Open Sourcing India

Posted by Stefan Heil • Tuesday, September 28. 2010 • Category: In Depth
Most people have no concept of the term 'open source' in general, or the maybe more specific term “open source software” (OSS) in particular. Even a little bit more confusing, many people from the industry use the term “Free and Open Source Software” (FOSS), and that is also the one the author is using throughout this article. But in order to grasp the subject, let us first clarify it a little more:

Let us start from the beginning, with the word “free”. Although many people have an immediate idea of the meaning of this rather simple word, many do not see the double meaning here. Most commonly, this double meaning is explained by the “free as in free beer, but also free as in free speech” idiom.

India is going Open Source (Tux the penguin is the unofficial linux mascot)

The first one – referring to the price – indicates that usually one does not have to pay for such software, as opposed to the traditional model of proprietary software which can costs anything from a couple of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars (or Euros or Rupees, for that matter).

The second meaning of free – and evangelists of FOSS insist that this is by far the more important one – refers to the freedom of modifying or extending any such software. In the proprietary model, this is generally illegal, but also technically impossible or at least obstructed, because there is no internal documentation, and most importantly: no so-called 'source code'.

The source code is the “raw” version of any software, written by the software developer in one of the many programming languages (such as C, C++, C#, Java, etc.), which later gets compiled (think “translated”) into machine readable code, and finally sold as applications or programmes. In FOSS, it is not only common, but a legal duty (according to the chosen license, the most popular being the “General Public License” – or short GPL) to publish the source code along with the executable version, or short: open-sourcing the code.

This makes it possible for anybody – with the knowledge of the respective programming language of course – to read and understand the inner structure of that software, and then modify or extend it according to their needs. Due to the already mentioned licenses such as the GPL, any modified FOSS has to “stay open / free”, thereby guaranteeing that this open nature will survive, no matter how small or big the modifications to the original code are. In other words, if somebody takes a FOSS programme and extends it, the source code of the extended version has to be published as well, so anybody who might want to extend the extended version is able to do just that.

FOSS Conference 2008 in Bangalore
© by: James Morris / http://www.flickr.com/photos/x_jamesmorris/3059384474

This cycle of publishing software which then gets modified by others again and again is a fundamental change in how software is produced and is also the main reason of success of the open source model of software development. New functionality can be added by anybody, and so the software gets better because more people, more brains, are part of the development process.

This collaborative model of development is also the chosen way to rid software of errors, or “bugs”, which are unavoidable – especially if the source code grows to thousands of lines of text (and the bigger programmes out there often have hundreds of thousands lines of code). Errors get fixed by the community in specialised forums (some of you might have heard of Bugzilla, a software for collaboratively fixing bugs / developing software) and the fixed code is quickly reintegrated into the programme by the maintainer.

The result of all these changes away from the proprietary model is software, which quickly adapts to new needs, an often higher quality of code, a transparent and open process which allows talented minds to build on others’ software and thereby create synergies that would otherwise not be possible. And, for the mere user of FOSS, all that comes at zero cost.

For the longest time critics of FOSS have argued that such software is not as good or as powerful as software that is exclusively developed by huge multinationals (Microsoft being the biggest of them), but reality has made most of them keep silent in recent years. Especially programmes written for servers (as opposed to software for the desktops or notebooks of home users) such as the famous Apache HTTP Server (which is the most widely used web-server on the Internet and also serves our websites at Knowledge Must), or database servers like MySQL, are the biggest players in the market today and beat the proprietary versions (like Microsoft’s IIS web-server or MSSQL) in the number of deployed systems, but also in benchmarks (programmes that measure speed or features of any given software).

The low cost for FOSS is surely a reason for wide adoption of such software in the first place, but we are talking about years of market domination. And if the software was inferior to their expensive rivals’, then everybody would have stopped using it years ago after “testing it out” once. In other words, the Internet itself, the core technologies that allow you to surf the web, send emails and many other technologies are powered by FOSS – and it is not likely to change anytime soon.

Open Source India 2009 - Conference and Expo
© by: Linux For You Magazine / http://www.flickr.com/photos/lfymag/3386377625/

So, what is the state of FOSS in India? To answer that question, I would like to suggest to look at it from three different sides, and separately discuss how the usage of FOSS has evolved over the last years in the public sector, the private economy and lastly the individual users.


Public Sector – Making FOSS Official!

Politics and politicians – as opposed to corporations or individual users – are often slow when it comes to adapting to technological change. For example, it has taken years for the political parties, institutions and governments of the West (in Europe even slower than in the USA) to accept and use the Internet as a way to communicate with their citizens and potential voters. But what about the use of computers in government offices, institutions, schools and universities?

