Most of the world's computers run on systems that cost money and use source-codes that are strictly inaccessible. But there’s a growing movement for systems that are cheap or free.
In November 2002, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates called on India's nuclear scientist-turned President, APJ Abdul Kalam, at the grand presidential palace in New Delhi. But what was billed as a salubrious meeting of minds – the head of the world's largest software company meeting a visionary 'techie' President – apparently turned into a "difficult" occasion.
In a stunning speech delivered to software engineers in May, Kalam disclosed that in his conversation with Gates, the President pitched for open-source software codes – which are available for alteration so anyone with the technical knowledge can change the programme to suit their needs.
"Our discussion became difficult since our views were different," Kalam added in an allusion to Microsoft's reported reservation to such 'non-proprietary' software.
Much more was in store for Kalam's audience – typical of the breed of bright young engineers who have turned India into a leading Information Technology nation.
"The most unfortunate thing is that India still seems to believe in proprietary solutions," the President lectured. "Further spread of IT which is influencing the daily life of individuals would have a devastating effect on the lives of society due to any small shift in the business practice involving these proprietary solutions.
It is precisely for these reasons open-source software needs to be built which would be cost effective for the entire society. In India open-source-code software will have to come and stay in a big way for the benefit of our billion people."
The remarks by Kalam, who believes in linking human and economic development with science and technology, address an important issue in the development of information technologies, particularly in poor countries. The issue is whether countries such as India, which are pluralistic and have large poor populations, should opt for expensive proprietary software such as Microsoft (which cannot be altered) or go for cheap or free non-proprietary software that can be changed around to suit the needs of a diverse multi-lingual nation.
Of equal concern is the loss of choice, or freedom, that proprietary technology imposes on democratic governments by controlling the programming codes of, and being privy to, official government projects. Open-source programming would remedy this, as well as allow local adaptations.
Globally, open-source software has not caught on in a big way, but it has notched up some successes. Countries in which legislation has been passed urging open-source use include Brazil, France, Italy and Spain. Countries in which non-legislative actions have been taken include China, Germany and South Korea. And among other countries where open source solutions are being proposed are Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, South Africa and Venezuela.
Abhas Abhinav, a young IT entrepreneur in India's technology capital of Bangalore, explains the features of an open-source software package called Knoppix: "It's very simple. You have the same features as in a Microsoft Windows application; you get secure, virus-free, regional-language options in inexpensively-priced systems."
Abhinav runs DeepRoot Linux, a software company that developed Knoppix for a radically different computer operating system: GNU/Linux.
It is the result of a dedicated group of computer programmers who set out to create an open-source, free-software alternative to industry giants like Microsoft and Macintosh. Members of India's open-source movement take time off to visit your office or home and demonstrate GNU/Linux – for free.
India, with its IT sector employing half a million people and generating an annual income of $10 billion, represents a huge growth market in software. Nevertheless, commercial for-profit software – or 'proprietary' software – still rules in India, especially within government departments. According to Bob Hayward, Vice President (Asia-Pacific) of Gartner Research Services, the Indian government spent $1 billion on IT in 2002.
"Microsoft now controls the database of various government servers," says Abhinav. "Apart from losing intellectual property rights, proprietary domination restricts technology-dissemination."
Abhinav touches on the concern that government departments will become 'locked in' to a system of unalterable software with source-codes that are untouchable. Not having access to the source-code means that not only do you never completely understand the system, but also that you may end up being controlled by the software itself – and, by extension, the software manufacturers.
Not only that, but proprietary systems cost money. In India, as in all developing countries, most people cannot afford commercial systems and the software that goes with them. So, with a proprietary setting in a poor country, the number of people who can afford to be IT-connected will remain small, with implications for economic growth and development.
But such concerns are rarely articulated by Indian leaders, Kalam being a notable exception. In the south, where India's IT initiatives were pioneered, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh state – the media-savvy, laptop-toting Chandrababu Naidu -invited Bill Gates to set up his India office in the IT corridor of the capital Hyderabad.
Among many members of India's ruling elite, Gates is seen as the most important international personality after the President of the United States. Gates has returned the complement. He has visited India thrice – in 1997, 2000 and 2002 – each time making significant donations to charities and meeting with high-level authorities. Every visit has received saturation media coverage.
In September 2000, 10 Indian chief ministers fell over themselves to heap praises on Gates after a luncheon meeting with him in New Delhi. During the 2002 visit, at four days the longest so far, Gates donated $100 million to the fight against AIDS, although Gates has said there is no connection between his business and charity work.
Microsoft's India office in New Delhi did not answer queries from Panos Features on whether its business strategy for India complies with the anti-predatory and anti-monopolistic business practices being imposed on it in various states in the United States. But the company did issue this official statement from its headquarters in Redmond, US:
"Microsoft is committed to helping governments develop strong, sustainable IT infrastructures that deliver ease of use, value through innovative technology, a clear roadmap for future development, and access to source-code to improve security and implementation. At the end of the day, we believe Microsoft offers the best overall option of value, integration, interoperability and support, without complexity or added dependency on services."
An overwhelming 91 per cent of government departments in New Delhi use Microsoft's Windows 98 software; nearly 67 per cent use Windows XP; with a mere 16 per cent using GNU/Linux according to a report in the Economic Times newspaper in India in April.
Some thinkers view the issue of 'software localization' in political terms. In many nations, says Prof. Kenneth Keniston of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, the dominant positions in society are held by cosmopolitan, internationally-oriented business, professional and intellectual elites. "For them, 'localization' to vernacular languages and local cultures may be unnecessary and/or even undesirable, since English (or French, or Spanish, or another European language) may provide the best possible access to the rest of the world."
In Karnataka state, with Bangalore as its capital, officials pass the buck as to why proprietary software rules the roost. "Our Technical Advisory Panel selected the best available options during the time," says the state government's IT Secretary Vivek Kulkarni.
Yet sources within the Panel – a mix of scientists, management and technical experts – speak of being presented with no alternatives.
The e-networking tender for the state government's secretariat, for instance, insisted it use only Microsoft Windows, while Panel members preferred Sun Microsystems' Lotus Notes or Star Office.
The costs are telling: Star Office 5.2 is free, while 6.0 costs about $45 per license (or computer) without an expiry date. Microsoft 2000 costs the government approximately $375 per license, after a discount of roughly $100. The license expires after three years, at which point the government has to buy anew.
Rajeev Chawla, Karnataka's newly-designated 'E-Secretary' (head of an E-Governance department that is independent of the IT department), is dismissive of the costs of proprietary software. "Don't tell me to constrain myself when my software costs are just 5 per cent of my total finances," he said.
The costs involved may be a small part of government budgets, but activists say using only proprietary software at government departments restricts choice and sends the wrong signals to ordinary people.
There are other costs. One IT official told Panos Features on condition of anonymity that the Karnataka government's decision to pay Microsoft Rs. 3.3 million (approx. $700,000) to have some of its software declared 'non-pirated', has caused debate within its Technical Advisory Panel.
Sunil Abraham, whose Bangalore-based firm Mahiti customises open-source products for non-governmental organisations, believes there must be greater transparency and civil society participation on IT issues in India.
"We need independent audits set up to monitor e-governance because civil society has no information on what is going on," says Abraham.
Keya Acharya is a Bangalore-based Indian journalist specialising in development and environmental issues.