My very first computer

Published: May 7, 2012
The writer is associate professor of computer science at LUMS and is currently working as the chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge

The writer is associate professor of computer science at LUMS and is currently working as the chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge

In late 1990s, the University of California, Berkley was working on a pioneering wireless networking project that had a deceptively simple tagline: ‘Access is the killer application’. This simple tagline has stuck with me for over a decade. Whether it was my research and entrepreneurial life at MIT and LUMS for the past 10 years, or my recent role in public-sector IT initiatives, enabling access has been a pivotal theme of my work.

One of the most successful projects in my research group at LUMS is a BitTorrent client, called BitMate, which enables computers with a slow network connection to pool their bandwidth for downloading content faster. When we first built the BitMate system, I remember a journalist asking me about the usefulness of our system. My reply was simple: give people a way to access information, and they will surprise you with what they can do with it. BitMate is now used by over 35,000 users from 184 countries to download content like e-books and computer software. Shortly after we released the system for public use, I received an email from a student in Iran thanking me for making the software.

In my recent role at the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), I have found that the basic building block of e-governance initiatives is invariably access to information: access to data about the level of crime reported at different police stations, for better decision-making; access to patterns in which a disease like dengue may be spreading in the city, for better preventive measures; access to information about the level of service rendered by government hospitals, for better allocation of resources; access to information about one’s ownership of a land asset, to avoid fraudulent property transactions.

In the same vein, I hope that laptops awarded to the students in Punjab will facilitate better access to educational content and tools. Indeed, similar programmes worldwide, such as the MIT One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative and the Intel Classmate PC have had a huge impact. The MIT OLPC scheme, backed both by the World Economic Forum and the UNDP has resulted in over 2.5 million laptops being distributed to students in various countries.

Much like the philosophy of educational projects such as MIT OLPC, the Punjab government’s 125,000 laptops use a free, open-source Ubuntu operating system. Supporting open-source software at this scale, in a country with rampant use of proprietary and pirated software, is bold and laudable. Due to its flexibility, zero-cost and broad-based academic support, open-source software is the de facto standard for college and university students worldwide. This is the first time an initiative in Pakistan has promoted open-source software in a project of this scale. With an open-source operating system installed in the laptops, students can benefit from a wide range of free, open-source applications, instead of having to buy expensive proprietary applications or using illegal pirated versions.

With 125,000 brilliant students equipped with laptops, there is great opportunity for the government, IT industry and universities to develop an ecosystem that affords ubiquitous network accessibility, localised educational content and applications to make best use of these laptops in our higher education system.

I remember when my father gifted me my first computer on doing well in O-levels. This introduced me to the wonderful world of computers and eventually led me to become a computer science professor. Seventeen years later, I still have that computer displayed as a trophy in my study room. I hope the students who have received the laptops cherish this award the same way I did many years ago and go on to contribute positively towards our education system.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2012.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (52)

  • Faizan
    May 7, 2012 - 11:23PM

    Finally, someone has something constructive and positive to say about the Youth Empowerment Initiative. It certainly does incentivise students to do well and should be commended! Bravo Mr Saif!


  • Sultan Mehmood
    May 7, 2012 - 11:30PM

    It’s no doubt a wonderful initiative, and the pitty trolls who oppose it don’t understand that governement can only work upto that. Now, it’s students integrity whether he/she uses it for useful purpose or trolling!

    Way to Go PML N.. Hope you come to power with overwhelming majority!


  • Ali Tanoli,
    May 7, 2012 - 11:33PM

    Thank u sir ..


  • Midhat
    May 7, 2012 - 11:47PM

    @Open Source:

    “…However, students come here regularly for Windows installation as the laptops are given with Linux based operating system by default, which is not common here and no one knows how to operate the system with Linux”



  • Saba Khan
    May 7, 2012 - 11:56PM

    Wonderful! Finally some positivity and rational voice on the laptops scheme. I don’t know why we politicise and condem every positive step in this country …


  • Muzammil Baig
    May 8, 2012 - 12:11AM

    2 IN 1 SCAM..INCREASING VOTERS AND MAKING MONEY OUT OF PROJECT.writer himself a paid agent of government of Punjab,all his sayings are baseless,cutting the budget of schools those even don’t have chairs for students,no toilets,no LABS,no other basic needs.this is totally unfair.this is lack of management and using as a best plus point to score politically,because they will not get votes improving elementary schools systems.only a very students got laptops those cant buy it majority of the students are illegible or they can buy on their own.and also paid a very high price for this old technology,SHAME ON SHAHBAZ SHARIF.


