Feature: Whither Indian Software Products?

When will we have a Google or a Microsoft from Indian shores? Is a question that bugs me quite often. We are the undisputed leader in software services, but there has been little attention paid to creating IP or to be specific, software products out of India. It is a shame that only a handfull of companies in India are developing products; considering the kind of experience we have in the IT domain. But things might change, as these few players are getting ambitious by each passing day and their successes might herald a whole new shift to product development.. In the article, published recently in the Dataquest Magazine, I spoke about a small revolution that is taking shape, and how this just might be it..(http://dqindia.ciol.com/content/top_stories/2007/107051001.asp)

Point of Inflection
How some Indian players have sniffed out the global product opportunity, and are gearing up for the $350 bn market.

Thursday, May 10, 2007
Faqir Chand Kohli in not someone who can be easily ruffled. The octogenarian, fondly referred to as the father of the Indian IT Industry, has a very benevolent and benign stance towards things in life-right from the way the government is trying to enforce reservation on meritorious institutions to the way his created entity (TCS) is performing, or even how Indian politicians are not progressively inclined and just a bunch of nincompoops. But one thing surely gets his goat, literally. Call India an IT super power and suddenly one can catch sight of a stirring in his pupils. Kohli perks up and speaks in a voice that hardly seems to come from the grand old man of Indian IT.
“India is not an IT super power, how can you even call it so, we account for a few percent points in the total global IT pie. Look around you in India, the benefits of computerization have yet to really percolate to the commonest of the common. It is a fallacy to call ourselves an IT power house,” he virtually thumps the table.
Peering into his graying pupils one can discern a tinge of sadness. After the outburst, Kohli seems to calm down, accepting the inevitability of things and returning back to his calm and serene self. “Services alone will not make us a super power. We need to make our own hardware, our own software, our own applications,” he says unequivocally. And that is the truth, the bitter pill.
The Story So Far
For the past decade or so, we have been toasting the success of Indian IT; the flattening of the world or the emergence of Bangalore tigers. Year after year, Dataquest keeps coming out with the Top 20 volumes talking about how Indian IT super heroes, namely, TCS, Wipro, Infosys and others are faring. The most celebrated IT body, Nasscom too compiles an annual report that talks about the growth of the export market and many such statistics. The robust annual growth of the IT industry, some 30-40% year-on-year seems to have had a lulling effect.
Everyone hopes that the good times will continue to be and the million dollar contracts will continue to flow. It will, before the law of probability catches up or some other low-cost populous destination comes up, or a shattering innovation replaces the countless number of individuals employed in India. It is not an IT Armageddon, but a course of life. Many analysts and industry watchers have warned of the same, time and again. So what needs to be done? The answer has always been there, as Kohli said earlier, Indian companies need to look at creating IP, creating hardware products and, more significantly, making use of our intellectual capital, creating world class software products.
Consider this. India’s largest IT company, TCS, which is into consulting, services and business-process outsourcing, started its operations in the year 1968. Meanwhile, Microsoft was setup by a bunch of college dropouts in 1975, purportedly to sell software for the highly popular Altair 8800. This year, TCS crossed $4 billion in revenues and employs some 89,000 people globally. While, the Giant at Redmond (Microsoft) reported revenues of around $44 bn in 2006 and some 70,000 employees worldwide. This is how India’s largest IT company and the largest American (global, to be more precise) company compare.
And therein lies the answer. Indian IT companies have been primarily focused on application software development and implementation unlike global biggies like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and their likes. Creating world-class products is the key to success. The good news is, India, and more importantly Indian companies, are discovering the benefits of pumping money into R&D of new products.
Changing Gears
Mumbai-based i-Flex solutions is a classical success story. It was in 1991 that Rajesh Hukku convinced Citigroup, where he used to work, to invest close to $400,000 in a software venture of a different kind. Rather than create application or software for foreign clients, he would make a product. After years at it his company, i-Flex, launched a solution for the banking industry, namely Flexcube. The product was a resounding success and found customers across the globe. It became so hot that Oracle decided to buy a 44% stake in 2005. A year and more later, Oracle has increased its share and is now the majority stockholder in the company with close to 83% stake.
There are more such stories emerging out of Indian shores, like 3i Infotech, Subex Azure, Cranes Software, Polaris, Ramco and others. “While last year was a great year from product companies’ perspective (product revenues touched $481 mn), and the winners were really the big firms such as 3i infotech, IBS, Ramco, etc. But the heartening part is that unlike the biggies, higher market growth came from players such as Tejas Networks, Ittiam, Tekriti Systems, Newgen, Nucleus, Skelta, and Axcend Automation, Aftek, and other companies that are often labeled as small players,” says TR Madan Mohan, director (Consulting, ICT Practice), Frost & Sullivan.
Little wonder then that more and more entrepreneurs are ready to take a plunge into this evolving industry. Take for instance the numbers given by Deepak Ghaisas, CEO (India Operations) and CFO, i-Flex. He is also the chairman of the Nasscom Product Forum: “According to figures available with us, there are around 346 companies in India that are into product development. Of this around 228 companies have a product offering.” Last year, the numbers of product companies were pegged at 250; this translates into quite a substantial increase in numbers.
Ghaisas provides another interesting insight into the numbers. “Close to 60% of these product companies have been started by entrepreneurs, mainly Indians returning from abroad who want to start something of their own,” he says.