Not only the lower cost but also the easy extendibility of FOSS is appealing to more and more public institutions. A change that often comes from the grass-roots level, but sometimes – as in the case of India – becomes a topic of national interest and is being discussed on a ministerial level.

Whereas institutions in many Western countries often have contracts with big companies like Microsoft to supply them with cheaper-than-regular versions of operating systems, word processing or spreadsheet calculation software, this is only on short sight a good bargain for these institutions. Problems like follow-up costs through annual license fees, costs of the latest updates and versions, vendor lock-in effects (meaning the problem, that once you start using a proprietary software, the cost of changing to another software becomes to high due to incompatibilities, even if the other software is significantly better or cheaper) in the long run add up and turn the bargain into a never ending spending spree.

The claim of large software companies that the “Total Cost of Ownership” for FOSS software is higher than for their own, rests on weak arguments, such as training costs for administrators and users to make them fit for the new software – and they fail to mention the costs of training users for their own software along the way (which, by the way, is also a key direct or indirect source of income for them).

In India, however, especially in the last decade, the governments on both the state level and the national level have become advocates for FOSS. To cite some prominent examples:

- In 2002 the Goa Department of Information Technology issued a circular recommending the use of Linux [1]
- In 2003 the Department for Information Technology supported the development of an Indian Linux distribution called “Indix” [2]
- In 2003 and 2004 the then Indian president Kalam called for open source in defence [3]
- In 2004 the Department for Information Technology launched a website to promote and support the use of and share experiences with FOSS in India [4]
- In 2005 the Indian Government distributed millions of CDs with FOSS in Tamil and Hindi languages – because big companies for the longest time failed to offer their products in “exotic languages” [5]
- In 2005 the State of Tamil Nadu called for the use of FOSS on all desktop computers. Proprietary software can only be used “if proven that it is absolutely necessary” [6]
- In 2005 the State of Maharashtra distributed a CD with an indianised Linux-based operating system and FOSS applications [7]
- In 2007 the State of Kerala proposed the establishment of an International Centre for Free Software and Computing for Development, ITES Training Centre (in Kochi) [8]
- In 2007 the State of Kerala partnered with Linux distributor Red Hat to train teachers and government users for the Linux operating system [9]
- In 2009 the Government of India Ministry of Communications & Information Technology formulated a draft “National Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance” which will essentially make the use of FOSS the norm in all eGoverment projects on the national level if enacted (highly likely) [10]

LinuxAsia 2005 in New Delhi
© by: Sandeep Bhattacharya / http://www.flickr.com/photos/sandipb/5278004

Private Economy – Harvesting the Economic Boon That Is FOSS

The fact that one can save a lot of money through the use of FOSS instead of licensed proprietary software is pretty obvious, but the figure of an estimated 2 billion USD in saved costs (for royalty free software) which the IIT Mumbai announced was still surprisingly high for most people.

Many companies already use FOSS on their servers or build applications on top of FOSS, thereby eliminating expensive software and annual fees. The adoption of FOSS in Indian enterprises is happening right now more than ever, and it is still gaining momentum. And with big players like ICICI, Reliance and Mahindra-British Telecom jumping on board, FOSS has finally arrived in big corporations, which will most likely add another boost to the adoption rate of FOSS in India.

It might sound strange at first, but even though FOSS is free of cost, many companies have build viable businesses around it, for example, training institutes for FOSS, consultants for migrating to FOSS, offering paid support for FOSS, or more recently through paid web-services built on top of FOSS. The potential for growth in these sectors is huge, and given the support for FOSS by government bodies and institutions on all levels of the Indian political system, there is no end in sight.

The last decade also saw the development of a hybrid that is often referred to as “commercial open source software”. For many Indian companies this offers a legitimate middle way between publishing entirely open and entirely closed source software. Often a basic version of the program is FOSS, while add-ons for enterprise customers remain closed source and have to be paid for. There exist a plethora of specialised service providers which work on a per-demand basis and customise FOSS for companies that want to use FOSS but need some extra functionality or further customisation. This “FOSS economy” is one of the core components in India’s IT export earnings.


The Community – Developing and Using FOSS

The last of the three pillars we have identified are the users of FOSS. And since development of such software is an inherently collaborative process, the distinction between mere users of a software and the ones who are helping in development are not as clear-cut as in the proprietary software world. Many people – even though they might not be programmers have helped FOSS spread in India, foremost through localised language versions of already existing FOSS. One should not forget that even in India, where a large part of the population has some proficiency in English (the main language for software development still), for the majority of the population the non-availability of local language versions of operating systems and software is barring them not only from using a specific software, but often from using a computer at all. India – not least through political decisions – has gone a long way already, and so today, especially in the FOSS scene, localisation has gone much further than with proprietary software. One cannot over-emphasise the importance of this often neglected fact.