  • Majid
    May 8, 2012 - 12:17AM

    Now it’s upto you PTI supporters, decide Mubasher Luqman is right or Dr. Umer.


  • andre
    May 8, 2012 - 12:20AM

    now they have more portable access to porn!! :-)


  • Rakesh
    May 8, 2012 - 12:26AM

    Your services are commendable. But my good sir, this is not about computers being provided as a trophy.

    This is about, whether government should be in the business of awarding 125,000 computers at all?

    Is this the best use of the hard-collected taxes of the federal/provincial governments?

    Do you honestly think that this laptop-distribution serves no political agenda?

    If one believes that all means to good are fair-game then something like this would probably come to pass, but even then, is this a good precedent?

    Do we want to be a country filled with whimsical political class that exploits the ‘latest trends’ for their political benefit while not improving the fundamentals of primary/secondary education?


  • Safoora Nazeer
    May 8, 2012 - 12:30AM

    finally, some sane media voice. iLikes.


  • saladin
    May 8, 2012 - 12:35AM

    After the distribution of laptops to students it is hoped that Government will initiate E-governance. The outdated file system in our offices has annoyed employees in public and private sector alike. Lingering files in offices and old record keeping system produces headache to both working in the offices and those who are directly linked with those files.


  • Umair
    May 8, 2012 - 12:38AM

    finally… Plus we need to spread awareness regarding the Benefits of Open Source Software like Ubunto…..pitty at Lukmans’ puny knowledge about technology.


  • Random
    May 8, 2012 - 12:48AM

    Nobody will say this is bad scheme but the point is there are far more important things to do in punjab than this.This is really heart breaking if educated and young people like you will defend this corrupt goverment just because your chairman PITB.

    You are talking about access?Do people in punjab have access to INSAF?do people in punjab have access to corruption free police?do students in punjab have access to cheap quality education system?have you ever visited any punjab goverment school?do those poor childs have access to basic quality education is that more than ubuntu based laptop?have you ever gone out of lahore and look at facilities of health in hospital?do people there have access to better heath faiclities which is very basic right?have you ever feel the pain of those students who dont have teachers in school which is their very basic right life is so miserable in Punjab Umar Saif just kindly go and check that and you are comparing America with Punjab.

    Dont you know this scheme is just for votes to distract youth?Look how zalim these rulers who cant give basic facilities to their people and putting up schemes to get votes and stay in power and young and good people like you are supporting them thats really sad.


  • Nasir Iqbal
    May 8, 2012 - 12:56AM

    Excellent.. at last a sane voice for free laptops, this is indeed an excellent step taken by Punjab Govt and we should appreciate it instead of criticizing.


  • Ali
    May 8, 2012 - 1:09AM

    No one is using Ubuntu.Many people I know both got Ubuntu replace and Shebaz Sharif name removed!
    Personally I feel much cheaper options were available.Tablets are more handy and advanced!Plus like TATA’s intiative,they become cost effective!


  • Zafar Tariq
    May 8, 2012 - 1:16AM

    Good article by a learned man. We need to appreciate positive things in Pakistan!


  • Usman
    May 8, 2012 - 1:20AM

    I don’t know if a student with 60% marks deserves to be called as “brilliant”, and if a nation with one of the highest literacy rate and where a large population does not even have enough to eat, can afford to spend 4 billion PKR on such projects. The laptops could have been given to some really brilliant and deserving students (e.g. post-grad students or those having scored more than 75% marks) and the rest of the money could have been spent on much more constructive projects, like building the computer labs, or on primary schools etc.