Services Hangover?
Products is greatly different from services, is a phrase that every player utters at least once during the conversation. Indian companies have been renowned to take a de-risked approach to investment, and services is well suited for it. The product is a high risk and oft times high stakes business, the margins. For failure are pretty low. One has to invest in building a product over a few years and then market it to all and sundry. The RoI cycle can be pretty long.
Subash Menon, founder chairman, managing director & CEO of Subex Azure sums up the situation succinctly. “The product industry is yet to evolve properly in India. With the focus on export of software services most companies have ignored this segment, and consequently, there are only a few players in this space. Yet none can deny that the opportunity is quite huge and Indian companies need to work at making the best of this emerging industry,” he says.
Meanwhile, Amar Chintopanth, executive director & CFO, 3i Infotech seems to be a bit generous towards the services companies. “Over the years, the services giants have created a favorable atmosphere towards India. They must be credited for building brand India. Thus, product companies from India are no more taken as mere rookies anymore and are regarded with a certain amount of respect,” he says.
The Pot of Gold
According to market estimates, the global software product market is pegged at $350 bn and the Indian market is estimated to touch $7 bn by 2010. Thus, it is a big opportunity for Indian players both in the export as well as the domestic market. Unlike the services industry, products players have been known to hone their products in India and other developing nations before taking them to more mature markets globally. This is what i-Flex did in the nineties, 3i Infotech also followed suit, and so did Subex Azure and a host of product companies.
India is also attracting a host of companies who are setting up their development facilities. Take the case of PTC, the company has its largest R&D centre based in Pune. Meanwhile, last year, Nvidia had acquired a small Pune firm, Pace Soft Solutions. At that time, Jen-Hsun Huang, the CEO had said, “We have invested close to $50 mn in India and plan to invest close to $250 mn in the coming years.”
Not just BFSI
There has been a bit of an issue with Indian product companies so far. They have been mostly focused in the BFSI space. The reasons are plenty-the immense success of products like Flexcube and Finnacle could have spawned a whole generation of me-too players. Also the fact that till sometime back the only Indian sector that was able to provide business was the banking sector. Thus, there are a host of companies in this space.
Yet, there have been a few ventures that truly stand out. One of them is Cranes Software that makes statistical analysis tools. It has a unique business model of ‘Acquire-Enhance-Expand’. Re-engineering them to add new features and functionalities, and expansion to the global market in itself involves a significant amount of R&D. Newgen is another noteworthy example in the document management space and many other ventures like these.
Big Services Daddies
It is not only the dedicated players that are eyeing this segment, so are the big daddies like TCS and Infosys. TCS, after its acquisition of FNS has been relatively active in the core-banking space. It has not really been worth too much in terms of revenues for the company. As TCS is getting much money from servicing clients, it does not seem to be too keen on the products game.
Infosys has been accelerating on the products domain. Its banking solution, Finacle, enjoys quite a good installed base in the industry and yet its contribution to the overall revenue is not something to sing about. “Finacle contributes approximately 4% of Infosys’ total revenues. However, this data point does not reflect the fact that Infosys has packaged software only in the banking solutions space while services focus continues to be across verticals,” says Sanat Rao, global head, Finacle Sales, Infosys Technologies.
The issue is of mindset, it is quite hard for a TCS or Wipro or Infosys to break the shackles and succeed in the new domain. As long as the services industry is going great guns, the big daddies will continue to remain marginal players.
Governmental Interference
Most of the industry players complain about how the government has done nothing for the industry at large. By imposing excise duty on packaged software in the last budget, the domestic market has been badly hit.
“It is the IT industry which created the culture of quality, globalization, technical education, building world class infrastructure and a brand to recon with in the international markets. I can bet that if the government had consumed all the tax benefits instead, India could be a laggard country as it is in all other sectors. Minus, the rise and shine of the Made in India brand of the software and the BPO industry globally, India has no international standing whatsoever,” says Hanuman Tripathi, MD, Infrasoft Technologies.
Menon from Subex wants organizations like Nasscom to play a more proactive role. “They really need to promote the industry like they have done for BPO. Once the word is spread, more and more entrepreneurs will come forward and the industry will flourish,” he says.
Kohli’s Gift
Coming back to the father of Indian IT. Kohli has not let age or anything come between him and his vision. He was responsible for recently engineering a CBFL (computer based functional learning) method that has provided literacy to many thousands in rural India. He even talks about creating a product for the numerous kirana stores dotting every town and city in India. “These stores with a computer and a custom made solution could then compete with the Walmarts and HomeDepots of the world,” he mentions.
Vision is the key. If an octogenarian can still think about creating products and solutions that can be used by millions, what really encumbers millions of computer geniuses and management whiz kids from doing so? It is perfect time to move into the product space, to do something truly path breaking. The product industry is indeed at a point of inflection.
Talking Services
For over a decade now, i-Flex has been famous across the globe for a single thing, a core-banking product known as Flexcube. The product, developed in the early nineties, has blazed a trail like none other. Even today, though the company has a variety of successful brands and products, Flexcube continues to be a dominant force. And one of the chief reasons, according to Deepak Ghaisas, CEO (India Operations) and CFO, i-Flex Solutions, has been its adaptability to different cultures and market dynamics.