However, compared to Europe, participation in coding (the writing of the software itself) is still low in relative terms, but given the sheer number of talented young FOSS users, this will change rapidly in the near future. On big collaborative development websites like Sourceforge or Sarovar forge, Indian developers are still rare (as compared to other countries like the USA or Germany), but definitely on the rise. It has been argued that with more, faster and cheaper Internet connections in India, this will change dramatically. This expectation is sound, because FOSS development happens almost exclusively via the Internet, and an expensive and slow connection makes it hard for the broader population to participate. Up to now, Indian contributions to FOSS come almost exclusively from students of the bigger IT or engineering colleges and universities. This by the way was exactly the same in the West some 15 years ago, but it has changed there, and it will change much faster and with a much bigger impact in India over the coming years.

The number of Indian Linux User Groups (LUGs) – which are a traditional way of finding fellow users and exchanging experiences, teaching each other new tricks and generally creating a strong community – is with 233 already higher than anywhere else except for the United States (247). In absolute terms this comes as no surprise as India is the second most populated country in the world, but the development is a fairly recent one, and other states like China for example, have far lower numbers of such groups.


Conclusion

India is embracing not only free and open source software, but in more general terms an environment of open standards and open development processes – especially, but not exclusively, in the IT realm. It is rapidly catching up with the “older” players in the game, not least because the State has made efforts to turn FOSS into the de-facto standard. In most other countries, FOSS has won administrators’ and IT departments’ hearts solely through its own merits, and is now making headway not only in the server realm but increasingly so also on users’ desktops. In India, with such strong support from many sides, it will win not only the techie’s but the “average user’s” heart by storm, because it suits the Indian needs better than proprietary software ever will, and, yes, also because it is free (as in “free beer”)!

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References:

1. PeacefulAction.org: “Goa Govt. Adopts Linux”. Posted June 19, 2002. Department of Information Technology Circular: http://peacefulaction.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=40&mode=&order=0&thold=0

2. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development: “E-Commerce and Development Report 2003”. Chapter 4: Free and open-source software: Implications for ICT policy and development, page 118. http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/ecdr2003ch4_en.pdf

3. Dinesh C. Sharma: “Indian president calls for open source in defense”. CNET News. July 7, 2004.
http://news.com.com/Indian+president+calls+for+open+source+in+defense/2100-7344_3-5259836.html?part=rss&tag=5259836&subj=news.7344.5

Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam: “Convergence of Technologies”. Address at the Dedication Function at International Institute of Information Technology. May 28, 2003. http://presidentofindia.nic.in/S/html/speeches/others/may28_2003_2.htm

4. Matt Loney: “India shares open-source experience”. ZDNet UK. September 24, 2004.
http://news.zdnet.co.uk/software/developer/0,39020387,39167741,00.htm
National Informatics Centre web page: http://osf.nic.in/openSourceSite

5. Ingrid Marson: “Free CDs spread open source in India”. CNET News. May 25, 2005.
http://netscape.com.com/Free+CDs+spread+open+source+in+India/2100-7344_3-5720008.html

6. Akhila Seetharaman: “Open source software, boon for e-governance”. The Hindu. May 25, 2005.
http://www.hindu.com/2005/05/25/stories/2005052501730600.htm

7. Vaishnavi C. Sekhar: “State govt logs on to cost-cutting drive”. The Times of India. April 19, 2005. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1081589.cms

8. Unnamed author: “Kerala’s draft IT policy released”. The Hindu. January 18, 2007.
http://www.hindu.com/2007/01/18/stories/2007011801800700.htm

9. Aaron Tan: “India’s Kerala state goes open source”. CNET News. June 29, 2007.
http://news.com.com/India%27s+Kerala+state+goes+open+source/2100-7344_3-6194118.html?tag=fd_nbs_ent&tag=nl.e703

10. Government of India, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, Department of Information Technology: “National Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance”. 2009.
http://fosscomm.in/OpenStandards?action=AttachFile&do=get&target=Policy_On_Open_Standards_V2.pdf

11. FLOSSWORLD / United Nations University / Rey Juan Carlos University: “Free and Open Source Software: Worldwide Impact Study 2007”.
www.flossworld.org

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  1. Its a great idea indian flag and foss

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