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Selling India to Bill Gates

C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY

IN 1997, on his first visit to India, Bill Gates met Prime Minister Deve Gowda in New Delhi. A couple of days later, Mr. Gowda flew to Mumbai to attend another function in honour of the Microsoft chief. In 2000, during Mr Gates' second visit, more than half a dozen Chief Ministers queued up to plead for investment by the software giant. Now, in 2002, the coronation of Mr. Gates as the most preferred visitor from abroad has been completed.

The way we fete and fawn on Bill Gates each time he visits India should make any self-respecting Indian wince with embarrassment. At the same time, we are quick to show our displeasure towards Mr. Gates for speaking about AIDS in the country. We are naturally equally quick to accept the money his Foundation had to offer, and want more.

The AIDS mission apart, why was Bill Gates here? Blinded by his fame and wealth, we failed to see the pure commercial motive of advancing the interests of Microsoft. With our uncritical adulation, we may have ended up selling our software market, our software talents and perhaps even our soul to the world's biggest software company. Hook, line and sinker.

The company Mr. Gates has built up is the biggest and most profitable software firm in the world. But it is also facing a threat from the most unlikely of competitors — the GNU/Linux operating system which has been developed by the larger Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement across the world. This "free" software has long since ceased to be a cult operating system meant for geeks. In terms of cost, reliability and security, GNU/Linux has proved itself far superior to the proprietary Windows in the market for software that runs the internet. Some independent estimates suggest that GNU/Linux has even overtaken Windows here. The back offices of several global companies are also increasingly being run on this alternative operating system. Businesses selling FLOSS are making money, and organisations switching to FLOSS are saving enormous amounts. (For a comprehensive survey on GNU/Linux versus Windows usage on the internet, in back offices and on the desktop, see www.dwheeler.com/oss_fs_why.html)

Governments too are increasingly looking at GNU/Linux as an alternative to Windows. Cost is obviously one factor. For example, the United States Census Bureau found that launching a web site for provision of data, which cost $47,000 with Linux, would have cost as much as $3,58,000 had the proprietary Windows been used. A complete dependence on proprietary Microsoft software also raises security concerns. China recently launched a version of GNU/Linux to eventually replace Windows on all government computers. (That did not prevent Microsoft from announcing a $750 million investment in China. This, incidentally, is considerably more than the $400 million that Mr. Gates has planned for India.)

During his visit last month, Mr. Gates bamboozled uncritical reporters with jargon about GNU/Linux not being a threat to Windows. The total cost of ownership (TCO), he said, was higher for GNU/Linux than for Windows. TCO is the cost of software, training, maintenance and upgrades. Now, most independent surveys say that the TCO of GNU/Linux is a minimum of 25 to 30 per cent lower than for Windows — quite the opposite of Mr. Gates' claim. The world's richest man also asserted that GNU/Linux is affecting software companies like Sun and not Microsoft. This is only half correct. GNU/Linux, positioned in the middle, is rapidly eating into the market share of both Sun and Micrsoft in server software.

From Peru to Japan, from China to the U.S., governments all over the world are looking at GNU/Linux. There is one government though that is missing in this list. In spite of India being home to many of the writers of software who have contributed to the development of GNU/Linux, the Centre and the States seem to be more busy chasing Microsoft than exploring the use of this superior software. There have been reports of the Centre launching a Linux India Initiative to encourage universities and governments to move away from Windows. But the Government seems too scared to confirm such press reports. And of the State Governments, only Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal have been making some noises about exploring the use of GNU/Linux.

Mr. Gates' interest in India is obvious. Computer use in India remains very low, but is growing. E-governance is just beginning to happen. Imagine the future, as e-governance and other government computer-linked services increase rapidly. Imagine all government computers running on Microsoft software — a potential market of hundreds of thousands, eventually even millions. No wonder it is so important to tie India to proprietary software. There is another reason for the Gates interest in India. Though a lot of application software — like word-processors or spreadsheets — is available for GNU/Linux, much more needs to be written if open source software is to completely replace Windows on the desktop. India is believed to be home to 10 per cent of the world's developers of software. If India's software community can be chained to the development of proprieatry software, then one source of GNU/Linux-based applications will dry up!

Bill Gates needs India more than India needs Bill Gates. But we don't seem to want to see that.

E-mail the writer at crr100@india.com

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