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Devangshu Datta: Google Earth's desi version

ISRO's new beta Bhuvan suffers heavily vis-a-vis Google Earth and associated programs like Wikimapia

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is one industry where it is feasible to release experimental products in the hopes that user-feedback will help iron out bugs. This is what an open beta release seeks to do. “Beta” carries large built-in disclaimers.

The beta user-community sees bugs and instability as the price of indulging curiosity. Ideally, beta-user feedback leads to upgrades that eventually make programs more stable, useful and interesting for aam users.

If however, the beta is directly comparable to a popular, freely available product, then the standard of comparisons is unfortunately, much higher. ISRO’s new beta Bhuvan that launched on Wednesday suffers heavily vis-a-vis and associated programs like Wikimapia. The image-mapping software from is clunky. It has many potentially useful and impressive features but it is being delivered in a condition that makes even hardened beta-users sweat.

The political imperative to releasing Bhuvan on or around I-Day (on Dr Sarabhai’s 90th birthday actually) may have been strong. It was behind schedule — there’s been a buzz about it since November 2008 at least. Nevertheless, it may have been better to wait or to release a “closed” beta without exposing Bhuvan as it stands to public view.

Bhuvan promises to do a lot more than G-Earth for India-specific users. It offers quicker data refreshment (the satellite pictures will be newer). It offers better street-by-street (indeed house-by-house) coverage with resolutions that will eventually be significantly better.

It also offers a load of useful metadata ranging across climate, weather, demographics, and the historical values of above. These could empower an endless range of commercially useful apps as well as research tools. It allows easy measuring and scaling and one-click snapshot of maps. This is brilliant. Once the next version incorporates Chandrayaan-data, including shots of the dark side of the moon, the geek community will have collective orgasms.

But let me list some of the frustrations. Bhuvan requires an 10.7Mb download from the ISRO site. The site has not been mirrored and it has been down near-continuously due to high traffic since the launch. That was three days ago, and 72 hours is long enough for even bureaucracies to take corrective action. The GoI has both the technological ability and the bandwidth. The Election Commission and the Railways, for instance, handle humongous traffic.

Anyway let’s assume a user gets there when the site is working, goes through the tedious registration (I’m the Phd who lives in Maradona-Nagar), downloads and completes set-up. Bhuvan can only be run off the site, post-login. This means permanent traffic jams. You will get kicked off regularly. The user-interface has good, deep menus but lacks much in the way of help though this is common to most beta-releases.

What is more, Bhuvan can only be used off Windows platforms, through an Internet Explorer browser with DirectX and MS.Net installed. It is not a “full-screen” app since it sits inside IE. It can only be run off broadband connections that are at least 756Kbps in speed.

All this ignores India’s realities in terms of user-preferences and of broadband penetration. Very few home-users have connections anywhere near that fast (default “broadband” is 256Kbps). India’s beta-users include a thriving Linux and Mac community while browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari, etc are popular. DirectX is also not a safe environment. If ISRO does get hacked, DirectX will help to spread the pain.

Net-net, Bhuvan is a technically brilliant product with many innovative features. But it could fail to win widespread adoption due to the inability to consider the user perspective. It is possible to address all these issues. That’s what beta is supposedly about. Let’s hope that this is corrected in the stable release, whenever that is.

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