real terms, when you see it in terms of the original budget, the figure's significant, especially when the project gets scaled up.

Today, as testimonial after testimonial will tell you, Dr Phatak's associated with most big computing projects, right from SBI's modernization to the Maharashtra government's e-governance initiatives. Maharashtra's IT secretary Mukesh Khullar, for example, talks of two projects - to link 972 police stations across the state and another to allow e-filing of returns by assesses - and points out that had it not been for Dr Phatak's innovative solutions, the projects would have become so costly, they'd never have taken off.

And, apart from just coming up with technical solutions, Dr Phatak keeps visiting sites of projects he's working on, to figure out glitches. An SBI funds e-transfer solution he came up with several years ago just didn't seem to work until, a visit by him showed, branch officials were still waiting for a couriered copy of the transfer-request even after they received it on the mail! Dr Phatak is currently on a sabbatical, preaching the gospel of affordable solutions to those who haven't yet seen the light. May his tribe increase.


IT Man of the Year: Mr Ajai Chowdhry, Chairman, HCL Infosystem

Ajai Chowdhry, Chairman, HCL Infosystems, receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for IT Man of the Year from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

This year's IT Man of the Year award goes to Ajai Chowdhry, Chairman & CEO, HCL Infosystems Ltd, for a variety of reasons. Long before finance minister Jaswant Singh lowered import duties on computers, Ajai aggressively lowered prices and gained a valuable increase in market share at the expense of the grey market. And yes, Ajai was the person who worked tirelessly along with Vinnie Mehta of MAIT through the year, to move levers to get the powers to be to listen to the industry's valid plaint.


Academic Excellence: Prof S Sadagopan, Director, IIIT-Bangalore

Prof S Sadagopan, Director, IIIT-Bangalore receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for Academic Excellence from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

No, management guru Peter Drucker hasn't joined the IIIT in Bangalore. But in Fortune magazine's January issue which talked of outsourcing to India, Drucker said the "technical graduates of IITB are as good as anywhere in the world." Pretty good for an institute which, till six months ago, didn't even have its own campus. On August 18, last year, it re-located to opposite the Infosys campus - according to its director Prof S. Sadagopan, "When we moved Murthy told me 'I'm lending you my name for a few years, after that, people should say Infosys is opposite the IIIT campus'!" The principle of IIIT Bangalore, says Sadagopan, is that, unlike a typical bricks and mortar industry, marketshare follows mindshare. So, once you create excellence in learning, the country's share of the global knowledge industry will increase automatically. IIIT Bangalore has three types of research. The more traditional type like computing and research in embedded computing.

The second and third type are more aligned to industry, but aren't really industry specific in the sense there are projects in mobility and automobiles. Daimler Chrysler, for instance, has provided significant funding to IIIT B to do research in the auto sector which, according to Sadagopan, is increasingly becoming a case of 'chips on wheels'. Currently, there are 11 focussed labs in IIIT and 8 research centres dealing with areas ranging from distributed systems to DNA.

Last year, Prof Talukdar (affectionately known as Mr Wireless, as opposed to Dr Das who's known as Mr Wire) and his students won a GSM award worth $50,000, and thanks to this, half a dozen telecom firms came and took part in IIITB's placements this year!

IIIT Bangalore's full-time alumni of around 250 students are today placed in key positions in top firms, both in India (Infosys, I-flex, TCS, etc) as well as abroad (Cisco, Sun, IBM, and so on).


Impact in BFSI: Mr C B Bhave, Managing Director, NSDL

C B Bhave, Managing Director, NSDL, receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for Impact in BFSI from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

Ever seen a silo, carved out of a mountain, of the type used to store petroleum products like LPG? Well, if the recommendations of a team of experts that went to the US to study that country's depository system had been accepted in the mid-90s, your share certificates would be stored in one such location near new-Mumbai! Yes, believe it or not, the Depository Trust Corporation in the US actually keeps the physical certificates of all shares in one location, and then makes changes in the ownership structure electronically. When this plan was shown to the expert group appointed by the Government of India, it decided not to go the way 'developed countries' like the US had gone - instead, it decided to completely extinguish the physical shares and go in for full dematerialisation.

And, as opposed to the earlier project's cost of around Rs 700 crore, the National Securities Depository Limited (NSDL)'s system cost less than a seventh. NSDL, has achieved paperless trading in perhaps the shortest time in the world, a little over three years. Today, 99.9 per cent of all equity is traded in demat form in the country, and NSDL has 47 lakh investor accounts and 214 depository participants, making it the second largest depository in the world! In terms of computing jargon, NSDL has consistently delivered Moore's Law to customers, by dropping prices all the time, making it the cheapest depository in the world.

