to Bill Gates
C. Ram Manohar 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 firstname.lastname@example.org