Issue #15 January 2006

What does open source mean in India?


RHM: What does open source mean in India? Is there a national consensus, or is it really driven state by state? Also, what are the key open source technologies that are existing in India today? Surely Linux, but what others? Why?

Tapia: As India seeks to make its citizens a part of the global digital economy, it faces a formidable set of challenges. India's IT industry may have won accolades all over the world, but many of India's citizens have either no access or very limited access to technology. Unless access to IT is easily available to Indians, many Indians will be "digital illiterates" and this has widespread ramifications for education, e-government and other sectors of the economy.

In education, India has 888,000 educational institutions and 350 million children in the age group of 6-19. In the area of e-government, India has to reach out to its one billion plus population at the lowest possible cost. At the individual level, India's per capita income is Rs 20,862 ($474), while PC hardware costs Rs 10,000 ($227) and software costs approximately Rs 11,000 ($250). This means that the cost of hardware and software is more than the annual income of most Indians!

As we seek to modernize our education systems, enable more efficient delivery of e-government services, and empower more Indians with the power of IT, there are compelling political, economic and cultural reasons for India to consider radical and fresh approaches to building a national IT infrastructure.

Open Source in India simply implies a 'radical' and 'fresh' approach to our burgeoning problems. Besides the Linux operating system, LAMP as a stack is also catching on in India. The Open Source development stack is becoming popular among students and developers in general due to its easy availability and widespread community support.

Although the adoption of Open Source solutions in the Indian e-governance sector is primarily being looked at from a State Government perspective, significant support is being extended by the Central Government as well. For example, during the launch of a free software CD containing Hindi language tools and fonts based on open source software, our minister of Communications & Information Technology, Shri Dayanidhi Maran, asserted that the freely available (open) office suite is in every way the equal of (non-free) Microsoft Office.

RHM: How has this movement changed/redirected [India's] business models?

Tapia: Open Source is a growing movement that is gradually picking up steam across India. A few of our lighthouse projects are perfect examples of how Open Source has changed and redefined business models. A quote that reiterates the fact that Open Source has the power to trigger a change in the overall business strategy of an organization: "Government of Maharashtra (GoM) was so pleased with their experience in using Red Hat's solutions and services, that as a policy, the government has decided to develop all new applications on Linux." Few technologies in the present age have the potential to change the long term roadmap of an organization, let alone solve business problems.

RHM: Does open source provide an opportunity for India to play a role beyond outsourcing?

Tapia: It would be too early to say. For starters, Open Source has definitely offered people more choice. Our growing business in India points to the fact that the opportunity for Open Source here is immense. In my opinion, Open Source has a tremendous responsibility to serve the masses in India. I concur with the noted management guru, CK Prahalad, who argues that governments and companies need to adopt a fresh approach to serve the needs of the "Bottom of the Pyramid," the four billion people of the world who live on less than $2 a day. Prahalad says that, "serving the BOP market will demand innovations in technology, products and services, and business models."

RHM: Would you tell us about the meeting you had with your president, Rashtrapati Bhavan, re. open source.

Tapia: One of the most memorable moments of my life was when I had the good fortune of meeting the President of India with Matthew for a 45-minute, one-on-one meeting in the Indian presidential palace - Rashtrapati Bhavan. Getting the President to talk about the need for Open Source solutions for India was the best thing we could have done to further our cause. The President's concern for the vital role that Open Source solutions can play in reaching out to our billion plus population was heartening to learn.

In a keynote, the President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam once said, "The most unfortunate thing is that India still seems to believe in proprietary solutions. In India, open source code software will have to come and stay in a big way for the benefit of our billion people."

RHM: What are the important projects where Red Hat partners with other companies in India? Is there something like the LEAP Center (in Singapore) available in India?

