The two faces
of Mr. Gates
By C. P. Chandrasekhar
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
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
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
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."
This use of the epithet "cancer"
to describe a fledgling competitor, only partially reflects the threat
posed by the GNU General Public Licensing (GPL) system to commercial
firms like Microsoft, which are unable to extract the best out of open
source software to bundle it with their more expensive, hidden-code
software products. The method adopted by GNU was to adopt copyright
conditions ("copyleft" as it is termed) that prevent free
software from being turned into a component of proprietary software.
To quote Richard Stallman, a leading member of the free software movement:
"The central idea of copyleft is that we give everyone permission
to run the program, copy the program, modify the program, and distribute
modified versions, but not permission to add restrictions of their own.
Thus, the crucial freedoms that define `free software' are guaranteed
to everyone who has a copy; they become inalienable rights."
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
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.