“We have been able to do so through the service support that we provide to the customer. We do not sell a product but sell a solution,” he says. And all the while his cash registers keep ringing. Services today reportedly account for around 50% of the company’s revenues. Not small considering that i-Flex’s revenues is estimated to be in the range of $330 mn annually.

“Services is crucial to us, not only from the revenues perspective but a lot other ways as well. We have found that services can often act as an incubator for the product, nurturing it in the initial phase. It can also be a very good employee retention tool as the turn-around cycles in a product company can be quite long,” adds Ghaisas.

As part of the initial strategy the company had deliberately avoided going all out in the advanced economies, instead it went to developing economies in Asia and Africa. Now, i-Flex is taking another step to ensure its continuous success. The service profile of the company is improving with each passing day, as it ramps up for the next level of growth. With Oracle’s (as it holds around 83% share in the company) marketing and servicing might behind it, i-Flex can truly change the way Indian product companies have fared till date.
Vision is the key. If an octogenarian can still think about creating products and solutions that can be used by millions, what really encumbers millions of computer geniuses and management whiz kids from doing so? It is perfect time to move into the product space, to do something truly path breaking. The product industry is indeed at a point of inflection.
Going Glocal
Ambition is a good trait, but like any overdose, can be quite hazardous at times. There have been quite a few cases in the recent past wherein a company that was cash rich expanded rapidly and burnt itself out rapidly as well. As Alexander Pope had once said, the same ambition can destroy or save.

3i Infotech believes in taking steady but firm steps and part of its strategy is to go glocal. With around 80% of its revenue coming from overseas it is pretty obvious that 3i Infotech needs to have a presence in all the countries that it works in. But it can be a costly and risky affair. Opening an office in a foreign country means investing precious capital that could have been otherwise used. 3i Infotech has taken care of that problem by going global through the local way, ie, through appointed local partners.
“As we have around 300-400 customers and most of them based overseas, it naturally makes sense for us to expand overseas. Thus we have adopted a partner strategy. For instance, before venturing into any country, we conduct a thorough research on the market and its potential. Once convinced, we appoint a partner in that geography and operate through him or her. As the business expands we add on a few partners more, and after a critical stage, we ourselves enter the country,” says Amar Chintopanth, executive director & CFO, 3i Infotech.
Currently, 3i Infotech has a partner network in more than 10 countries of the total 50 that it operates in. By using a partner, the company saves a lot on the cost of capital that would otherwise need to be invested. “And this capital we plough back into R&D,” adds Chintopanth. For product companies in India that are short of cash, going glocal is the best possible option.
Inorganic Approach
Subash Menon is a man who should be truly admired for his gumption. An electrical engineering graduate from a university in Durgapur, Menon decided to float a company in 1992, without much help or experience. He had an idea and the urge to make it happen. Subex Systems evolved from being a telecom SI to a product company focused on the telecom space.

