WAS Microsoft chief Bill Gates' dual-purpose, philanthropic-cum-business visit to India basically motivated by the desire to strengthen his company's monopoly over the large software market in India? This is a view that is held by many advocates of the free software movement, who are disappointed by the willingness of State and Central government agencies to rub shoulders with Gates and rely on his software, especially the Windows platform, when implementing their information technology initiatives.
Unfortunately for Gates, at least one Indian State government, that of Madhya Pradesh, has publicly announced its decision to use Linux software in its official IT programme, which includes its e-governance (Gyandoot) and computer-enabled school education (Headstart) initiatives.
According to newspaper reports, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh told Bill Gates that in the choice between a closed platform like Windows and an open source, free software programme such as Linux, the latter has won out both because proprietary software was not the best way to put out public information and because free software programs were not amenable to cost considerations. This is a different position from that taken by the Central government and some other State governments such as those in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, which are not planning to make the transition from Windows to Linux.
The difference between proprietary and free software needs to be clarified.
The `free' feature attributed to the latter does not imply that the software is necessarily distributed or made available at zero cost. Rather, as the free/open source software movement defines it, a programme is free software if a user has the freedom to run the programme, for any purpose; has the freedom to modify the program to suit his needs; has access to the source code to exercise the freedom to modify the program; and has the freedom to redistribute copies of the original or modified program, either gratis or for a fee. While this is the technical definition of "free software", in practice free or open source software is in most instances available either free of cost or at extremely low prices compared to commercial software.
Programmes distributed by commercial firms such as Microsoft, including the Windows operating system, neither provide access to the source code nor permit modification. Further, with the practice of providing software patents, there are now units of code which cannot be used as part of other programmes that are being written by third parties without a licence and payment of a royalty. Combine these commercial conditions with the dominance over the operating system market that Microsoft possesses and we are faced with unreasonably high prices for any current version of the software and exceptionally high prices for upgrades that very often become imperative to use new versions of applications software or new software products.
This makes cost an important issue. R. Gopalakrishnan, Secretary to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and Coordinator of the Rajiv Gandhi Missions in the state, who is advocating the use of open source software wherever possible, says: "Even after accounting for training and installation costs of open source software, it may still cost anywhere between one-half to one-tenth of what is required to buy commercial software depending on the application." Further, in his view, "the ocean of unnecessary features in commercial software makes hardware expensive and obsolescence cycles shorter".
The open source path, Gopalakrishnan argues, not only costs less, but that saving in expenditure has many more spin-offs, since it is invested in training and creates competence in the State that will become a long-term asset.
Further, there are larger issues involved. The technology framework of a government cannot be based on proprietary standards. And, "inherent in the debate on open source software are issues of freedom, monopoly and choice of the buyer."
The vocal advocacy of use of open source software for IT-enabled service delivery and governance by the government of Madhya Pradesh, is in keeping with trend in other developing countries, including China, and Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Peru. They are increasingly seeking to exploit the opportunity offered by the free software movement, the GNU project, and favouring the use of free rather than proprietary software for their governments' computerisation programmes. Their motivation is clear: part from the bread and butter issue of cost, the free software movement espouses the more lofty ideals such as ensuring free information access, permanence of public data and security.
In these countries the attraction of open source software lies in the fact that its use by government and the public could encourage local software professionals to provide software support in the form of add-on applications that can be written at a cost much lower than that required to buy multi-featured packaged software. This would decentralise software production, challenging the large transnational producers of packaged and boxed-software, who have been able to convert the software industry from a service industry to one with characteristics typical of large-scale manufacturing.
The debate on free and proprietary software has gone the furthest in Peru as a result of a bill (number 1609) spearheaded by Congressman Edgar David Villanueva Nuqez, which specifies that software used by state institutions should satisfy free software conditions. This includes freedom to use, freedom to modify and freedom to publish without restriction. Among the specified reasons motivating the bill is the belief that "government use of proprietary software is a national security risk; that hidden code could contain `backdoors', programs that allow remote control of computers and reveal sensitive state information open to prying eyes."
Other Latin American countries have also encouraged the spread of free software. In Argentina, for example, a bill that would mandate the use of open-source software throughout Argentina's government departments is pending in Congress.
