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Market Scene : Hi-Tech India? That Day May Be Closer Than You Think : From half a world away, Bombay wizards keep Ma Bell's phone lines bug-free. The concept--exporting brainpower without leaving home--could help reshape India's economy.

May 29, 1990|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOMBAY, India — Every morning, dozens of bright young Indian men and women battle their way through the madness of India's largest metropolis, choking through snarling, noxious traffic, to reach the front door of what may well be the greatest hope for India's high-tech future.

The facility where they work is on the second floor of a rather tasteless concrete structure called Standard Design Facility II in a drab industrial park dubbed the Santa Cruz Electronics Export Processing Zone.

But when the young women programmers draped in their traditional Indian saris and the tieless young men in creased pants and white socks pass through the glass-and-chrome doors of Datamatics Ltd., they might as well be entering the "Twilight Zone."

One group heads down a modern corridor, past a five-foot bronze statue of the Hindu monkey god Humayum, past rows of exotic house plants and into a glassed-in room full of modern cubicles. There, almost in unison, they sit down at a bank of desk-top computer terminals and press a few buttons.

Within microseconds, impulses surge through a half-mile-long ground cable to a rooftop satellite dish nearby, up into space to a transponder on the Intelsat communications satellite, back down to a microwave relay in Spain, through an underwater coaxial cable the length of the Atlantic Ocean, back up to a ground station on Long Island in New York state and, again by microwave, to a large satellite dish in the North Carolina town of Liberty Corner.

Almost before the eager young Indians can bid each other good morning, they are logged on to the AT&T master computer that "debugs" America's domestic telephone system; and, for the next eight hours, from their desks 15,000 miles away, this handful of programmers and technicians make it easier for America's 240 million people to communicate with each other.

Welcome to the world of Lalit Kanodia--a scientist who has dedicated his life to shrinking a world too often at war and saving a nation that seemingly has doomed itself to a future of overpopulation and poverty.

Kanodia, by all accounts, occupies the cutting edge of high technology in a nation better known for its brutal mayhem than its bright minds. And the American Telephone & Telegraph project that his Datamatics Ltd. is now pioneering represents a market potential that could revolutionize India's moribund economy--indeed, the entire computer maintenance and design industry worldwide.

The market is called computer software export; and with an estimated value of $128 billion a year, its name is far less exciting than its implications. But, in a world where wealthy nations are increasingly wary of cross-migration from poorer ones, Kanodia has found a way to export bright young minds while leaving their bodies home.

When his programmers log on every morning in Bombay, they're actually entering the AT&T computer in North Carolina that stores complaints. These come in each day from the so-called "Baby Bells," such as Pacific Bell, which have continued to rely on AT&T computer systems since they were created as a byproduct of the breakup of America's telephone monopoly.

As American consumers have learned, all computers have bugs, ranging from billing problems to snags in the overall efficiency of a local telephone system. Many of the flaws are minuscule, but over time, they show up; and the software that runs the computers must be tested repeatedly, and eventually rewritten to eliminate the problems. Those are the tasks of the Bombay technicians.

Only a fraction of Datamatics' employees are involved in the AT&T project, and AT&T relies on such foreign contracts for only a small percentage of its software servicing. The giant American firm regards such foreign work as an experiment that can help facilitate the "globalization" of communications.

Krishna Tanuku, a regional vice president of AT&T and the company's country manager in India, said the Datamatics work helps his firm understand what is needed to service software from thousands of miles away and also how to adapt its products to meet local markets.

With the trends toward globalization--in which a product may be designed in one country, built in another and marketed in yet another--instant communication is becoming a necessity, Tanuku said.

Although it's a first for India, the technology that made Kanodia's ongoing experiment possible is hardly new. It is a standard, direct satellite link between Datamatics' computers in India and the AT&T system in the United States.

What is unique is Kanodia's ability to implement that technology in an underdeveloped nation that ranks as the second most populous on Earth as part of an experimental project with broad implications for India's 850 million people.

"We've always looked at people as a liability in this nation--too many of them to progress," the 45-year-old Kanodia explained one recent morning in the soft fluorescent hum of his private office, where modern art shares space with ancient Hindu idols.

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