    I think, the authors comparison of this project with the MIT’s is not valid. We can not have the same preferences as the developed countries. A country like us needs to spend much more carefully. Clear objectives should be set for every project which is lacking in this project.


  • Haroon
    May 8, 2012 - 1:30AM

    govt only facilitate their people, its up to civilians how they use those services. if someone is selling his lap top in the market is a corrupt person, socially and morally.
    great job by punjab govt.


  • x
    May 8, 2012 - 1:39AM

    Our education system promotes rote learning and doesn’t work on developing and encouraging student’ thinking, questioning and analytical skills. Laptops are not going to change that. Money would have been better spent on improving education system, training and hiring better teachers instead of doling out free laptops. Need for laptops does exist but it would be better and a more long term solution to build well equipped and well stocked libraries instead of giving personal computers.


  • Syme
    May 8, 2012 - 1:44AM

    I am not totally against the idea of distributing the laptops even to mediocre students. History is made by the mediocre because they are fearless and they have nothing to loose, I am not overzealous here but if only one student will put the thing in its best use then the purpose is done. Corruption is a necessary evil so its justified.
    Linux is not a rocket science, students will eventually learn to operate it.


  • May 8, 2012 - 1:52AM

    Huge amount of Rs 4billion of the poor has been thrown away in order to get cheap popularity.the poor have no access to clean water,medical facility,education facility, transport facility.poor health facilities in hospitals for the poor have increased their worries and agonies to a great extent.,they have to waste their time standing in long ques for the whole day waiting for their turns,for only few doctors are there in hospitals,while number of patients are increasing day by day.lab in hospitals have lack of proper instruments.poor have to go to private laboratories for most of the expensive tests. in teaching hospitals the situation is even more worse.young and inexperience students are experimenting with the senior doctor is available in outdoors in such hospitals,like the Jinnah Hospital,whose Principle is known for his big claims and fame in making this hospital a model is all fraud in the name of cheap health. Honorable Chief Justice has already declared it as a fraud.there are lack of education facilities for the poor in proper schools and colleges are there for a huge population in villages.students have to rush towards big cities and waste their precious time while travelling in broken vans and buses on dusty and rusty roads.there is a dire need of initiating some educational,health projects in small cities and particularly in villages so as to give a relief to the poor at their door steps.there is need of more hospitals at each will ultimately decrease the burden in big cities’ hospitals.poor are dying from hunger and deceases,while we are distributing laptops to students.just look ate developed countries,like UK,Japan,America,China,France……they have not achieved what they have achieved just by distributing Laptops among the students.rather development in education sector is only possible when you provide the basic facilities to the students at school,college, and university and college are given a meager amount of salary.our university also have shortage of research labs and teaching facilities. Dr Abdul Qadeer has already declared this laptop distribution scheme as inappropriate.just look at the salary of industrial laborers.i think instead of wasting billions of rupees of the poor in distributing laptops among students,on Sasty Roty scheme,in making large number of fly overs in Lahore,in making Danish Schools,we should some basic development projects in smooth and systematic way.although,it will take some time,but it is the only way to over forward.otherwise,
    if we will keep on spoiling the money of the poor on such cheap schemes there will be no real change.


  • A Critical Eye
    May 8, 2012 - 3:36AM

    All of the above is good! If the cause and motivations are pure!



  • Masoodul
    May 8, 2012 - 4:00AM

    Your govt should look into distributing the raspberrypi computer ( ) to the students it is only £21.60 + shipping charge @ £4.95 (worldwide shipping) for the basic version and that means for PK Rs. 5000 or less, students can have a fully functioning linux computer.


  • Hafeez
    May 8, 2012 - 4:08AM

    I am wondering what benefit would a laptop be without access to internet in many parts of Punjab, especially rural areas. As far as I know the laptops being distributed are Dell and each one must cost around Rs. 40,000. Thats a lot of money. Compare that to Indian program of laptops for schools and colleges where TATA made laptops were distributed and, if I am not wrong, each costed less than Rs 3000. I believe the Punjab laptop program is brain child of some really myopic advisors. I wished they had spent all this money on building computer labs in each college and school and would have made it compulsory for every student to spend some time in the lab, or may have devised some courses that would require using a computer lab.The same money could have been used on renovating schools in the rural Punjab where many schools have no facilities such as clean drinking water, electricity and many other things. Alas! huge amounts of money squanderd.


