Interview with Atul Chitnis

Is Android really open? What do you think about the e-commerce industry in India? These are some of the questions that one would want to ask someone, who has been one of the pioneers of Open Source and early adopters of technology in India. We are extremely happy to have Atul Chitnis at your Adda. He is the Man behind the awesome column ‘COMversations’ that used to appear in PCQuest and is one of the biggest proponent of Open Source in India. 🙂 Presenting to you an interview, that you cannot afford to miss reading. 🙂

Q: When and why did you start blogging?

Well, there are two specific times that I attribute to my starting to blog:

The first one was sometime in 1992, when I decided to write down experiences I was going through while developing software, playing with technology, etc. While it technically wasn’t “blogging” (since the web didn’t exist then), my style of writing was very much like what you see in blogs today. Some of these writings started appearing from January 1993 in the magazine PCQuest, as a column called “COMversations”. I continued this column for exactly 4 years, and ended it in December 1996, but my readers kept in touch with me via email (and still do, to this day).

The second time was 10 years later, when I set up, as my “online diary”. I started this in January 2002, and had a very nice story behind it:

I had been looking for a way to continue writing, but wanted more control over what I was writing about, and more flexibility. Sometime in late 2001, while I was searching through the web for something, I stumbled across the website of actor Wil Wheaton (@WilW on Twitter, but better known as “Wesley” from Star Trek: The Next Generation). Wil’s style of writing was very similar to my own, but I was hugely impressed by his frankness, his easy writing style, and his ability to respond to people almost instantly in comments.

This seemed like something I wanted to do, and so I decided to set up my own online diary. Being a geek, and a developer, and fiercely independent, I decided to “roll my own” blogging system, which I continued to use until a few years ago, when I switched to using WordPress instead.

Q: What topics do you generally blog about?

I try to be diverse. My main interests are technology, music, community, people, etc. and I tend to write about all of them. I also mix in personal news, social comments and sometimes just some random photo or video.

Q: Do you ever get stuck when writing an entry? What do you do then?

Since I don’t have a publishing schedule, I don’t really face “writer’s block” when faced with a deadline. I write when I have something to write about. In that way, I am a pretty bad “blogger” (I don’t even consider myself one, since I don’t make a conscious effort to “blog”).

I do find myself struggling with words or presentation at times. Many an entry ended up in the drafts folder because of that, to be revisited only much later.

Q: On February 28th, 2002, you blogged that the ‘Indian online shopping scene is sliding fast’ with specific mention of Fabmart. Coincidentally, it was the same month Fabmart announced that they are venturing offline. You have seen both the fall and the reemergence of the ‘Indian online shopping scene’. Do you think the current upward trend for e-commerce sites is for real or is it just another bubble waiting to burst?

Back in 2002, I could see the signs of the ecommerce efforts beginning to go wrong. I didn’t actually believe that it was the sign of a bubble bursting – more that Fabmart was a bit ahead of its time. The Indian buying public was just beginning to get comfortable with plastic-buying, and the tales of the 1999-2001 bubble and experiences definitely scared off a lot of people.

But today it is different. I don’t think Indian ecommerce is in any way a bubble (though there are enough people trying to take advantage of the trend). I judge an ecommerce site by its infrastructure – especially its delivery mechanisms. Which is why I am very comfortable with Flipkart, but not so with other sites that don’t seem to have any scalable fulfillment system. As always, it’s best to stay informed and ask around for experiences.

But is Indian ecommerce a bubble? No, it isn’t. It’s real, and here to stay.

Q: You had this aversion to movie theaters because you couldn’t ‘pause’ the movie and you watched ‘Lord of the Rings’ after 15 years in a Theater. Has this changed over the years? Today, we have Video on Demand and Internet TV. How do you think the experience of watching a movie in the comforts of your home will change in the coming years? How do you watch movies currently?

