A brave GNU world

The free software movement needs both bark and byte

By Frederick Noronha
Published: Sunday 15 December 2002

-- For a country that has plans -- or pretensions -- of establishing itself as a software superpower, the power of code and computing actually touches the lives of a surprisingly small number of people. Software that is not 'pirated' (a term loaded with value judgements) is beyond the reach of all but a handful.

This is where 'free software' (free: freedom of information, not free-of-cost) comes in. gnu/Linux, or Linux, as this set of potent software tools and its accompanying operating system is somewhat loosely called, is already creating a largely unnoticed revolution across India. Campuses and software houses, ict4d (information and communication technologies for development) campaigners and those searching for Indic-language solutions, are all tuning into the power of gnu/Linux -- in ways that fly in the face of conventional thinking about software.

An instance: Should a country like India spend millions on software from Western firms, despite the pool of skills here? Should Indian skills remain at the 'code coolie' level? Are global software prices realistic at all, given the constantly plunging rupee-to-dollar rates? Can Indians then afford a non-'pirated' copy of an overpriced software they so badly need to enhance their productivity? Yet, money is not the only issue here.

Says Richard M Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation: "The most fundamental way of helping other people is to teach people how to do things better, to tell people things you know, things that enable them to better their lives. For people who use computers, this means sharing the recipes you use on your computer, in other words, the programmes you run."

At the time this article goes to press, Stallman is visiting India, as is Bill Gates, chairperson of Microsoft. These visits fall at a time when young Indian coders are arriving at the realisation that they can achieve amazing successes with software tools that do not hide information. Needless to say, proprietorial software giants like Microsoft, which dominate markets worldwide, are worried. Perhaps India is a tiny market for non-pirated software today. But its marketshare could expand considerably. More importantly, the new generation could grow up with a different set of values -- it doesn't make sense to conceal code; cooperation makes more sense than competition; above all, freedom isfundamental.

This trend makes eminent sense for India. gnu/Linux offer 'techies' a chance to play around with cutting-edge technologies, not just being code-slaves for some corporation controlled from half-way around the globe. The very nature of free software also results in affordable prices. What could be better for a talent-rich, resource-poor country?

The goings-on in India provides a glimpse of the potential. College students from Goa are writing a comprehensive programme to manage their library, and donating it free to anyone who might find it useful. A 17-year-old student from Kolkata understands the importance of finding Bangla-language solutions for computing. There are gnu/Linux user groups across the country; even in places like Belgaum and Guwahati. Cyber networks link up enthusiasts across India in the search for regional language solutions in computing. Interactive voice response software is produced in Nagpur. Free Software Foundation-India is registered as a section 25 (not-for-profit) company. Indeed, as the Net shrinks distances in India, people who can email, chat and link-up in other ways can now take part in the gnu/Linux kind of collaborative work. The fact that access to the Net is only five years old places the force of this phenomenon in perspective.

However, major challenges remain. India needs to move beyond technical challenges towards an application of skills. More importantly, there is the roadblock that the Indian government represents. In spite of obvious quality, cost and other advantages, gnu/Linux has been given the cold-shoulder by many a government. Officious spokespersons have been making noises about giving primacy to gnu/Linux. Sceptics are convinced that these noises are only intended to provide an edge when the government bargains with Gates. Others attribute reluctance to go in for floss (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) to an irrational mind-block at best, or at worst, the corrupt manner in which products are selected.

The past couple of years have shown that the work put in by early volunteers has been an inspiration to many others. (See: http://linuxinindia.pitas.com) The question is: will this trend find enough momentum to bring about meaningful change, and soon enough?

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist from Goa. He is studying India's contribution to gnu /Linux on a Sarai fellowship

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