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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 149 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 9 , 2004

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Can We Get More
“Computer Savvy"?

Imran H. Khan

Imagine a world without computers, without the use of any form of computer aided utility, devoid of all modern amenities that need the computer. A world without computer in this millennium is like the 60's without the Beatles. Simply unthinkable. Computer technology has hit the world by storm, changing lifestyles and revolutionising the concept problem-solving. In this globalised Internet oriented world where do we stand?

While the IT revolution has been quite slow to progress in Bangladesh, there are visible signs that computers are changing the way people live. Nasser Akhtar, 27, who drives a yellow cab for his living has recently installed a CD ROM drive in his car. Instead of putting in a CD player, which would probably cost him Tk.9000, he has connected this cheap computer accessory and it totally serves his purpose. "The CD track sometimes skid but I have put in some cloth and gauze around the player to minimise it from shaking. It's not only cheap but I also have a year's warranty on the CD ROM driver," he says with a grin.

Computer technology has become a familiar convenience for urbanites especially. Afsana Afroze, Chairman of Businesslink Computers Ltd, has been in the computer industry since 1996 and recalls the time when the computer industry was still a toddler. "The best thing about those times was the fact that most of the people had very little knowledge about computers. Some people even thought that a computer consisted of a monitor and a keyboard, to write into that monitor. They had no idea as to what a CPU (Central Processing Unit) was. They had no knowledge about the hardware components and software in the computers," she says. "We could sell them the top of the line and that would be enough to satisfy them, even though they sometimes had no idea what they were buying. This was just about five to seven years back. Customers were limited and choosy; most people did not want to invest in something that was still considered a luxury.

Now the scenario is quite different with plenty of customers and there is no fooling them. They always do their homework before coming to purchase a Personal Computer (PC) and have ample idea about all the software available and the hardware necessary to support them. The common customers give the entire configuration of the computer of their desire starting from the processor, motherboard and ram (Random Access Memory), to the graphics card, hard disk and multimedia. Some of them even specify what sort of operating systems they want and all the relevant software and windows applications. "There is no longer the desire to buy something that is the latest in line and expensive. They simply buy something they know that will serve their purpose," says Afroze. Before, consumers would buy a complete PC package for about Tk.50,000 but now, they easily make do with something that's half the price. Even though this can sometimes be a little bit on the downside for computer vendors, they are still happy to see the interest that has sparked among most people regarding their PC.

One curious aspect of being in touch with the current technology is how the customers use computer hardware for other purposes. Since 'necessity is the mother of invention', the necessity of owning a television can be seen when some people buy monitors, a TV card and speakers and voila, your own television set. When the person later has some money to buy a CPU (Central Processing Unit), he may do so and then have the full capability of owning a computer but meanwhile, he can enjoy the comfort of the television. In Dhaka stadium, computer items are in high demand, especially from people Old Dhaka. "There are people who come to us and buy CPUs and CDROM drives. They then put it together along with a set of speakers and they have a nice CD system. It's convenient and much, much cheaper," she says.

Even though the software aspect is still at an infant state in Bangladesh, people are becoming familiar to it. Because the software development market is best described as fruitless here, the availability of good programmers is rare.

The need for a strong field in software is the foundation stone for developing our Information Technology sector. Here, the people are more interested in hardware. The software side is too technical and hence, futile. Nonetheless, networking is catching up and has become quite popular in corporate levels.

Curently our government is buying a wide range of software from India. There are many people in Bangladesh who are more than able to make small and medium software packages to suit the needs of different organisations. Especially at the government level, there are numerous types of software that is being used daily. Most of them are developed and bought from our neighbouring countries. "Why can we not let our own people develop software that will suit our needs?" demands Afroze. "There may be a lot of glitches and bugs in the software but those can easily be solved with the help of specialists brought from abroad. They can then educate us about the problems that we had with the programme and hence, through a trial and error method, we can overcome our dependence on our neighbours for good programmers."