Tapia: We are a sponsor and partner in the Oracle-HP Center of Excellence for e-governance in Delhi. This center has been formed with a vision to promote successful e-governance projects in India. The entire infrastructure used to demonstrate e-governance applications at this facility is powered by Red Hat Enterprise Linux on HP hardware. Red Hat is working very closely in supporting the CoE's initiatives in helping Governments quickly identify appropriate strategies, methodologies and solutions. See http://www.egovcenter.in/ for more information.

India is a unique multilingual country in the world with 22 constitutionally recognized languages. Red Hat in India has also contributed significantly to localization as well.

Localization is a major milestone in our long-term strategy for India. We have a committed translation team operating out of our Pune Global Engineering and Support Center, through which we are addressing the localization market.

Through our committed localization efforts, we hope to remove the final barrier that has long restricted the spread of computerization - Knowledge of the English language. By removing this final hurdle, we hope to assist the Indian Government in reaching out to each and every citizen in the country and abolish the "fear factor" commonly associated with computers.

We launched Red Hat Desktop version 4 in India in the month of April, with a special focus on the availability of local languages. During the launch, we announced OS support for five Indian languages - Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi and Tamil. Important applications like word processors, spreadsheets, e-mail client, Internet browsers etc have also been localized to these five languages. The plan is to localize Red Hat Enterprise Linux to a total of 13 Indian languages. Sinhalese, the native language of Sri Lanka, is also in line to be localized.

Localization is key to address the mass rural markets in India, who have been alienated from technology due to their lack of knowledge of the English language.

Our localization team is continuously working on mapping our latest releases to more constitutional languages. This team works in close conjunction with Linux community groups like Ankur, PunLinux, etc to ensure a community driven model of development.

The availability of Red Hat Enterprise Linux v.4 in five Indian languages will take technology to the heart of India. Knowledge of the English language will no longer be a prerequisite for accessing technology. This is a critical factor to drive PC penetration in areas where the bulk of our population resides.

Localization is also slowly finding its way into our training radar. The growing demand for desktop training is an indicator of the things to come. With only 10% of the population familiar with English, our localization efforts at bridging the digital divide are being well appreciated. With e-governance, academia, SMEs and the overall spread of the local language Red Hat Desktop in B&C class cities and the rural sector, a huge demand for Linux training will follow.

Our partnership with Intel on the desktop is extremely strategic to both them and us. Linux on the desktop is a phenomenon that we have been witnessing for the last several years. Now with Intel CSO organization's commitment to the Linux desktop we are seeing a rapid expansion of the desktop ecosystem for Linux. We have also been working with ISVs to migrate them from Windows based front ends to Linux based and this initiative has been very well received.

RHM: Describe what the Red Hat organization in India is like today. What will it be in three to five years?

Tapia: At Red Hat India, we have currently employed approximately 90+ people operating out of seven offices in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Pune & Bhopal.

We have already established a Global Engineering and Support Center in Pune, India. Matthew Szulik visited India last year to assess the potential of the Indian market and identify opportunities for Red Hat and open source here. Seeing the eagerness of Indian businesses and professionals to embrace open source, the obvious benefits of the Indian market were evident. As a result, a decision was made to choose India for opening up the fourth Red Hat Global Support Center in the world.

Our commitment to the Indian market has been unfaltering and unwavering since the last 4.5 years that we have been serving the region. Red Hat India has established a significant footprint on the Linux training/certification front today and we are continuously engaging with local OEMs & ISVs to expand the Linux ecosystem.

Given our rapid growth, it's very hard to predict where we will be in the next couple of years. I believe Red Hat India will be the leading organization driving the Open Source revolution in the Indian sub continent. I also believe we will have turned India into one of the largest contributors to the open source community.

RHM: Why do you think [open source] is important to India's future.

Tapia: Open source represents the perfect solution for easy computerization and mass spread of technology--both from a localization and cost standpoint. Currently there are just 14 million PCs in India and the domestic market is on the verge of a take off. Just as we saw the television industry and the cellular phone industry grow rapidly over the years, the domestic IT market is set to witness a similar 'hockey stick' incline. PC penetration will increase rapidly with falling costs of hardware and drive this growth. With the opportunity that the localization market presents, there's a huge amount of untapped potential concealed deep within the IT sector.