  • Falcon
    May 8, 2012 - 4:10AM

    Doctor Sahab –
    A humble counter-perspective: e-Governance, localized education content, and this laptop scheme are least likely to converge in Pakistan even in the next decade, so it seems like you might be over-stretching your imagination muscles. Furthermore, MIT and the likes can afford this scheme in some countries because no doubt it is a good scheme, but what needs to be understood is that by taking up this ‘good’ scheme, you have given up the opportunity to pursue many ‘better’ schemes such as sending under-privileged kids to school. We have millions of kids that are out of school; many working as labor, many are drug addicts, and really sad to say that many are even going for prostitution at a tender age. In a poor country like ours, don’t you think it is extravagance? Would you espouse the same decision if you were the parent of one of those underprivileged kids?


  • non-conformist
    May 8, 2012 - 4:37AM

    Well done Shahbaz Sharif.


  • asim
    May 8, 2012 - 4:46AM

    The truth is Umar Saif is working as a consultant for PML-N.

    So this is just him helping PML-N.


  • Majid
    May 8, 2012 - 5:02AM

    How pathetic is the person who said 60% is not brilliance. I used to get 2nd div (less than 60%) in my exams except my final exams where I got 80%. Reason was I could never understand board’s books and in final exams my reference books were mainly foreign particularly US. Now I am taking care 25+ countries.
    Thanks to govt of Punjab for such brilliant steps. And criteria was quite fair.


  • May 8, 2012 - 5:05AM

    Scientists like Dr Saif, Dr Shoab etc are the great assets of Pakistan. Although i like your thought on this project but didn’t like the way punjab govt worked on this project.


  • Jawad U Rahman
    May 8, 2012 - 8:13AM

    Did you consider that for around $50 to $60 you can get a fully functional modern Android tablet device (made in China – same as Dell). Check out . So you could have achieved the same goals with 1/10th of the cost. You can run all applications that a student would need to run on the Android platform and then some.
    So, Dr. Saheb, we are not worried about the merits of students having laptops. The whole debate is about why such relatively high priced laptops were chosen, and where is the transparency and due diligence in the whole process. How was this program prioritized over much more critical urgent needs. It would have been great to have received some of those answers from you on that.


  • Ali Salman
    May 8, 2012 - 10:06AM

    Good Article. But Umar Saif Sahib, we can trust on what parents decide for us, by way of awards, or punishments, but not on the government.


  • nayyar
    May 8, 2012 - 11:28AM

    Tablets are not the same as laptops. Students need tools like a keyboard, apprenticeship, excel, CAD tools etc. most tablets don’t even include lots for giving a presentation. Tablets are generally good at consuming content, not for serious work that a college student needs to do. I find the tablet vs laptop discussion in this context quite irrelevant.Recommend

  • Zorays Khalid
    May 8, 2012 - 11:41AM

    I am proud of PML N, many of my genuinely deserving friends have got these laptops. Hail PML N, build PAKISTAN.Recommend

  • Reader
    May 8, 2012 - 12:04PM

    Please correct the spelling of Berkley to “Berkeley.” Thanks.


  • Usman
    May 8, 2012 - 12:33PM

    I agree, some brilliant people are always there, even among the failures. I never said that all of them lacked brilliance.
    But to give the special favours (like scholarships, laptops from public money etc.) to some students, every institution or govt. set a criteria for brilliance. All the students fulfilling that criteria need not necessarily be better than all those who do not. But, the probaility is higher among those who fulfill it. Thats how the decisions are made in this world.

    According to your arguement, I can call every student a brilliant one, because you never know what he can do in the future.


  • May 8, 2012 - 12:34PM

    rather than distributing such huge amount of money on such schemes,govt should provide the basic facilities in school and college sectors.can i ask, what percent of GDP is being spent on primary education?and what % on higher education?how many schools are available for a large population (especially in villages)?what is the number of students in classes?what is the salary of teachers?are they well satisfied regarding their salary and other facilities?if not,then how can we expect they would try their all out efforts in educating the youth of Pakistan?for a real change , lot of good things can be initiated.