As there is so little help or encouragement from the government in the computer sector, many firms and individuals out of sheer frustration are creating some extremely useful software on their own. These programmes are not only of high quality, but the revenue that they are receiving is being pooled back into the Bangladeshi economy. We are not losing any of our investments. Even though the computer industry is less plagued by politics the high level of corruption in Bangladesh makes sure that any software company will probably have to think twice before setting up a business here.

One of the major problems that the computer traders are facing is the government's taxation system. "If we paid tax only on imports then it would not only benefit us but the clientele," says a computer retailer in BCS Computer City. The government is in the midst of implementing a Value Added Tax (VAT) system which unnecessarily burdens the final customers. There is currently an Import Development Surcharge Tax (previously termed as Advance Income Tax) of 3 % on all imports of computer items and the VAT is currently set at 1.5 %. Because of this system, one has to pay tax to the government every time a computer is being sold from one person to another. If an importer who had imported a batch of printers from Malaysia sells it to a wholesale buyer, he will charge a 1.5 % VAT on that to the wholesaler. This tax is going to the government. When the wholesaler sells that batch to smaller retailers, he too will charge a 1.5 % VAT on that to the retailers. This tax is for something whose tax has already been paid to the government and all the while, the price of the final product is continuing to rise. When the retailer sells it to the final consumer, he too will charge a 1.5 % VAT for selling that product and the whole burden of this tax will fall on the shoulders of the final client. Instead of paying Tk.1000, he ends up paying something like Tk.1100, depending on how many times that item has changed hands. This issue is still on the table of the National Board of Revenue (NBR). There is a rumour that when this tax hits the Computer City, each individual shop will have to separately pay VAT. "Imagine the implication here. One shop may be the showroom with its head office somewhere else. When we order things back and forth, there is transaction and the adjustments go in the form of memos. When this tax hits us, we will have to pay tax for even moving our own goods from one shop to the next. That is the face value of VAT," he concludes.

Because of the taxation system of Bangladesh, many retailing outlets have to slightly 'modify' some digits while filing for their tax return. If they don't do this then they will not be able to function, as corruption runs deep within the bloodstream of this nation. Another retailer from Elephant Road, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, "If I am so used to doing small sins, why should I be scared to go a little further and do bigger sins? It's simply a matter of time and opportunity." He was commenting on how things have become from bad to worse on the corruption issue in the government tax collection bureau.

Zafar Iqbal, Professor of Shahjalal University of Technology, Sylhet, eminent novelist and one of the leading heads in the field of IT, describes the underdevelopment of the software field because of a Catch 22 situation. "Our problem is not because we don't have good programmers. Skilled programmers simply make up about 10% of the software industry where as the remaining 90% is made up with people like managers, architects, etc. Without the presence of all these people, there will be no industry," says Iqbal. There is a constant pool of fresh graduates who are more than able to handle the programming side of the industry, says Iqbal, but first of all, they will need the industry. 9/11 was also a major drawback in the field of IT. The impact has been largely felt in the field of IT all over the world, including Bangladesh. One possible solution suggested by Iqbal in order to create an industry in software is to create an internal market for software. If all the government sectors and other organisations started to use computers, there would be a huge demand in workforce for this huge project. "The main way in which the people of this country, namely programmers and engineers, will be able to prosper is through much needed experience," says Iqbal. With experience, there will be more scope for us in the international market. "We will need everyone to come forward if we want to develop the software field. We will especially need the assistance of non-residential Bangladeshis to provide the knowledge and share their experiences with those people who are still inexperienced in this field."

"We have all the necessary ingredients to develop out software field but what we lack in is experience," he continues. Our infrastructure is another main problem. Unless we develop our network and our broadband width, we will not be able to provide the necessary support that many multinational companies here want. The networks here are really slow and those that are fast are extremely expensive. "We will simply have to develop our Broadband width if we want to move to the next step."