WHAT has been disconcerting is that, in keeping with its big brother image, Microsoft has sought every possible route money, muscle and propaganda to stifle the trend in favour of open source software. In a June 2001 interview given to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dave Newbart, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, while admitting that Linux was "good competition" for Microsoft in the operating systems area, lamented that the government was funding open source work. It should not, he felt, since "government funding should be for work that is available to everybody". But, according to him, "open source is not available to commercial companies", such as Microsoft. As he put it: "The way the licence is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source. If the government wants to put something in the public domain, it should. Linux is not in the public domain. Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That's the way that the licence works."
The real danger posed by the free software movement was captured by Tony Stanco, a senior policy analyst at George Washington University's Cyberspace Policy Institute and the founder of Free Developers.net, a group that promotes the universal adoption of free software, when he said: "Once these governments create their own industry it liberates them, gives them an income source and allows them to tap into the world economy like nothing else, because software is the highest value-added product out there."
Evidence of that danger is growing. A study by consulting firm IDC released in January 2001 titled "Server Operating Environments: 2000 Year in Review" indicated that while Windows accounted for 41 per cent of new server operating systems sales in 2000, growing by 20 per cent, GNU/Linux accounted for 27 per cent and grew even faster, by 24 per cent. The evidence that for similar applications, open source software like GNU Linux has a lower total cost of ownership than Windows is overwhelming.
Microsoft's efforts to subvert legislation requiring the use of free software by state institutions in Peru took many forms. Besides launching a propaganda war about the dangers to Peru's IT sector and foreign investment climate, Microsoft reportedly enlisted the U.S. Ambassador in Lima, John Hamilton, to try to persuade the Peruvians to kill the legislation. Hamilton wrote to the President of the Peruvian Congress expressing his dissatisfaction with the legislation. This was an obvious effort to intervene in the democratic process just to satisfy Microsoft's whims.
Around the same time, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates called on Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo and donated $550,000 to Peru's school system.
Interestingly, the Peruvian bill specifying the use of free software by state institutions, No. 1609, included a scheme titled Plan Huascaran, which sought to provide Internet connections to the very same schools Bill Gates' money was targeted at.
The thrust into the school system as a way of buying out competition from free software seems to be common practice on the part of Microsoft.
Microsoft's South African office is reportedly giving free software to all of the country's 32,000 public schools, depriving itself of almost all of the $1.9 million revenue it earns from South Africa's education sector.
But such philanthropy has been received with scepticism. Teresa Peters, Executive director of bridges.org, a non-governmental organisation that works on diffusing technology in emerging economies, argues that one of the possible consequences of the South African government accepting that package is that the adoption of Linux and other systems that compete with Microsoft will be limited.
At home in the U.S., Microsoft's late 2001 offer to provide $1billion worth of software, hardware, training and support to 16,000 poor U.S. schools as part of a proposed antitrust settlement with U.S. authorities was opposed on the grounds that this would only serve to strengthen the company's monopoly in personal computer operating systems. The Microsoft offer was rejected by U.S. authorities.
GIVEN this track record, Gates' philanthropy in India is suspect. After providing $100 million to strengthen the fight against AIDS, Gates announced that Microsoft will make its largest investment outside the U.S. in India by pumping in $400 million (about Rs.2,000 crores) over the next three years to spread computer literacy, outsource more software and boost its business in the country. Of that amount $20 million would go towards spreading computer education through `Project Shiksha'. Computer training would be imparted to over 80,000 schoolteachers, who in turn will train about 35 lakh students in five years. The software major would also partner State education departments to set up 10 Microsoft IT Academy Centres and collaborate with over 2,000 school labs. It is not surprising that this move has been received with scepticism in some quarters.
Stanco says: "That's their strategy, they throw money at these projects and hope that the movement goes away. But they won't be able to spend their way out of this. More countries are realizing that if they want to be an IT player worldwide, they need to promote open source at home."
Is such a development likely in India as well? Not as long as there is no agreement between governments in this large, quasi-federal country. As Gopalakrishnan wrote in a recent article: "Why has there not been a national policy as yet on promotion of open source software? Part of the reason is that the policy leadership of southern Indian States where the issues are more focused on IT production than on IT use." Clearly, the free software movement faces a much bigger challenge in this country.