Free software allows users to look into the computer’s software, and not treat it just as a mystical black box.
Welcome to India, a talent-rich powerhouse of software skills. But this is also a powerhouse that is resource-poor, and as it discovers its abilities recognised across the globe, ironically enough, India finds itself unable to afford the price of ‘legal’ software badly needed for its own use.
What is the escape from this bind? Piracy is not a long-term solution, so young Indian engineers and computer scientists are looking deep at an unusual solution. It originates in distant Finland, and is an operating system — the software essential to run a computer—called Linux.
“Linux is a developer’s heaven,” says G. Sagar, software developer and web-designer from Bombay. Unlike commercial software, you can get Linux legally for less than INR 100 (USD 2.50), and there is no need to pay for the software each time it is installed on a new machine — the same software can be legally copied across dozens or hundreds of computers. Furthermore, there is no need to pay for every up-grade, add-on or other features. Once set up, Linux requires very little maintenance.
These are some of the factors that has given Linux a near-fanatical set of supporters across India. And many opt for it not because of its almost nil cost, but because of its quality. Being an “open source”, Linux gives you the chance to go into its innards and work on it. Above all, it allows older computers to get a new lease of life since it runs effectively even on slow systems like 386 or 486 personal computers. There are now LUGs (Linux User Groups) in various parts of India (and other South Asian countries), and even big companies are opting for it. Fanatic volunteers will do almost anything to promote it and share the product with others. “Penguin Power” reads a T-shirt sold by a small firm in Bangalore, a reference to Tux, the penguin-mascot of Linux.
The free software movement as we know it was founded in 1985 by an American, Richard M. Stallman, who believes that a book or a piece of software is a global resource. The basic tenets of free software are: freedom to study, freedom to change, freedom to share or distribute, the right to ‘sell’ free software, and the condition that the software ‘source’ has always got to attach “binaries” to enable computer professionals to understand how programmes were put together.
Linux itself was invented some eight years ago by Linus Torvalds, then a student at the University of Helsinki. Dissatisfied with the available choices for operating systems, Torvalds wrote one he liked. He then went on to make the source code publicly accessible on the Internet, leading to a community of developers that has built on, improved upon and expanded on his work.
Linus’s invention renders piracy redundant. “You do not have to work with pirated software anymore. The support is available for Linux in abundance in the Internet through mailing lists,” says Ramakrishnan M, an electronics engineer from Madras.
Current estimates of Linux users worldwide put the number at 8 to 10 million. And as the Linux source code (the internal instructions that make up the software) is publicly accessible, there are now thousands of developers around the globe, often working voluntarily, on developing the system.
Implications of this are manifold, such as in education. “Free software allows teachers and students to look into the computer’s software, and not just treat it as a mystical black box,” says assistant professor of computer science V. Vinay of Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science. “Children like to play with things, tear them apart and —if we are lucky —put things back. Free software encourages such exploration.”
Linux also could bridge the gap between the world’s computer haves and the have-nots, something which has been widening. Linux and other software like it also offer security. “Free software is software that can be trusted [by us in India] as we have the source code,” says Vinay of Bangalore. This comes handy in a situation where Indian computer users are increasingly getting squeezed by astronomical software prices, the falling value of the rupee, and accusations that those who cannot afford to pay are pirates.
Looking into the future, Linux’s potential is immense. It can be tailored to local requirement, seen as crucial sinde most commercial software are us-based. Importantly, there have been discussions on how Devannagari fonts could be used on linux. “Deployed on a large scale, linux will save India a large aount of foreign exchange ,” says Vinay. but for that to happen, he stresses the need of local language integration.
On the Linux-India mailing list, there are regular discussions of what initiatives could be taken to develop specific software products that would cater to Indian requirements. There’s also talk of holding ‘install fests’ — where users could bring their computers and install linux off a server to their machines and also vider in India . “ there future of linux worldwide is brighter than a thousand suns ,” says Bhyrava Prasad coun try manger for insight solutions. If that is true , shine on, linux.