My stand about watching movies in theatres remains unchanged – I find the experience hard to handle. I prefer being more in control of the experience. Also, living in India, I really don’t enjoy watching movies that have clearly been chopped up by a brain-dead censor board.

I watch a LOT of movies – but almost all of them at home. Some movies simply have to be watched a couple of times for you to get the entire thing (the most recent example was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and having to drive across town in Bangalore traffic, paying a bomb for the tickets, and then having to repeat it to “get” the movie’s premise, is a bit hard to handle. Worse still – the “3D” mania, which (for me) thoroughly ruins the movie.

I enjoy the experience of seeing movies on my large-screen TV, and I see this becoming more common over the coming years, especially after Apple goes and “changes everything” in this field. 🙂

Q: COMversations was the name of your column in PCQuest and is very close to your heart. We would love you to go back to your PC Quest days and share with us a few incidents you remember distinctly and that you think is still relevant in the current times?

I loved the COMversations/ PCQuest days, and I will be forever grateful to the people who allowed them to happen – especially my then editor, Prasanto Kumar Roy, who (literally) tapped me on the shoulder one day in late 1992, asking me to write for the magazine. The response I got for my writing was unbelievable, and it quite literally changed my life. Prasanto encouraged me to write in my casual, engaging tone, which was very different from what one would read in other publications in those days.

There are way too many stories to share about those days for me to easily pick one. Maybe my fondest memories were being down in the dungeons of the original PCQ office, being really hungry, and my friend Nikhil Datta (whose mother ran one of Delhi’s most famous bakeries) making a phone call, which caused his mother’s cake delivery van to be diverted to where we were. 🙂

Or quietly installing Linux on Krishna Kumar’s PC, with dual boot, and the only way he could boot into Windows was to type “I am a chicken!” 🙂

Or taking a photo of Vinod Unny proudly patting a Windows NT server, saying how rock solid it was and never crashed – just as the machine blue-screened. 🙂

But the most fun was not in the physical, but in the digital world. I set up India’s first public online service in 1989, a BBS (Bulletin Board Service) named CiX, and many of our adventures happened online (this was years before the Internet became available to the public in India). I met many of my friends that way – most famously Kishore Bhargava, whom I met online, and only came face to face with much later, and who went on to become my most famous “partner in crime” over the years.

Building the annual Linux CD for PCQuest was an adventure all of its own – and many of my blogs and columns were about that. But nothing prepared us for the response we got – we were responsible for pushing literally MILLIONS of Linux CDs into the Indian market, and that got us involved heavily with the Indian Linux and FOSS (Free & Open Source Software) community.

Q: was founded by you and has now evolved to which is about products that startups (and established businesses) create. How has the evolution been and what can we expect from when it will happen in December 2012?

FOSS.IN was a labour of love – starting as ‘Linux Bangalore’ back in 2001, and evolving into FOSS.IN over the years, until we decided to end it in 2010.

The important thing about FOSS.IN was always that, unlike other such events, ours was not “political” in nature – we never treated FOSS as a religion. Instead, FOSS.IN was oriented around the technology side of the movement, and we wanted people to focus on that, not on needless Windows-bashing. We set out to prove that FOSS was inclusive (not exclusive) in nature, and I think we pretty much succeeded in doing that.

But over the years, it became clear to us that we needed to evolve ourselves. FOSS had become so mainstream that having an event dedicated to it was kind of pointless and self-defeating. We wanted people to widen their horizons, start building products that showed India’s capabilities.

We didn’t quite know how to go about it, but then in October of 2011, when Steve Jobs passed away, we felt that this was the time to take our learnings from FOSS.IN and apply them to a wider audience.

That’s where PRODUCTISE.IN came from – designed to be an event that does product building in India, what FOSS.IN did to FOSS development. It will not be ideology based (not that FOSS.IN ever was), and will encourage people to understand and share the concepts of building great products.