NSDL's computer system handles around 8-9 million messages (to debit and credit individual investor accounts) per day on an online basis, and involves linking of three types of databases - a central NSDL one, those of 214 depository participants (DPs) as well as those of 5,107 companies. Any time a transaction takes place, it has to get reflected, and tallied, in the accounts of NSDL, the DPs as well as in the companies themselves. NSDL's computer system has the ability to monitor everything that's happening in the computers of its DPs.

NSDL is extending its reach beyond just shares. A pilot project is on to demat securities like National Savings Certificates and Kisan Vikas Patras at select post offices. In fact, with NSDL showing the capability of managing complex databases in real time, and in thousands of locations across the country, the ministry of finance has asked NSDL to develop its country-wide Tax Information Network. The NSDL story's just begun.


Affordable Computing: Mr Satish Naralkar, Managing Director, NSE IT

Satish Naralkar, Managing Director, NSE IT receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for Affordable Computing from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

Yes, believe it or not, Happy, Goofey, Dumpy, and of course, Snow White herself have a central role in transforming India's capital markets over the last decade. It's well established by now that the NSE played a pivotal role in replacing the opaque and unsafe stock market with a completely transparent system that, most agree, has reduced transactions costs in the stock market to a tenth of what they were a decade ago. But what's less publicized is how NSE did this, and at what costs. Today, the NSE offers the only real-time risk management system in the world, and its cost is a fraction of what less sophisticated systems cost worldwide. When the NSE began working on derivatives, it had two challenges. In exchanges like Chicago, only very high net worth individuals, say with $100 mn, could trade since the value of the positions they took could run into millions of dollars within seconds.

Second, computer systems in such exchanges costs a few million dollars. Snow White's band of boys solved both NSE's problems. First, instead of using one large computer, it used a cluster approach to do parallel calculations. The central computer (Snow White is an Intel Xeon Server) has a 1 GB RAM and there is a cluster of seven commodity PCs (the dwarves) to do the calculations. Unlike other countries which also have risk management systems, the NSE PRISM system does the risk computing on an online basis - the system does 16 types of what-if simulations, informs members of their capital-adequacy shortfalls, and even shuts off brokers in case their risk levels are unacceptable. To give one instance of what NSE's geeks did, instead of using the traditional main frame with RDBMS system they used loads of RAM memory instead - apart from being a lot cheaper, using RAM also increased computing speeds dramatically.


Social Impact: Mr Anjan Ghosh, Director-Public Affairs, Intel

Anjan Ghosh, Director-Public Affairs, Intel receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for Social Impact from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

If you looked for it on the map of Delhi, you'd probably never find it. Yet, talk to any of Intel's staffers in New Delhi, and the Bhoomiheen Camp in Govindpuri is top of the mind recall for them. Bhoomiheen Camp, you see, is an area where Intel runs a program along with NGO Katha, to teach children familiarity with computers and computer programming. Already 5000 children have benefited from the program. While young Mohammed flits in and quickly animates a drawing he's just made, others like Narayan are involved in a more socially relevant program. With an Intel computer and a microscope, they examine the quality of water available; take the details to a nearby dispensary to find out what impact this has on the body. A picture of the water, and the disease, is shown to households nearby. The same water is then boiled, or treated with chlorine tablets, and the exercise repeated. The lesson: hygiene matters.


Impact in e-Governance: KDMC

Representatives of KDMC receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for Impact in e-Governance from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

Walk in to the CFC, the citizen's facilitation centre, and it looks a bit like a Citibank counter, even better, for the lady typing in your particulars on the computer has a parallel screen facing you, so you can figure out just what she's doing. Step into one line, any line, and you can pay any bill, from water to electricity and even property tax dues, a facility not even offered in the country's capital. Getting birth/death certificates, a nightmare in most parts of the country, takes all of 5 minutes. And yes, just a few days ago, the Kalyan Dombivli Municipal Corporation became the country's first municipality to have an internet payments gateway. That's right, Dombivli, a lower middle-class suburb, 60 km away from Mumbai, has logged on to the bright new world of e-governance, and a total of 13 lakh transactions have already been carried out on the system so far.

