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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 themselves.

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 countries.

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 develop.

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



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