I am a product guy at heart – I was building and selling software products back in the 80s and 90s, at a time when people in India didn’t even think that software was something you should spend money on. My products (whether it was small things like SmartDIR, AComm, etc., or huge systems, like Cybernet, which was the software used by the best known BBSs in India) were useful, but most importantly were fun to build, especially when you involved the users.

We want to bring back that feeling, get more young people involved in the product building process. And, hopefully, that’s what PRODUCTISE.IN will do.

Q: We had BLUG meetups then and now we have Barcamps. What are the things that you look forward to in a meetup? What kind of meetups does Atul Chitnis like to attend these days?

The BLUG (Bangalore Linux User Group) was part of the huge FOSS community, and was actually more of a bunch of people interested in all kinds of tech things, mostly centered around FOSS. But a number of factors began to make the concept uninteresting – including the infamous political wars.

But the thing that really ruined it was not anything technical or ideological – it was the damn Bangalore traffic. We simply couldn’t meet up anymore without having to spend ages driving to the meeting place, which, in a place like Bangalore, is no fun at all. More and more of the action moved online, and eventually, we just stopped having face-to-face meetings.

BarCamps were a different concept. Many people believe BarCamps to be about technology, but that was really not the case – they were more about a platform for people to get together and discuss any topic under the sun, in a very informal setting. And they weren’t “regular meetings”, but would happen once or twice a year.

But over the years, BarCamps started turning into formal conferences, which of course defeated the purpose. You had invited speakers, and special sessions, and the whole “no audiences, only participants” thing went for a toss. Even worse, they became favourite hunting grounds for marketeers. That killed the fun for me, and I stopped going to them.

Where would you find me participating? Usually, never in an event that is a thin disguise for “eyeball hunting”. In fact, one of the reason why FOSS.IN was so popular was because we never allowed that kind of “selling from the stage”. We literally had to create our own event, just to be able to attend the type of event we enjoyed going through!

After we ended FOSS.IN, I scoured the web and Twitter to find events that interested me, but (at least in India) I just couldn’t find any.

I like informal, geeky get-togethers, where everyone is a peer, and no one acts like a superstar. Or at the Chaos Communication Congress in Germany, which is by far the geekiest event that I enjoy attending.

Q: Who do you think, in the current bureaucracy, shares the same vision that Sanjoy Dasgupta had in his times? Are there still people like him in the current times? What kind of support do you think the government of India has to provide, to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in India?

Technology has become very politicised, and many people find that very offensive. The worst offender is the Government of India, and it is literally doing everything possible to destroy, rather than nurture, technology in India.

Classic examples are efforts like the GOI’s NRCFOSS – the ‘National Resource Centre for Free and Open Source Software‘, which was completely undermined by political posturing and backstage deals. I was a part of this initially, and was horrified by what I saw, and eventually dropped out of the steering committee.

Or the “Sibalisation” of the Indian Internet, with interested parties in the GOI doing their “best” to turn India into a police state like China, actually criminalising free speech and dissent.

If entrepreneurship and innovation are to succeed in India, they will have to succeed DESPITE the best (worst) efforts by the Government of India.

Q: iPhone vs Android. Close vs Open. You have had numerous discussions about this on Twitter. Suddenly we have an OS from Microsoft also in the picture. As an end user, which is the best mobile OS at the moment and what features do you want in them in the next two years?

There is no iPhone vs Android. It’s more people who have bought one thing justifying their purchase decisions.

Having said that, I don’t see an “endgame” being played here. Clearly, iOS is winning the revenue’s game, both for Apple as well as for developers of iOS applications, but there is plenty of room for everyone. There will never be “one mobile OS” to rule them all.

I am a FOSS guy, but when it comes to using products, I prefer iOS simply because for me, it does the most. The iOS devices have the longest product lives (upto 3 years), unlike Android devices with “end-of-life” within 3-6 months. I therefore prefer investing in devices and apps that will see me through the longest time, and therefore represent the best value for MY money. Your mileage may differ.