Wonder of wonders, even the opposition parties in the area are strong supporters of the project - so when some of the municipality workers, who're now forced to work, gather to protest every evening, no one's really bothered. Enthused by the progress of the scheme, the government of Maharashtra has decided to extend the CFC project to many more municipal corporations across the state


IT & Innovation: Mr Ravi Aggarwal, Director, IPG, HP India

Ravi Aggarwal, Director, IPG, HP India receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for IT & Innovation from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

Just like desktop software revolutionized the printing industry, HP's digital Photo Studio is all set to change the face of photo processing industry at an economical Rupees Fifty Thousand for an all-in-one photo processing lab, the studio does away with the messy processing labs and clumsy dark room equipment of the past. With a digital camera, and a HP all-in-one (AiO) create your own digital lab at home. After taking pictures, with a digital camera, just insert the camera's memory card into the AiO and press Ctrl P, and you are ready to go! Just fill in the blanks beneath the image on the size of the pictures, the number of prints, even the type of paper (you want stickers or matt-finished prints), and what's available is a versatile greater than available in most professional labs. Over 3000 people in India, including war veterans and women in small towns have already embraced HP's Digital vision. The hardware and localized software solution is being marketed in India through HP's Imaging and Printing Group (IPG), headed by Mr. Ravi Aggarwal. As Aggarwal puts it, "It takes a lot of time, investment and passion to use commodity technology and create something like a HP Photo Studio". To put that in perspective, the World Wide Web itself is an imaginative application of ordinary commodity-hardware and software, and of course, a lot of passion. Move over Digital Divide.


IT Product: Alan Grant, President, Canon India

Alan Grant, President, Canon India receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for IT Product from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

After years ago, printers were a luxury. Thanks to expensive ink tanks and high maintenance costs. To counter this problem, Canon has been experimental with several ways to bring down printing costs. That's when they came out with Economy Ink Tanks. These drastically brought down printing costs and offered the lowest running costs. Small wonder, these ink tanks have been received with open arms in the market. So much so, that Canon will double its market share even faster than the next three years, predicted by Skoch last year. After years ago, printers were a luxury. Thanks to expensive ink tanks and high maintenance costs. To counter this problem, Canon has been experimental with several ways to bring down printing costs. That's when they came out with Economy Ink Tanks.

These drastically brought down printing costs and offered the lowest running costs. Small wonder, these ink tanks have been received with open arms in the market. So much so, that Canon will double its market share even faster than the next three years, predicted by Skoch last year.

Precisely the reason why Canon has been one of the Skoch Challenger for being the fastest growing printer brands. By the end of 2003, Canon enjoyed a 40% market share in Gujrat and Rajasthan and nearly 30% across India including metros like Mumbai and Kolkata. Clocking a turnover of Rs 230 crores in 2003, it aims at touching Rs 700 crores by 2007 helped by growth in digital printing and multi function devices segment. When it comes to photo industry, Canon is the undisputed brand in the professional and consumer camera industry. One of Canon's key differentiators in this market is its recently launched 'PictBridge' technology that allows digital cameras/camcorders and other image capturing devices to plug in directly and print without requiring a computer. Canon has introduced digital SLR, digital compact camera, digital camcorder and photo-printer products that support this technology. For being the first off the block with this new technology, Canon has been awarded the "Technology Watch Skoch Challenger Award" in the IT product category.


Telecom Product - Reliance Infocomm

Ashish Chauhan receiving the Skoch Challenger Award for Telecom Product from Dr S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister of India

Forget e-choupals, use the e-phone  Over six million Indians, and their families, have direct knowledge that Reliance Infocomm has changed the face of India's mobile telephony by offering voice-connectivity at never-before prices. But what even few of them know, and that's why the company's been chosen for a Skoch Challenger Award, is that Reliance Infocomm is fast emerging as India's biggest, and best anytime, anywhere internet provider. And that too, on a mobile platform. That's right, use the internet on your Reliance mobile, and the speeds are several times faster than those on ordinary dial-ups, they're not too far behind speeds available on some DSL and Wi-Fi type systems which cost a lot more.

Reliance Info, of course, is not an internet firm, it's an application provider. In fact, while the company's phone has grabbed the limelight, the company plans to get the bulk of its revenue from the applications business. By the end of the year, according to Infocomm chief Mukesh Ambani, Reliance's internet services will be available across the country, in over 5,000 cities and towns by end 2004.

Along with this, are plans to set up special facilities for different groups of people. So, small firms who have no video-conferencing facilities will be able to do so in dedicated corners of Reliance WebWorlds, accounting packages will help take care of SMEs who don't have dedicated accountants, and so on. As Ambani puts it, the company's vision for SMEs is to leapfrog them from a no-computers environment to fully-networked computing. Keeping track of bills/inventory, even transferring of funds within a few seconds, are applications Reliance is working on with about 70 software firms including those like Wipro and IBM. Specialized applications for other sectors, like education and medicine, are also being designed. A unique partnership, with Ramco, is on to try and eliminate long queues at Tirupati, and the idea is to provide devotees a flash on their mobiles, telling them the exact time at which they need to arrive for their darshanam.

For farmers, a model is being worked on which would allow them to see the price of their produce in the major markets of the world. The farmer will also be linked to commodity exchanges, and a major part of the application will also be to help the farmer actually execute the transaction. Kar lo duniya muthi mein!