The birth of the Internet in India
From Internet evangelists, through unstable dial-up connections, to the smartphone set. The story of Internet in India
Kanakasabapathy Pandyan remembers the parties. Quite vividly.
Long evenings, endless chatter and glass-in-hand (always) parties. Held at Vijay Mukhi’s sprawling apartment on Nepean Sea Road, south Bombay. Mukhi was a technology evangelist back then, a man who loved his computer more than anything else in the world. So it was only natural that he had something called the Bombay Computer Club (BCC) going.
Oh and he also loved having a good time. So the parties, as a get-together of members of BCC, who would talk technology almost every month. Such was the allure of his dos that if two people had something to discuss, they would go: “You will be there at Vijay’s place, right? Let’s talk about it then.”
Pandyan recalls one such party in particular. It was Friday, 28 July 1995.
He was crouching under a table, in one corner of the room, with a screwdriver in hand and trying to make sense of two wires in a junction box, leading to a telephone. There were close to 40 impatient people (drinks hadn’t been served yet) hovering about, cracking jokes at a man fiddling with stuff under a table. The guests included B.K. Syngal, chairman and managing director of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL); Amitabh Kumar, director of technology at VSNL; Miheer Mafatlal and several other corporate honchos.
“All of them were saying things like: ‘What are you doing, Pandyan? Have you become a linesman or what?’” says Pandyan. “And in my head, I was like just hang on you people, I am trying to show you the Internet.”
He most definitely was. Back then, Pandyan was part of a group of a travelling Internet evangelists’ club. Its members: actor Shammi Kapoor, Miheer Mafatlal, Vijay Mukhi and Pandyan. The group called itself the Internet Users Club of India (IUCI). And their evangelism amounted to lugging around an Apple Macintosh Performa 5400 from place to place, plugging into people’s homes and offices and showing them what the Internet looked like. What it felt like. And then they would revel in joyous laughter and preach about visions of a connected world.
Back to Pandyan. Under the table.
“I am fumbling with a rusted screw and people are cracking all sorts of jokes,” he says. “But finally, I connected, and placed the call from the modem. It creaked and croaked, if you know what I mean, and connected. A screen popped up, the home page of Apple eWorld.”
Few in the room knew what the Internet looked like. Fewer about Apple’s eWorld service, which had an email, a search box, some news and Talk City, a community chat room. Pandyan then asked people to step up and type any question and hit “enter”. Some did. “It showed answers as a Web page. And people went wow,” he says. Another matter altogether though that Syngal and Kumar, gatekeepers of communication in India, weren’t pleased.
How on Earth did Pandyan log onto something outside India, without VSNL? That too with just a local number. Even before VSNL’s launch of its Internet service. They noted the number Pandyan had dialled. After the do, while Syngal went home, Kumar went straight to the VSNL headquarters to investigate. It was only then that he found out that the number that gave them access was a VSNL one, connecting them to the British telecom network. And a handful of users in India had been using that number to log on to eWorld.
The next day, Saturday, 29 July 1995, the evangelists were promptly summoned to the VSNL’s office in Fort, Mumbai. They were thrilled. They had gone from being just an Internet evangelist club to, in a way, becoming the saviours of the Internet in India.
Internet Users Club of India
Miheer Mafatlal remembers the call. The one he made to Shammi Kapoor sometime in the early 1990s when a friend mentioned that Kapoor loved computers, and more specifically that he loved the Mac (Apple’s Macintosh computer). “The Mac was gifted to Shammi by his niece, Ritu Nanda,” says Mafatlal. “And he was fascinated with it. When I got to know, I called him saying that I want to meet. And he said okay, come by.” The two met and the way Mafatlal tells the story, the meeting began a bit awkwardly. “Because Shammi was a big guy and everybody wants something from a big guy. But soon he realized that I wanted nothing except to chat about computers.”
The duo hit it off. Sometime later, Mukhi came on board. Of course, they met at a party at Mukhi’s apartment. “It was a surprise,” says Mukhi. “At least to me. And all I can say is that Shammi Kapoor landed at my house uninvited. Little did I know that the room was full of his fans. He was good. A powerful communicator, he spoke about his love for computers and the Internet.”
Well, technically speaking, not the Internet. But Apple’s eWorld.
Let’s spend a moment on a little back story.
Sometime in 1994 is when Mafatlal got three beta accounts for Apple’s eWorld service. (The official date for the launch of eWorld is June 1994.) That is because his company, Microgiga, had been selling a lot of Apple computers as desktop publishing solutions in India. When Apple launched the eWorld service, they identified a few people across the world to hand out beta access accounts to. Shammi Kapoor had one and so did Mafatlal and a few others. The service didn’t need a credit card. Or international calling, which was prohibitively expensive. Just a user name and login.
“We signed up and that’s how we started exploring,” says Mafatlal. “So it had a community conference group and I remember being on one with Shammi. It was called the Gateway to India. And I remember us discussing festivals of India, gods, Indian food recipes and dresses.”
With the eWorld login, the group began evangelizing. A ready audience was available at the informal gatherings of the Bombay Computer Club. And it helped that Mafatlal and Mukhi were friends. “I was someone who was pretty actively involved in technology circles,” says Mukhi. “And I was a Windows user back then. But Miheer (Mafatlal) loaned me his Mac. And that’s how the evangelization of the Internet started from my side. After that, I must have made a trillion demos.”