Q: You are one of the pioneers of open source in India. Google launched Android OS as an open source that has changed the dynamics within the mobile industry but you feel that Android OS is not a completely ‘open’ source OS. Can you share more thoughts/views on this?

Android is as closed as iOS and Windows Phone – actually more so, because it tries to use people’s positive sentiments towards Open Source to market itself. Android (as found in Android devices) is NOT Open Source, and offers no benefits of Open Source to end users. I don’t HATE Android, but I do hate that Google is trying to position it as Open Source, making people believe that the closed stuff they are using is representative of Open Source.

Q: RadioVeRVe was a radio station which focused exclusively on independent music from India. It is currently in hiatus. With the growing popularity of independent music in India, this might be the right time to start it again. Is something happening in the backend or will we see it merge with something like

NH7 is in fact a project driven by one of RadioVeRVe’s founders – Shreyas Srinivasan – so don’t be surprised to see similarities in approach. 🙂

But NH7 is a very commercial, well funded project, while RadioVeRVe was always meant to be a “give back” to the Indie music community of India that we have been a small part of. We saw it (and still do) as a platform for people who were creating music in India, and had no way to get it out to people to hear.

But this is a difficult thing. RV has always been (and still is) funded out of our own pockets – no ads, no donations, no external funding. People ask “why do you do it if there is no revenue” and our answer is “revenue isn’t everything – we earn our money with our day jobs”. 🙂

But to make RV the kind of success that it needs to be, it needs more inputs and participation from the music community in India. Send us your music, pitch in by doing some RJing, help with the web stuff, etc.

BTW – only the website is in hiatus – the music is still streaming and listened to by many people – just visit and check it out!

And let @GauravVaz know on Twitter that we are waiting for him to spare some time for this 🙂

Q: Music has been a core part in your life. We would love to know your all time favorite five bands and five tracks.

Ouch! That’s a tough one!

Understand that I am a child of the 60s, and grew up with the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and groups like that. In the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of different music out there that went with the mood of those years (ever heard of a group called “The Animated Egg”?) 🙂

I love music with strong melodies and meaningful lyrics – that cuts a lot of today’s “music” off my radar. I know that there are many “elite” music listeners today who think that I should be listening to Punk Rock, Electronica, etc., but honestly – they are missing the point. For me, music is associated with experiences in my life, and that is why I enjoy it.

I don’t have “favourite songs”, but if you want a sampling of songs I like, then you can look at Yesterday, Let It Be, Wish You Were Here, The Model, Comfortably Numb, etc.

Note that I am also a huge fan of Kishore Kumar, as well as a lot of German music, so as you can see, it is really difficult to pin down my musical tastes. 🙂

Q: You and Shubha complete 25 years of martial bliss this month and you complete the half century mark of your life too. 🙂 Let us retrospect and recall a few incidents that you think were the most impactful in your life.

Bliss? 🙂 I am sure Shubha would have something to say there. And I like to think that the first 25 years of my life were a trial run, so I am really just completing 25. 🙂

Honestly – age is a state of mind. Even today, I spend much of my time with people who are far younger than me, yet none of us feel the “generation gap”, because our relationships are based on mutual interests.

However, my “age” does give me a few liberties that younger guys envy me for (and have told me so!). For example, I can publicly wish a beautiful young woman on her birthday, with an attached love song, without having my face slapped, being hauled up as an MCP or being shot by her husband. 🙂 And because I don’t have to worry about “destroying my career” by being outspoken, I often get to say things that others fear to say – like in several places in this interview. 🙂

Of course, having seen as much as I have (25 years, twice over!), I have a huge collection of “special events” that have made an impact on my life.

