Business e-sense

Governments are duty-bound to promote open source software

By Timothy A Gonsalves
Published: Sunday 15 December 2002

-- When you buy a bicycle, you can repair it. You can dismantle it and reassemble it. You can modify it to suit your requirements. You can learn from it to design a better bicycle. All this is perfectly legal. It is the way in which societies have moved ahead. There are, of course, laws of copyright and patent to ensure that the inventor or author benefits as well. However, when you buy a software product, you are forbidden from examining its inner workings. You are forbidden to modify it, or evenrectify defects. Strange as this may seem, it is perfectly legal. This is the wayin which copyright laws are used tobenefit software companies at the expense of society.

Fortunately, this system also produces rebels. They have chosen to write and sell software -- referred to as open source software (oss), or free software -- that follows the bicycle rationale. oss allows users to freely implement software: they can examine, modify or make derivatives. Here, it may be useful to distinguish between oss and public domain software, which has no owners. oss has owners, who typically copyright the software. The difference between oss and proprietary software, therefore, lies in that oss provides the source code to all users.

oss is comparable in terms of quality, features and performance to the far more expensive proprietary software. For Indians and Indian businesses, not exactly cash-rich, the use of oss makes eminent sense. In fact, when speaking of governments in India, central or state, the use of oss is compelling for these reasons. Governments are duty-bound to get the best value for public money. Further, government purchases are often used as a stamp of approval to promote private sales. The Indian government has no duty to serve the interests of the largely-foreign vendors of commercial software.

One of the oft-cited advantages of commercial software vis--vis oss is 'vendor support'. Since most software vendors are foreign, this support is usually ephemeral at best for Indians. When was the last time that Microsoft responded with a 'patch' to your complaint that Windows crashed and you lost an hour's work? With oss, at least the more technically-inclined can often get help in a matter of hours by sending an e-mail to the many volunteer programmers present on the Internet. For the rest, there are a growing number of businesses that provide oss support for a fee. In fact, even if the original developer of the software withdraws from active involvement, the support business can continue unhindered. In India, the land of the roadside mechanic, this represents a potent business opportunity. A high-school graduate with a diploma from a computer training shop could earn a decent living installing, maintaining and upgrading oss products such as gnu/Linux or OpenOffice for local businesses and users.

As India pitches itself as a vanguard of the information technology (it) age, it needs to develop its infrastructure. Besides tangible infrastructure, such as computers and Internet links, this consists largely of intangibles. Foremost is a large body of experienced designers and programmers. This is required to enable Indian industry to move up the value chain, from routine y2k and other bug-fixing activities to conceiving and designing products. This expertise can only be built by working on a design of useful software products.

Although a products-based approach is the best long-term strategy, it is very difficult for the Indian it industry with its current services orientation to break into the product business. Most modern businesses are driven by considerations of quarterly or annual profitability. Services are a safe way of generating consistent profits in the short-term. Products are risky in the short-term and only pay off in the long-term.

One way out of this dilemma is for the government to fund software product development by businesses. It is true that public money should not be used to subsidise private profit. This ethical problem is neatly sidestepped if the government funds only oss. The business that gets funding builds up its design skills. Other it businesses freely learn from the source code. Anyone can use the software product.

Indeed, by targeting software for e-governance, public information, rural banking and digital libraries among other uses, the government would be able to reduce its own spending on proprietary software.

Targeted government funding, especially with regard to infrastructure, has worked very successfully in countries such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan. There is a strong case for our governments to fund the development of oss. I would go so far as to say that they have a duty to use and promote oss.

Timothy A Gonsalves is professor, TeNeT Group, department of computer science and engineering, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras in Chennai

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