Option shift

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

option shift

"While about 65 per cent of servers use foss, about 90 per cent of personal computer users still use Microsoft in India," says Sunil Abraham, director of Mahiti, a small-scale software enterprise in Bangalore, pointing to a skew in the culture of computer use. What explains it? "It is still difficult to get services for such a software. The service providing companies for foss have not come of age," feels Rajiv Chawla, secretary, land survey department, Karnataka. But pro- foss groups argue it is not surprising considering most engineering colleges train students on Microsoft software. "Just the iit s train students based on concepts, others do not know anything but Microsoft," says Abraham.

Microsoft strategy
Microsoft introduces students to its software at a very early stage in their lives (also see box Patent fears). Down to EarthThey have invested hugely in computer education in India-- us $421 million since 1991--and trained students by giving them free copies of cheap starter versions of their operating systems. In 2001, Microsoft sponsored an Intel project in which teachers would be paid around Rs 4,000 per month to learn computers using Microsoft software. They set up benchmarks for the teachers, who had to train a minimum of 20 other teachers. If a teacher trained 200 teachers, s/he would be paid Rs 1 lakh and given a pc. By 2006, Microsoft trained 540,000 teachers; by 2008-end they plan to train a million. "We have made unquantifiable investments in the market and are committed to developing the local software eco-system," says Karan Bajwa, director, public sector, Microsoft Corporation, India.

G Nagarjuna, chairperson, Free Software Foundation of India, is against such practices "If they want to work with the community they must stop interfering with the computer education. They are interfering by signing mou s with universities, colleges and schools to promote their technology," adds Arun M of space, which trains government personnel in Kerala. "Microsoft also has agreements with Indian it companies and hence they become the default service providers. The ties prevent them from shifting to foss."

Thus, Indian it companies are loath to shift they service their clients in the us, and if the clients want a solution based on Microsoft the company is forced to keep that. "The entire outsourcing in India stands on the huge amount of programming that has to go into proprietary software," says Nitin Desai, chairperson of Internet Governance Forum, a un body.

Business sense
Yet Abraham feels trends are changing. Organizations see business sense to switch to a new system, that now is more user friendly. "Computer software development is simple logic. Once you learn the language, it is not difficult. Many of the contributors to software development in the foss movement have been non-technical people," says Arun.

Down to Earth The view that foss is only for geeks and not for average pc users is also changing; a big catalyst here is its introduction in schools. Parents of children familiar with foss now demand computers be loaded with foss, so hardware vendors who earlier regarded Windows as the default operating system are starting to keep technicians trained to handle foss. "The dearth of people to service computers loaded with foss is gradually disappearing in Kerala," says Anvar Sadath, executive director of the it @School project. Teachers are also being trained to operate foss in the state. They in turn train it instructors in schools, he adds.

D C Mishra of National Informatics Centre says he hopes every village will have a training centre where people can come in their free time and participate in the development of the software. "It should become a part of the culture," he says. While the hope is fast becoming a reality in Kerala, there is still a larger population of computer users, as well as a market, that needs to be captured. How can this be done?

A national policy?
In January 2006, India took a small but important step towards the recognition of open source software. Recommended India's Knowledge Commission "Because of the enormous size and scope of e-governance effort in India and because of the availability of globally recognised software talent of Indians, we must actively encourage wherever possible open source software implementation". The report of the seventh round table of Ministers in Charge of Panchayati Raj, held in Jaipur in 2004, also said foss should be used in local self governance projects. But there is no policy yet.

Industry insiders attribute this to a divide between the National Informatics Centre, the technical wing of the Department of Information Technology (dit), and the administrative heads at dit. According to officials, dit spent Rs 1,000 crore to buy proprietary hardware and software for projects all over the country in 2007-2008. But, as Rajesh Aggarwal additional ceo of National Internet Exchange of India, puts it, "We have been saying that the government should make it mandatory to install foss in every computer. That will surely save a lot of money."

Down to Earth The current stand of the Indian government is they cannot exclusively recommend foss. How appropriate is this neutrality? "This will not do. foss is like a science-made, owned and consumed by people and hence should be promoted by the government," says Nagarjuna. "This indicates the government is promoting proprietary software." Tenders, for instance, are an appropriate representation of the government's mindset, characterised by a mixture of ignorance and perceptual bias (see box Biased tenders). It could be argued that there's no harm in government being politically correct. But here's a default question why is a proprietary regime with monopolistic tendencies ruling the roost in the country still when there are cheaper and more independent options available?

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