Seeing Shubha for the first time coming down the steps of the college library, the birth of my daughter Geetanjali, seeing my first article published, seeing hundreds of people logging in one after the other into my BBS and having discussions with each other, returning to Germany in 1997 for the first time after I left it in 1972, playing with my dogs, watching a particular movie for the first time (and crying my heart out, as I do every time I watch “Love Story”), watching my daughter graduate and start work, building my house and moving into it, and running FOSS.IN for 10 years, with a team that was as dedicated and enthusiastic about it as I was… There are just so many things in my life that I consider “special”.

Q: Many say that ‘fathers are closer to their daughters’. You would have cherished some lovely moments with your daughter. Can you share a few with us?

Heh – just every day that she’s been around. Seriously. Of course, don’t tell her that – she easily gets a swollen head. 🙂

Q: 10 years ago, you experienced a day of no connectivity in the era of Internet through phone lines. Today, if something similar happened, what are the things that you would do?

It has been ages since I have been involuntarily completely offline (I do deliberately go completely offline at times). Today, I have so many connectivity options, I don’t really need to think about this problem anymore – I have 3G connectivity from three different operators (Airtel, BSNL and Reliance), rock-solid 8 mbps (soon to be 16 mbps, or even 100 mbps over fibre) from BSNL, etc. I am also very careful about staying connected by choosing where I go. I simply won’t go anywhere where I suspect that I won’t have connectivity (unless that is desired).

In short – “offline” is now a deliberate choice, no longer something that happens to you.

Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?

No, I don’t promote my blog. It isn’t even a very important part of my communication with people – Twitter is far more effective these days. If I write a post, I do send a link to twitter, but otherwise I don’t go out of my way to promote it.

Q: How important is it for the blogger to interact with their readers? Do you respond to all the comments that you receive?

Blog comments come in thick and heavy, but I don’t get into “discussions” there, because it is too small a group. I encourage people to interact with me on Twitter instead, and if you have watched me there, you’ll know how important it is to me, to stay in touch and interact with people.

Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?

Just the ability to say what’s on your mind, without worrying about someone saying “you can’t write that”. 🙂

Q: How, in general, would you rate the quality of Indian blogs? Share your favourite five blogs.

My favourite blogs are based on personal preferences. Apart from Amit Agarwal’s “Digital Inspiration“, I read almost no Indian tech blogs.

Most Indian blogs that I DO read, such as Jyoti Bhargava‘s blog, Kishore Bhargava‘s blog, Swaroop CH‘s blog, Sidin Vadukut‘s blog, Rashmi Bansal‘s blog or my daughter Geetanjali’s blog, which I read because of a personal connection, or because there is something very specific about that blog that interests me.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

Just do it 🙂

Q: Do you earn revenue through your blog? How does one go about it?

No, I don’t. I neither use ads, nor any other form of monetisation for my blog. I earn my living through my work (products) or public speaking (other than at non-commercial events).

Others do use ads and other forms of monetisation, but you have to understand that “writing for the gallery” will in some manner compromise your ability to write honestly or openly. I see a lot of people who write blog entries deliberately controversial, almost tabloid style, just to get more page views. I can’t bring myself to do that.

Q: According to you, what is the future of Blogging?

I think this whole prediction business is a bit silly. 🙂 Blogging is writing, and writing will never go out of style. I was blogging years before blogs began appearing on the web (and even years before there was a web!), and today I “blog” on twitter. It’s just a different platform of expressing yourself.

So “blogs” will always be around.

Q: Let’s conclude off with a few favorites.

Color: Black

Movie: The Bicentennial Man

TV Show: Battlestar Galactica

Book: The Mysterious Island (Jules Verne)

Time of Day: Dawn

Your Zodiac Sign: Pisces/Aquarius (cusp)

Connect with Atul Chitnis: Blog, Twitter, BlogAdda

Photo Credit: Kalyan Varma

Thank you Atul for this wonderful interview. It has been a wonderful experience conversing with Atul and we are sure you would have enjoyed reading this interview as much as we did. A great opportunity for you to ask questions to Atul. Comment Now. 🙂


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