  • sana
    May 8, 2012 - 12:38PM

    umar, it would’ve made more sense to open public libraries/labs with computers and free internet.


  • Sher MUhamad
    May 8, 2012 - 1:26PM

    NO one can deny the importance of IT in the education but the missing link is that you are providing students with Laptops but teachers have no access to these modern tools. if teachers will not use these new sources of information then how he/she will teach his/her students. I feet that teachers should be provided Laptops and free internet access so they may incorporate new knowledge in their teaching.


  • Safdar
    May 8, 2012 - 1:36PM

    Sana I remember punjab government established more than 4,000 labs in schools in punjab, which I believe have more than 50,000 computers installed in them, with internet etc. I don’t think these activities are mutually exclusive; government should do all such activities that enable better access to educational tools and content.


  • Usman Shahid
    May 8, 2012 - 3:42PM

    @Sher Muhammad: Learn the “Hole in the wall” project of sogata mitra, in india. He proved that children can learn themself using computers with the instructor (teacher).


  • Murtaza
    May 8, 2012 - 3:43PM

    @A Iqbal:

    I totally agree with you… Before this laptop Scheme all the poor had access to clean water, medical facility, education facility, transport facility, doctors, etc etc..

    But shahbaz Sharif diverted all those funds to Laptop scheme and now all the poor are without all those facilities… Shame on all those who cannot even appreciate a good act.

    And when you mentioned the “Private Laboratiries for most of expensive tests” I wonder why i recalled the Shaukat Khanum labs which were closed down because they were not agreeing to charge the government approved rates for Dengue tests


  • HAmad
    May 8, 2012 - 4:07PM

    Mr Saif wrote this article in favour of Punjab Govt Laptops distribution. He try to convince by giving examples of west. He must understand in west access to education is same to all, here in west having laptop by every one is normal.But in Pakistan it is not same it is like one mother has five Child and she allowed one child to have access to clean water, good food and on education. And rest of four child have no access at all to clean water balance food and no education at all. In context of punjab when eighty percent children have no access to clean water fifty percent have no access to toilet. How can we justify this laptop distribution. Punjab govt did this only on political grounds in order to attract the Young voters to them,Other wise it has no sense at all.It is indeed just for political benefit to get agin government in Punjab as there is fear of Imran Khan.If Punjab govt really want to good at least they make the education syllbus same to every body. As in west School education is responsibality to govt.Every body has the same education either son of PM or Peon.


  • May 8, 2012 - 6:22PM

    @ Murtaza

    dear, don’t be panic rather try to convince others by some reasonable arguments. logically you are supporting my point rather than otherwise.when large population had no access to the basic necessities and facilities of life (before laptop distribution),which is their fundamental right,then why govt instead of putting efforts to provide them with these facilities wasting such huge amount on laptops distribution.better the same amount could have been spent to build some new schools or colleges,which would have benefit masses for many years.laptop distribution has been initiated just to encounter some rival politicians,so this is no more a rational decision on the part of can you defend someone who prefer to do deeds of less priority while ignoring the those of higher priority?btw what is the guaranty of education revolution through such schemes?what percentage of literacy rate will be increased after this?


  • Jawad U Rahman
    May 8, 2012 - 9:26PM

    @nayyar: School and college kids are not going to use these devices to do CAD or computer programming work etc. All they need is internet browser to run internet apps, productivity software (like Google docs which includes fully functional spreadsheets, presentations, word processing), and multimedia support so that they can get online training. For serious programming/engineering work required in professional institutions/universities, even Shahbaz Sharif’s laptops are going to be inappropriate. It is a very relevant discussion to use the resources correctly for the need in hand instead of blindly handing out expensive and over-featured devices which goes 90% un-utilized.


