Kerala Technology
Ex-Apple techie charters new course with unmanned boats

Barker Bhaskaran has set his eyes on a different horizon after leaving Cupertino-based Apple. Handout photo

Ex-Apple techie charters new course with unmanned boats

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on April 16, 2024
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on April 16, 2024

Working for the tech giant Apple is a dream for techies across the world. Trivandrum-based Barker Bhaskaran was one of those lucky ones, and he even played a crucial role in the development of iconic products like iPod and Apple Watches.

Was this something he strived for even when he was growing up in Kottarakkara, Kerala?

“No, I had never even heard about Apple until I landed in California. I was at the right place at the right time,” says the TKM Engineering College graduate.

Barker, whose father named him after his hero, British political scientist Ernest Barker, had his early education at Kottarakkara St Gregorius College. He finished his electronics engineering degree as a college topper before joining the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore for his master's degree.

After a brief stint with a firm called Sasken, he moved to the Bangalore unit of the US-based PortalPlayer, which was manufacturing chips. Soon, they moved him to the US, and that is when he came to know about Apple, which was their customer.

However, the casual contact with Apple employees in Cupertino did play a role when Barker decided to switch jobs and move to Microsoft. When his acquaintances at Apple heard this, they decided to offer him a job.

The highly competitive environment and stressful ordeals that one reads about in such tech giants were not a challenge for Barker.

“I was very competitive, right from my school days. Even then, when I encountered someone smart, I made sure to work hard to surpass them. That trait is probably what helped me sail through at Apple as well.”

He says as a beginner, like many Indians, he was also shy when it came to communicating in English. “But I made up for it by putting in a lot of extra effort to let my work speak on my behalf.”

Whatever his strategy, it worked, as Barker’s LinkedIn profile shows. He steadily moved up the chain and was entrusted with key roles in the design of some of Apple's world-beating products.

When he joined Apple’s audio team in 2003, the tech scene was buzzing with MP3s and multimedia. In a couple of years’ time, Barker was heading the iPod video team. Video was the most critical aspect of the iPod at that time, as it involved key areas like power management, he recalls.

Apple was known as the most intensive workplace in Silicon Valley at that time, and tales of the instinctive genius of Steve Jobs were common fodder on tech platforms.

Barker reported to Apple vice-president Tony Fadell – known as the father of the iPod – and recalls running into Jobs at the office eatery during lunch.

“Jobs would be there, and no one dared to go and sit opposite to him,” says Barker.

The death of Jobs in 2011 was a tumultuous time for the company, though Tim Cook’s ascension as CEO was smooth. It was during this period that Apple decided to launch a watch as an accessory to the iPhone.

As Apple began working on the smartwatch project, the iPod team transitioned into working on the new product.

“The bio-medical functions were new areas for Apple, and I had defined many of the parameters at various points. I led a team of 12, despite being only a master’s degree holder. In my team, seven held PhDs, and some were top rankers from their respective countries, as Apple could afford the luxury of hiring the best talents from across the globe.”

As the health tracking functions remained active throughout and the battery power was limited, Barker and his team had to coordinate with various departments such as power management, product design, and infrastructure groups.

“In addition to this, we were also in constant communication with medical technology companies and academia, as well as evaluating products from startups. All of this was happening within a timeframe of one to one and a half years.”

“There were frequent evaluation meetings with different teams, sometimes resulting in a room full of people hunched over their laptops, working to resolve various bugs.”

After an intense build-up, in September 2014, at the iPhone 6 event, Cook unveiled the Apple Watch to the world.

Mirroring the internal upheavals within the company after the death of Jobs, events were also snowballing in Barker’s life. With a daughter growing up and his rising interest in yoga and spirituality, the decision to relocate was inevitable.

“When we made the call, I had no fixed plan, and looking back, I may have overestimated my ability to survive in India. But I don't have a flamboyant lifestyle or a penchant for luxury. So, there was no crisis,” he says.

By 2018, he had established Savtoa Software as a startup and delved into developing an air filtration system in 2020, as the whole world was reeling under the onslaught of Covid-19.

Barker joined a voluntary group of technologists based in Kerala called Breath of Hope and developed an air purifier using HEPA filters, as well as designing a portable ICU. However, he soon realised that producing and scaling up medical products in India is a difficult task due to the cumbersome certification process.

At that point, he started toying with the idea of unmanned boats, as they could be used to monitor water quality, protect the environment, survey assets and aid aquaculture.

They are also useful for searching for lost assets in the water, as the existing method of sending out manned boats with sonar is clunky and has many limitations.

“A swarm of unmanned underwater drones is very versatile and can cover a much larger area in a much more economical way,” he explains.

At a recent defence event, Savtoa showcased an inflatable dinghy that can be operated autonomously. This increases mobility, as it can be packed into boxes and transported, unlike unmanned boats. Barker says their software can be utilised in vessels both big and small.

Savtoa is currently in talks with entities that are keen to develop next-generation boats, and Barker is optimistic that his firm will progress at the speed of knots soon.

Barker maintains a poker face when he talks about it, but one suspects there was a mysterious glint in those bespectacled eyes. Given the headlines from Ukraine and the Red Sea, unmanned drones are proving to be inevitable for defence forces.

With China already known to have developed undersea drones for both attack and surveillance, it is only a matter of time before India also starts building its own fleet of unmanned drones.

Barker was at the helm of an Apple product that now monitors the health of millions across the globe. The future may see him working to build products to keep the nation healthy and strong.



Meta enters the AI chatroom

Users of WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram in India and some African countries have started seeing the appearance of the Meta AI icon on their accounts. This is significant for India, as the country is home to 500 million Facebook and WhatsApp users. Soon, they will have access to an AI chatbot that will answer their queries instead of resorting to Google searches, as well as create images on request. It will be interesting to see if this feature could slowly replace dependency on search engines.

One thing you can almost be assured of is the appearance of more AI-generated images on our feeds. A recent Harvard study found that such images are being used by scammers who grab attention with bizarre images and lure users into pages that trick them into giving money or their personal details. Oddly, one of the common images used was an AI-generated Jesus image that was somehow connected to the sea, like this ‘Shrimp Jesus’.



A case of glass half-full
The good news is India is now home to 67 unicorns, ranking as the third-largest unicorn ecosystem in the world. The not-so-good news is that the gap between India and the first two ranked nations – the US and China – continues to be huge. A report by Hurun Research also points out that India still hasn’t produced a unicorn in critical areas like aerospace and space tech. As Your Story reports, it’s a significant gap and potential opportunity. Across the border in China, their newly created Greater Bay Area, which consists of nine cities in southern China, now boasts of 70 unicorns.



Web connectivity firm bags 200 million

Bangalore-based iBUS has secured an investment worth 200 million US dollars from the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF), India’s sovereign wealth fund dedicated to infrastructure. The startup, founded by Sunil Menon, Subash Vasudevan, and Ram Sellaratnam, provides connectivity both inside buildings and outdoors. The company emphasizes that providing web connectivity has become as vital as water and electricity connections when constructing buildings. Three years ago, Morgan Stanley had invested 21 million in iBUS.



Sun eclipses internet traffic

We often hear how it will take some heavenly intervention to wean people away from our mobile phones and computers. Well, it was proven right last week. As the United States, Mexico, and Canada witnessed a full solar eclipse, internet traffic in the regions dropped by as much as 40 percent.  According to Cloudflare, a global cloud computing service, internet traffic dipped along the entire path of the eclipse. It’s good to know there are still some things out there that can eclipse the power of the internet.