Today, open source software has created inroads into each and every area of the Indian Information Technology market--right from embedded devices to supercomputers and everything else in between. This makes it (open source software/Linux) an extremely critical factor for the growth and sustenance of the IT market.

RHM: Have you been surprised at the willingness of the people in India to take such a strong interest in [open source].

Tapia: No at all. Open source is not just a technology issue anymore, and has quickly turned into a humanitarian issue. With the future of our billion plus people depending on the way they learn and identify with information technology, open source can play a pivotal role. Our leaders in the seat of authority understand this fact and that's the reason why everyone, right from our President to our Minister of IT, endorses open source.

RHM: Who are some of the open source visionaries in India.

Tapia: Dr. D. B Phatak, Dr. BK Gairola, our honorable President, and India's IT Minister would all classify as open source visionaries.

RHM: What would you like the rest of the world to understand about Linux in India.

Tapia: Open source in India offers a great solution to bridge the digital divide and take the benefits of technology to a larger cross section of people. The desktop market in India is in a rapidly evolving stage--estimates have it that it is one of the fastest growing PC markets in the world. In the next few years, the number of desktops in India are expected to touch 100 million. This represents a tremendous potential for Linux to play a defining role. In my opinion, Linux in India needs a lot of effort in nurturing the ecosystem and ensuring widespread availability. Also, with our efforts of catching students young and harnessing their talent through incentive programs like the Red Hat Scholarship program, we hope to cultivate India as a contributor to open source and not just a beneficiary.

RHM: How has the technology industry in India changed over the last five years.

Tapia: The IT market in India is in a rapidly evolving stage. Having said that, there are bound to be rapid transformations. Rules and paradigms are bound to change--inevitably. Every market has to respond to this dynamism and the success or survival of a market depends upon whether it reacts or pro-acts to these shifting paradigms. The Indian IT market has been extremely proactive in its approach to the changing economy and has maintained the necessary resilience to stay at the top rung.

The challenge is to continuously innovate and come up with different or more efficient mechanisms of development. Today, Indian technology service providers have a wide variety of resources at their disposal. The challenge now is to select the right set of resources that can scale rapidly and adapt to quick changes. Also, the economy has to scale up as a whole to support the growth in IT. If the Indian IT industry has to achieve its set target, it will be difficult to scale up considering our current literacy rate. Technology seeding is a win-win for everyone. IT companies today have to take the onus of cultivating society and working towards the improvement of the entire ecosystem. You cannot develop quality software or offer professional services in the software space without the right talent. We understand the special needs of academia and are working very actively with schools, colleges and universities. Our efforts in the area of localization and rural computerization are also aimed in this direction.

In my opinion, Linux and open source have reached an inflection point in the market. The rules of business in the industry are slowly being redefined with the success of the open source model. People are looking at the services opportunity more closely today. People now understand that if a company like ours can be successful selling free software, there's a lot of opportunity that is waiting to be explored in the services space.

RHM: You've traveled around the world. How do you think India sees the Linux and open source movement differently [from other countries you've visited].

Tapia: In India, a country where software piracy is very high if people are willing to pay for the use of open source software (which is also available for free) I believe it is because we have convinced them about the value they derive from it. This difference cannot be overemphasized.

Another fundamental difference is that even the world's largest monopolostic software company, with its deep pockets and huge investments in India, cannot stop this momentum.

Lastly, India with its vast pool of developers is a critical battlefield in the determining the future technology landscape.

RHM: Where would you recommend those in India who are interested in open source should go to learn more and get started?

Tapia: Websites like NewsForge, SourceForge, Linux For You, Linux User Groups (LUGs), the Red Hat Scholarships Program (Lord of the Code contest) are some excellent starting points for people to be introduced to the world of open source.