Through many problems and controversy, the much-anticipated Submarine Cable has made its way to Bangladesh from India. We should be able to use it sometime in the year 2005. It will come from Chittagong but the problem will occur when we try to spread the cable to other parts of Bangladesh. Even though Dhaka and Chittagong will be able to get the full benefits of this cable, the service may not be so readily available to other districts of Bangladesh. "In such a situation, a digital divide may occur," he says.

Piracy, a major concern all over the world, is still not a serious issue in Bangladesh. Here, we simply copy whatever CDs are popular without any concern. Office XP 2003 alone costs about USD400 in the States but here, we can easily get it for about Tk.120. By 2008, Intel and other companies are making their systems such that pirated software will not be supported on their hardware, but those are still in the distant future. "I personally prefer the software that are Linux based. They are free and better to use for a country such as Bangladesh, " continues Zafar, "and the StarOffice Suite, which is compatible on the Linux operating system, is quite similar to the Microsoft Office" which we are so familiar with. It doesn't take a whole lot of training to move from one system to another but the motivation has to be present. Though Microsoft knows of our widespread usage of its popular Window package, it is currently not doing anything about it but if they file a lawsuit against the government of Bangladesh, then it can cost us billions, warns Iqbal. "Microsoft cannot target those individuals and organisations at the private level but they can sue at the government level for the usage of their product. There is still time for the government to move on to the Linux system."

In a recent business report, the CEO of Nokia, Jorma Jaakko Ollila claimed that "you could do all that you do with your PC with a cell phone". If such is the boom in technology in the mobile industry, imagine what computers will sum up to. In CeBit, the world's biggest technology fair, computers are being featured as a home entertainment system. Computers have evolved so fast that even the modern games are not being able to keep up with the rapid advancements in hardware. But in Bangladesh, advancements are not as rapid. The latest network system in Bangladesh is the radio broadband but this networking involves investing a large sum of money, which many business corporations cannot avail. There are many people who are going to foreign countries for treatment. With the development of out broadband infrastructure, there may be a scope for them to get treatment from out local doctors, with the assistance of doctors and physicians from Bangkok and Singapore through web conferencing. It's all possible but the basic infrastructure has to be present.

Bangladesh has come a long way from apathy towards computers to a conscious appreciation of their remarkable contribution to make life easier. But there is still a long way to go. We should all be optimistic and "hope that the jump to the next level is a smooth one," concludes Zafar Iqbal.

Tanzeen Ferdous Alam, a student of IBA who recently bought a Dell Laptop says, "It's much better to purchase items from online. People here still think that laptops is still a luxury. In America everyone can get hold of a laptop because of simple loans from banks and Dell corporations. It's almost as cheap as paying nine dollars per month (interest free) and getting a laptop on you laptop." The best thing about Dell is that the whole thing is online and hence, there are no retailers to bring up the price. As long as you have someone to bring the item over to you, it's always a good buy. "Another laptop the Viao (from Sony) is the best and the sleekest around but it has failed to capture the market as they are not just specialised in the field of PC. But they have the edge because they have the technology to produce something that is really thin, light and that looks ultra nice." The Viao is about 3 pounds and about an inch thin. "You can't beat that, but that's where it ends." For all this beauty you have to pay a minimum of USD2000 where as for the same configuration you get a Dell laptop for about USD1300, which is a bit thicker and bulkier.

"Mine is a P4 mobile, 3.06 GHz and it just cost me $1190. Mobile means it consumes less power and it's a little faster than a regular P4 laptop. It also comes with a Geforce FX card, which gives you the option to play the latest games, say Prince of Persia 4 on a laptop which cannot even properly be played on a desktop PC with the latest graphics configuration here. This laptop is not just cheap but it gives me everything I want and more,” says a contented Tanzeen.

The Dell world is totally online and hence, their inventories cost is nil as they pay their suppliers after you pay them. It's somewhat of a totally digital firm; one simply can't go wrong. The same principle is being applied by DELL on PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant), Projectors and MP3 players and hence, they have become a big threat. A PDA costs USD180, an mp3 player is USD200 (15 gigabyte) and a projector is about USD1800. Projectors are probably the next step in the gaming industry.


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