Demos? “We would hold sessions and show people the power of the Internet,” says Mukhi. “I remember giving multiple talks at Crossword. It was basically a chat. You could chat with people across the world. It was very big those days.”
The Mac travelled everywhere, wherever people cared to listen. So it landed at a gathering of lawyers and then one of doctors. “All we needed is a telephone line and we landed with a Mac, keyboard, mouse, modem and projector,” says Pandyan. “For us, it was just the thrill of telling people what the Internet would mean to them. You know, I remember Vijay (Mukhi) and I going to M.F. Husain’s house to do a demo.”
The face of IUCI was Shammi Kapoor. “It was an informal group and we wanted to keep it absolutely open,” says Mafatlal. “But Shammi was the chairman. Because he knew his stuff and could speak intelligently. He would start with ‘what do I know?’ and that would just disarm people. And get everyone to listen.”
Syngal vividly remembers Kapoor’s contribution. “Shammi was a very heavy user,” he says. “He would go to bed at 4 am, after downloading 8-10 MB files (big for the time) till the wee hours of the morning. Mostly things to read that had to do with the arts, his other passion. He would read about what is happening in other countries and correlate that to what is happening here and suggest solutions and best practices to us.”
The first beta testers
VSNL formally launched the Internet on 15 August 1995. The launch didn’t go off well. In fact, it brought a wave of negative publicity because the service was rife with issues. “There was a lot of negative criticism and publicity when we started the service,” says Syngal. “I admitted publically that I goofed up. I was the CMD (chairman and managing director) and took responsibility. We had goofed up on planning and design. We had no idea what the hidden demand was. We had not done a proper sizing of the requirement and the demand.” To put it in perspective: Post the launch, VSNL added 10,000 Internet users in just six months.
That’s where IUCI came in. They met regularly, mostly at VSNL’s headquarters. Initially, Syngal was reluctant to get involved, given the negative publicity and the fear of vested interests. VSNL, a government-owned company, was the only point of access to communicating with the rest of the world—through international trunk dialing. “But then I attended a few of the meetings and found that it was useful to get feedback from these guys,” says Syngal. “They were genuine friends—ready to offer guidance on what we could do to improve. They gave us real feedback, offered constructive criticism—what can we change or do better? They even helped with positive messaging in the media at the time.”
It wasn’t long before Syngal became a regular at IUCI meetings and he would often take along Amitabh Kumar, who was in charge of “putting it all together”.
Syngal remembers what each person brought to the table. “Shammi was a very heavy user. He was the most suave user of the Internet,” he says. “He would tell me how long these downloads took and would even put together a graph of the download speed over a 24-hour period and show it to me. I remember, he gave a speech somewhere where he said the whole world had opened up to me, referring to the Internet.”
“Miheer was into applications. He wanted to see what you could do with the Internet. Vijay was a Java and security expert. He was into hacking and suggested solutions to prevent crashing of systems, etc.,” he says.
All of this meant Syngal had a good sounding board to resolve VSNL’s teething troubles. The company had spent a mere Rs.2-2.5 crore to launch the service. “It was pathetic,” says Syngal.
With the help of IUCI, VSNL went back to the drawing board and increased its investment to Rs.10-15 crore. There were other technical issues. For instance, the modems VSNL had got were below par. “There was this beep that came every three minutes that caused a disconnection,” says Syngal. “You needed a data-approved line. Then there were junction problems. A user in Bandra could not access the lines we had set up in Colaba exchange. There were design issues. We designed it so one line was for 30 customers but then people would connect in the morning and then not let go of the line. Then there would be the problem of a user dialling from Andheri or Bandra never getting a connection from the Colaba exchange.”
Credit must be given where due. VSNL was receptive to feedback. “Oh, this was like a tiny project inside the company,” says Mafatlal. “But Syngal really came around to ensure it worked. He didn’t like people complaining and would get really worked up.” Syngal remembers those days. “It came to a point when I myself would get up in the middle of the night to check on the service,” he says. “And then I created a team (at VSNL) that would monitor the network experience at all times. They would give suggestions on better hardware too—like we found out that the Motorola modems were not as good, and the modems from Israel were far better.”
The turning point for Syngal, and VSNL, came in 1996 at the Nasscom (information technology industry lobby) meeting at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai. There was a booth set up for VSNL to showcase what the Internet can do. It was teeming with people. “That demo was a masterpiece,” Syngal recalls. “I remember Pandyan and a few others had helped set up that booth and the visiting dignitaries were shocked by the interest shown.”
It is another matter altogether though that with the immense popularity came a headache. Pornography. Syngal recalls how the then telecom minister, Sukh Ram, once called him at 2am. “...he called and asked in a very unhappy tone ‘yeh kya ashleelta laye ho?’ (What is this obscenity you have brought), referring to the pornography that came with access.”
Mafatlal too remembers a demonstration that was held by a women’s rights group, nearly six months after VSNL’s launch of Internet services. “They were outside VSNL’s office,” he says. “And they wanted people to show them the Internet so they could burn it down.”
Today, 20 years on, the Internet has become ubiquitous, at least in the major towns and cities in India. But Syngal still rues the fact that it didn’t maintain the momentum it had gathered then. While there are almost a billion mobile phone users in the country, the number of Internet users is less than 20% of that number. “Poor computer penetration, the lack of vernacular applications and also the high cost of the devices (are to blame),” he says.
Yet, he is happy that like it happened in 1995, there’s a smartphone revolution sweeping the country—with many experiencing the World Wide Web for the first time on their phones.