RHM: Does strong US-style patent protection help or hurt India?

Tapia: Patents on software will only end up hurting the Indian software industry and, therefore, Red Hat is happy that the Indian bill dropped the software patentability clause.

Many trivial ideas have been palmed off as "innovations" and been successfully patented. For genuine innovators and entrepreneurs, patents have therefore become "broken glass on the highways of progress." Entrepreneurs and innovators nowadays have to be extremely careful that they are not walking into a legal minefield caused by software patents and this affects companies, large and small. Some large companies are reported to be spending upt o $100 million in legal fees for fighting of patent threats.

Software is adequately covered by copyright and we believe that patents are therefore, unnecessary. Under copyright, protection is given only to the particular expression of an idea that was adopted and not the idea itself. (For instance, a program to add numbers written in two different computer languages would count as two different expressions of one idea.) Effectively, independent rendering of a copyrighted work by a third party would not infringe the copyright.

Everyone who writes a computer program automatically owns the copyright in it and it is copyright law that made the entire software industry so big. It's the same legal concept that also protects books, music, movies, paintings, even architecture. A patent, on the other hand is granted to the first to apply for it, regardless of who the first to invent it was. Patents cost a lot of money. Paying a lawyer to write a patent application is often more expensive than the cost of applying for a patent. Also, the patent offices around the world are not educated enough to understand patent applications.

When fundamental ideas are patented, it slows down the whole process of innovation because science, technology and, by inference, society progresses by building on the ideas of other. To quote from Newton's memorable phrase, "If I see further than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants."

RHM: Can you explain the difference between the way politicians and business people think about open source?

Tapia: In my opinion, politicians look at technology with cost being a major consideration in decision making. They value open source for the power it gives independent nations who cannot let themselves be dictated to by the whims and fancies of any one company.

Whereas businesses look at the value that they derive. They want the best technology available at the fairest possible price. They want freedom and choice and that is why they turn to us.

RHM: Does access to bandwidth play a great role in how people think about it?

Tapia: Access to bandwidth is an important issue and the lack of it is a huge impediment to the proliferation of the internet and the information age.

RHM: What about the One Laptop Per Child initiative.? Is price the key characteristic?

Tapia: I believe it has to be price, coupled with making the device desirable. Nobody will buy a cheap laptop if they have nothing to run on it. The success of this initiative depends on building applications of interest. Using my previous analogy of the TV, no one bought TVs when programming was available only in English and Hindi. The TV boom was preceded by the expansion of entertainment software in various languages. This is what made the TV desirable.

However, when a near-monopoly situation exists as it does in the critical area of operating systems and office productivity software--the most essential computing tools--the onus of innovation rests with the monopoly vendor and individuals, corporations and even governments have no say in the matter. For example, a proprietary operating system vendor has responded to the call for more affordable operating systems by introducing a "Starter Pack" version that places severe artificial limits on what they can do with the system. Such "innovations" do not benefit the consumers or the country and conspire to keep them technologically backward.

India therefore needs to work out a fresh approach to deploying IT solutions that is in keeping with the "Bottom of the Pyramid" approach. We need to evolve solutions that meet our country's needs by addressing the cost issue while intelligently leveraging the unique wealth that India possesses--its army of talented programmers.

Open source software offers India this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a national IT infrastructure that can propel the country to prosperity and a future of innovation. Just as India leapfrogged the landline era and went straight into the mobile phone era, it has the opportunity to skip the proprietary software era and go straight to the open source era.

In India, many linguistic groups have started localization groups to translate open source software into Indian languages so as to bridge the digital divide. This freedom simply does not exist with proprietary software.

RHM: How does the Red Hat Academy address this topic?

Tapia: The Red Hat Academy is furthering our vision of reaching out to students all across the country with affordable learning solutions. We have currently trained 15,000+ students across India, out of which 5,500+ have been certified--the largest number of certified people outside of the United States.