[Fsf-friends] India lays down 'open' challenge

Frederick Noronha (FN) fred@[EMAIL-PROTECTED]
Tue May 16 00:30:09 IST 2006

Last Updated: Friday, 12 May 2006, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
India lays down 'open' challenge

After his first trip to India, regular columnist Bill Thompson looks
forward to the end of western domination of the free software community

Indian computer programmer
India's programmers are writing code to meet their own needs
The five of us bounced out of the restaurant at around 10, after a great
meal, some beers and the usual arguments about preferred programming
languages, the future of free and open source software and the merits of
Terry Pratchett's later works.

It was a warm night so we crossed the street to get something to cool us
down - not ice cream, but the best kulfi in the Defence Colony, one of
the hippest areas in downtown New Delhi.

It was my last night in India after four days making Digital Planet
specials with the World Service.

My new friends from the Delhi Linux User Group had dragged me out of my
luxurious business hotel into the real city for a meal.

The sizzling paneer and noodles were excellent. The beer was cold. And
the kulfi was as good as Raj had promised.

But even better was the chance to make a connection with a group of
people outside the US and Europe who are working with the Linux
operating system.

Indian problems

I'd come to India with the sense that, like Brazil and other countries
outside the West that are taking free software seriously, India is
moving into a new phase in its use of free and open source software.

These guys - and it was a boy's night out, though there are women
members of the group too - are using the freedom which the Linux
distribution licence gives them to build tools and technologies for

They don't have to wait for a far-distant company to decide whether
their market is big enough or commercially viable. If they need code
that meets their specific needs, they can just write it themselves.

They are certainly going beyond the point where they take code from the
US and Europe and spend their effort "localising" it by adding support
for local languages.

[Bill Thompson: Free software provides a bridge between the affluence of
the West and the poverty of most of the world's population.]

But according to Raj and Mary, both Linux experts, Indian coders are
still isolated from each other, and although they contribute to many
projects there is no real focus on solving Indian problems.

The website of the Free Software Foundation of India lists a few dozen
India-based projects, but there is apparently a long way to go before a
real free software community emerges.

And while Government support for free software is genuine, government
computer departments do not contribute to other projects and do not make
their work available for others to build on. The government just sees
free software as a way to save on licenses.

This is a shame, as there is a political dimension to the use of free
software which will be very important for India and other developing

Liberal Origins

Until now free and open source software has been one of the ways in
which the US spread its values around the world, the soft guy approach
that seems to oppose, but in fact is symbiotic with hard-edged
capitalism on the Microsoft and Intel model.

Both are firmly embedded in US cultural values, and the free market is
as important to Linux as it is to Microsoft.

Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds: creator of Linux

If we consider its origins within the post-hippy hacker culture of MIT
then we can see that free software is as parasitic on the larger
computer industry and its capitalist ethos as the early hippies were on
their wealthy middle-class parents and their Protestant work ethic.

All that nice code won't run unless Intel and AMD, neither of whom is
particularly noted for being soft and cuddly, continue to make the
processors and Dell and Sony continue to squeeze component suppliers and
ship the systems.

In 1999 Richard Stallman the originator of free software, wrote that he
saw 'no social imperative for free hardware designs like the imperative
for free software', so the situation clearly does not bother him.

Yet, as often happens when the US tries to impose a particular point of
view on the world, the results can be the opposite of what was intended.

Just as the continued boycott of Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed
forced Castro into alliances with other Latin American countries and has
helped promote new left-leaning governments across the continent, so the
desire to spread US liberal values through free software may have
unexpected consequences.

Cultural shift

Stallman, Linus Torvalds and Eric Raymond, the three big thinkers behind
free/libre/open source software - and one should always be suspicious of
any movement that so fails to reconcile its divisions that it needs
three names - may have unleashed a monster that will consume them.

Because until now the developed world could take the code provided so
generously by Western developers but their ability to modify it was
limited. There were too few skilled programmers and too few companies
interested in supporting that sort of work.

Now the programmers are out there. And while the Indian Linux community
is currently fragmented, as Raj says, this could change very quickly.
Much of the work on internationalisation, pushed by people like Gora
Mohanty at Srijan Technologies, is complete, and new ideas are emerging.

I visited one company, Om Logistics, who simply cannot pay what
Microsoft want to charge for licences when one of their bureaux might
make a few thousand rupees profit in a month.

They use Linux on both servers and desktops, and the result is that they
have an affordable and reliable system. Soon it wlll be even more suited
to their needs, because Indian developers will be deciding how it should

These programmers will take today's Linux code and make it far more
useful to the people of India and other developing countries than
today's predominantly Western developer community ever could. And when
that happens, the centre of free software development will soon begin to
move from the US and Europe.

Free software provides a bridge between the affluence of the West and
the poverty of most of the world's population, and amounts to a massive
flow of intellectual capital into the developing world. And as they
reshape it to meet their needs it will stop being just another US import
and become a resource that can be used in brand new ways.

Once the people on the receiving end make it their own they will change
the world. The fun is just beginning.
Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service
programme Digital Planet 
Frederick 'FN' Noronha   | Yahoomessenger: fredericknoronha
http://fn.goa-india.org     | fred at bytesforall.org
Independent Journalist   | +91(832)2409490 Cell 9822122436

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