  • Hamza Humayun
    May 8, 2012 - 10:15PM

    Dr. Saif what is the impact of 125,000 laptops in a province of 80 million people and all of Punjab’s state machinery’s energies directed towards hyping it ? This is nothing but a political gimmick. Access is the killer app but not when it reaches .15% of the population. We need to focus on broader initiatives like for example how to provide access to the illiterate.


  • Rehan
    May 8, 2012 - 11:01PM
  • Iftikhar Ahmed
    May 9, 2012 - 10:30AM

    I wonder if this initiative had been made a win-win situation for the local industry (through procurement of the Kamra’s innovation of I-PAD, it would have served as a boost) and employment of the same undergraduates and graduates who have received them today. It is similar to the Yellow Cab scheme, in which massive procurement had been made (massive corruption as well) but that could have been the golden kickstart for domestic (indigenous) automobile industry, instead they have sprinkled fuel on the fire of imbalance of payments and flight capital with their persistently ill-planned schemes. Alas, they lack in sense and sensibility both.


  • Huma Khalid
    May 9, 2012 - 6:06PM

    I think the issue that people have with the (well-meaning) gestures of the Punjab government is that they appear to the general public as involving a lot of bravado and fan-fare and very little depth / policy sustainability behind them.
    Apart from the economic cost of corruption in the laptop procurement, the benefits of the scheme and sustainability of the scheme remain exceedingly limited, with the benefit limited to hoping that we get at least one child prodigy, and, sustainability amounting to a one off endowment with no prospect of continuity. Furthermore the ‘no emphasis on income strata of the recpient’, also implies that a percentage of the laptops went to recpients who already had one – hence no incremental benefit being achieved.
    Had the funds been diverted to installing actual pcs in local community mosques , for instance, in not so well off pockets, and connected to your Bitmate, the funds deployed could have been leveraged signficantly, and outreach magnified. And I am sure the punjab government could easily have interwoven a maintenance contract with the supplier, which could have been funded through technology grants to manage up-keep of the personal computers. Not only would access have increased manifold, it would have been provided in a very targeted manner to communities that require the subsidy and to elements that are in danger of being radicalized.
    However this remains the humble opinion of a layperson, and, as a tax-payer who has effectively funded part of this process, I remain open to hearing what my government’s reasoning behind the scheme.


  • Taxed
    May 9, 2012 - 10:39PM

    For all those who it is a waste money the truth is that may actually be true since we all believe that Pakistan is incapable of producing a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or even one that is moderately successful. But isn’t it a complete waste to buy four new frigates and it’s a waste the every person misuses funds by going aboard with 70 member teams or pays 700 million dollars for thing we can produce in Pakistan? Two wrong don’t make right and the argument is zero sum. This in my eyes is yellow computer scheme unless you get the student to do something meaningful in one years time or get them to pay for the computer.

  • zeeshan
    May 10, 2012 - 6:23PM

    PTA has blocked porn in pakistan upto a significant percentage if not 100%… plz b positive


  • Hali
    May 11, 2012 - 5:35PM

    I support PTI. Umer is factually correct. Mubashir Luqman’s accusations in his program were factually way off. Since inception of this project, I’ve been supporting the pricing and bundle. My only criticism of this scheme are:
    1. Why the name Shahbaz Sharif when its not his money; he has no right what so ever.
    2. Why a branded Dell laptop that at the cheapest is four times more costly than other mass laptop distribution projects that I first heard from Umer himself years ago
    3. Why this so visibly inappropriate prioritization that puts laptops before basic needs, basic health, basic education?
    4. Ubuntu support centre please. How can you expect people not installing Windows 7 from the web when they cant understand how to install useful software in Ubuntu? Basic training please right where they were awarded the laptops instead of PHOTO opportunity with Nawaz Sharif or Mariyam Nawaz or Marvi Memon, please?


  • Umer Farooq
    Jun 3, 2012 - 9:06PM

    This may be a loss of money but i know that this have improved my typing, grip on microsoft office.
    also i like to write programs in c++ and vba in excel so i am multiplying my knowledge by day and night.
    this is all because of this laptop as i dont have to wait for light and i have a plenty of time to think search and practice for the different programs
    Thanx to this laptop scheme initiators


More in Opinion