Even before Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to join Paul Allen’s efforts to build a BASIC interpreter, companies like IBM, ICL, DEC, Data General, Cray and yet some more existed. However, Microsoft did not come out of their cradle. It was born in an unlikely place called Seattle, from the efforts of two very unlikely people who would not have been candidates for beatification in the first four decades after ENIAC.
There is a critical lesson in this analogy. Just because we have produced software services companies like TCS, Infosys and Wipro, it does not mean these companies can build the next great software product. There is a certain sense of agony and frustration among many intellectuals because they see Indian IT Services companies falling short of their aspiration to see both a brand and non-linear revenue traditional Indian companies. That feeling is a misplaced sentiment. Going by that logic, IBM should not have had to buy an operating system from Microsoft – without this one historical event, Microsoft might have been a very different story today. IBM had Nobel Laureates on its payroll; why did it have to go buy an operating system from a totally unknown entity like Microsoft? It is quite another story that Microsoft did not in the first place have what it was selling to IBM. So, expecting TCS, Infosys and Wipro to build a product brand is as much of an impossibility as to ask a hen to deliver a duckling.
That said, the bigger question still remains; if not from the stable of the known companies, but from somewhere else, is there hope that India would produce a software product company like a Microsoft, an Oracle or SAP? The pointers are saying, yes, there is a possibility. But before we explore that, we need to ask ourselves a very fundamental question. Is there a reason why the three companies have come out of developed countries like the US and Germany? Is there is a linkage between building product companies and a certain level of overall socio-economic progress? I would argue that there is. There is a distinct possibility that India would emerge as a developed economy within my own lifetime and if that happens, there is no reason why we should not expect a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs or a Larry Ellison to happen right here. Though, as I argued before, they would be born outside the confines of the existing companies just like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison.
A few days back, I was told that Microsoft’s revenues from India this year would be in the range of $1billion US. It was an eye-opener for me. I have grown up in an India where nothing, absolutely nothing, was a $1billion industry. India becoming a $1billion market for a single software company is mind-boggling; it is great news to me. It tells me that if the deliverer arrives, there is indeed hope that he would survive.
Before Microsoft, Oracle or SAP became global companies, they were domestically well known, they had a large market at home and, they cut their milk teeth in the home-market before venturing out into the global arena.
Finally, software products do not get created because someone knows how to write the code. Software products – for that matter any product – get created because the creator feels the need for a certain something in a deeply personal manner, people who envision and create products have a certain affinity, a calling, sometimes a feeling akin to a craving for something. A dress designer must love dressing up, a composer must love the idea of music itself and not learn it primarily because it is the highest paying industry that makes job offers in the third year of someone’s engineering course. Software product creators must experience the same emotions, have the same craving like a dress designer and a music composer for that something that does not exist and then go, make it or sometimes, get it made.
Interestingly, it is not enough to just have a domestic market and a bunch of people with a special craving for creating something or an uncanny ability to anticipate a need and the ability build a solution for it ahead of others. What makes great companies, products and brands happen in a country at a certain time is difficult to explain in any linear, logical way. It is part science, part economics, part politics (only free and true democracies have produced great software companies), part social structure, part passion and part witchcraft. So far, we were agonizing with just the part science piece right. But only now do I see the beginning of the other pieces nicely falling in place and I would take a bet that by 2020, India would have produced a global software brand, a couple of more following in the next 5.