Then last year, Menon decided to go full steam ahead. In a move that surprised many, Subex acquired UK-based Azure Systems for close $140 mn in an all share deal. At that point Subex was worth some $25 mn compared to Azure at some $31 mn. The new entity, Subex Azure, was well suited for the telecom OSS market. But Menon is an ambitious man and recently went in for two more acquisitions in the range of $100 mn. So how does the organic strategy works?
“M&As are an important part of our roadmap and we pursue both organic and inorganic routes to enhance our product portfolio. As a policy, we work on a 4-year roadmap, it clearly states where we want to be in 4 years time and how. The recent acquisitions are based on the plan that we have chalked out for 2010. In the last seven years we have made seven acquisitions amounting around $320 mn in cash and stock. We are also in the process of raising around $200 mn by issuing Global Depositary Receipts (GDRs),” says Menon.
According to Menon, Subex Azure will continue to look at expanding the inorganic way, and is looking for possible buy-outs in three areas, namely revenue maximization, service fulfillment and service assurance. “We have evolved being a fraud management solutions company to being a telecom OSS vendor. Our aims have become bigger and so has our addressable market. We intend to go full steam ahead,” says Menon.

Pola-rising Market
Sometime in 2001, Polaris did a reality check. It was established in 1995 and doing reasonably fair for a services company, but Arun Jain, CEO, Polaris, knew that it would not be able to compete with the likes of TCS and Infosys. For all its efforts, it would be tough to break into the big club. It was around this time that Polaris changed tracks. It adopted the Blue Ocean strategy; instead of slogging it out in the highly competitive services domain, why not coast along in the relatively newer space of product development. The company’s expertise in the banking domain would also come very handy. But even the banking domain had a few strong players like i-Flex and others. There were quite a few players competing on the plank of technology and cost. Polaris decided to bring its technical expertise on the table, and introduced componentized products based on SOA principles.

“The idea was fairly simple, but complex at the same time. Rather than selling a product, we decided to present a platform to our customers, whereby he or she could pick and choose modules or applications that were required by the business rather than going for a big-bang implementation. We termed it as Non-Disruptive Measured Steps Method or NDMS,” says Jaideep Billa, CTO, Polaris Software Lab.
With NDMS, companies were able to migrate from another core-banking platform to the Polaris platform with little or no hassle. And the results were there for all to see. “Today, top 7 banks from the top 25 use our solutions in some way or the other,” says Billa. Though Polaris could not be a shining star in the services domain, it certainly emerged as a force to reckon with in the product domain.

Does it Tally?
Till a few years back, Tally was the poster boy of Indian IT industry. A homegrown solution aimed at the small domestic players, Tally really grew in real stature. Since Tally package was customized for Indian needs and requirements, it had completely dominated the SMB space.

Over the years, the big ones like the SAPs and the Oracles of the world were focused on the big companies in India. That was till a few years and now the very same international have woken up to the immense opportunity in the SMB space. Suddenly, Tally was under attack with international players products at lower price. Its price plank was removed, the growth was stagnant and suddenly the company seemed vulnerable.
To counter the situation, Tally is trying to reinvent itself. After being funded by Reliance Mukesh Ambani Group, that also picked up a stake in the company, Tally has been trying to reach out to different markets like the Middle East. It has also decided to take the game to the enemies’ court, by venturing into the ERP space. Tally also came out with a solution for the retail sector. Time will tell if Tally will be able to tally all the different things that it seems to be doing or will it, just not tally.


One thought on “Feature: Whither Indian Software Products?

  1. Gret article dude. But you must understand all the solutions that so called Infosys, finnacle, i-flex flexcube, polaris solutions are all in accounting field, where simple add/subtract kind of operations are performed. The new product technology may involve high tech, but domain wise the technology sucks big time. India is very logn way to becoming IT power. In the process China may as well catch up.

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