PHP Geek, FOSS Enthusiast, CTO And A Pediatrician

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‘PHP geek, free and open source software enthusiast, CTO (chief technical officer) of SANIsoft’ — that’s how Dr Tarique Sani likes to describe himself. He’s qualified to be a paediatrician, but his love for open source has turned him into a geek for the past two decades and more. He recalls the good old days…

Dr Tarique Sani was educated as a medical doctor but diversified into open source software development and services, particularly PHP, and has been successfully running a company for more than two decades. Swati, his wife and co-traveller in the FOSS (free and open source) journey, is a mass communications professional who “wholeheartedly supported me in this journey by providing all the logistics and running the business side of things.” When we met in Goa recently, she recalled her love for Urdu poetry, an interest she shared with Dr Sani’s mother.

The projects Dr Sani has been involved with and has contributed to include WAPpop (pop mail client phones); Aaina-e-ghazal (trilingual dictionary for Urdu ghazal fans); NagpurBirds (atlas of birds from Nagpur district); Coppermine Picture Gallery (CMS for photos); and phplib (utility library for PHP).

But that was a long time back, when GNU/Linux was just getting known in India in the mid- to late 1990s. Looking back, he says the highpoints of his memories of the last two decades are “that most friendships and relations forged during that time have lasted till date.”

Paediatrician turns geek
In 2001, this is what I wrote about Dr Sani (excerpts):

Indian mobile phone users now have an easier time downloading email thanks to WAPpop, which is spurring hundreds of downloads each day after an upgrade last month.

Mobile users have access to phone services while on the move, but they need a computer in order to have a look at their email. “WAPpop was written keeping the problem in mind so that they can have access to and glance at their email while on the move,” says Dr Tarique Sani, a Nagpur-based medico who has written the software.
By using a WAP (wireless access protocol) enabled device, like a phone or palmtop, the software Sani wrote — WAPpop — can read mail from an internet server, reply or forward mail, and even delete mail and send new messages.

The paediatrician-turned-software expert says WAPpop, the first version of which was released in July 2000, remains the only open source software of its kind in India.
“The response (to WAPpop) has by far surpassed expectations. Before the release of the second version, the downloads had tapered down to an average of 1,000 per month. The downloads for the second version have been an average of 500 per day,” Sani says.

At present, he concedes, the tiny screen and cumbersome typing procedures are a “major hurdle” for anyone wanting to use such wireless devices to access the internet. There is also limited bandwidth available for WAP. But this could change in the near future.

“When we started this project, WAP was a hot technology around the world. Unfortunately, most of the WAP development was centred on Microsoft’s ASP,” Sani says. But he himself “loves PHP”, which is open source’s answer to ASP and the most popular Web-scripting language around the world. “I felt that I could make a mark for PHP, open source and, in turn, myself in the WAP world and to that extent I feel this project has been a success,” he says.

Sani, a medical doctor who did his post-graduation in paediatrics and forensic medicine, opted to become the chief technical officer of his own Web engineering company SANIsoft, based in Nagpur, Maharashtra.

How did he first get started?

Says Dr Sani: “Living in Nagpur, I connected with folks from Bangalore via a BBS [Bulletin Board Service, the pre-internet slow way of communicating across copper-wire connected phones]. I had just installed Linux on my computer. A chance question by Krishna Kumar, then editor of PCQuest, about GIMP, led to Swati writing a review in the magazine.”

Most readers of this magazine would know this, but you might be one of those not into graphics and processing images (photos). GIMP, or the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is still going strong. It is a free and open source software (FOSS) raster graphics editor. GIMP is used for image manipulation (retouching) and image editing, free-form drawing, saving in different image file formats, and other tasks. Plugins can be used to extend it, and GIMP is scriptable. Some artists use it for drawing, though it was not made for this purpose.

So, how did his involvement with GNU/Linux grow?

“Atul Chitnis, the late noted FOSS campaigner and prominent event organiser, who also wrote a lot on the topic, wanted to meet us. We travelled to Bangalore and met him and the rest of the Linux-Bangalore team. We progressively got involved with organising a series of conferences which ultimately became FOSS.IN,” says Dr Sani.

Both Linux-Bangalore and FOSS.IN were community events organised in the city then called Bangalore, which attracted geeks and community members from across India.

“Along the way, our own software company, which was doing PHP based development, grew. I wrote about PHP for a book for Wrox Press (Professional PHP4, 2002) and got involved with several open source projects,” he says.

PHP is a general-purpose scripting language geared towards web development. It was originally created by Danish-Canadian programmer Rasmus Lerdorf in 1993 and released in 1995. Originally an abbreviation of Personal Home Page, it now stands for the recursive initialism PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor.

Three realisations “kind of shaped my life,” he adds:

  • Faith in the collaborative nature of development
  • Sharing promotes growth
  • Every individual can make an impact

In Dr Sani’s view, there are many individuals who shaped FOSS in India. “But two people have continued to make active contributions to FOSS — Kushal Das, who is still doing a lot in the Python Foundation, and Pradeepto Bhattacharya of KDE,” he says.

If he had the chance, would he do this all over again? “Yes, of course,” he replies, without hesitation. But he feels he would have “paid attention to doing more community outreach and advocacy.” FOSS will always need a public-driven movement, he believes.

What keeps him busy now? Tarique says, “I am working with IT CXOs and executives to support mental health, having trained as a psychotherapist in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Swati is following her love for Urdu literature, having done her MA in Urdu, and is now writing books in English about Urdu poetry and her own poetry in Urdu.”

Interestingly, Dr Sani started in the world of computing with a ZX80, and has been into the world of computing for nearly four decades now. SANIsoft, his web engineering company, specialises in PHP application development.

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