In the global fight between Tux and Bux, where's the best place to bet on the penguin? Try India.
On 11 November 2002, the William and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a commitment of $100 million towards HIV/AIDS prevention in India. The announcement came on the eve of a highly publicized visit to India by William Gates himself. Timed for release at his arrival there, Microsoft announced that it would be "deepening its India commitment by making investments of approximately US$400 million over the next three years in several aspects of its India business including education, partnerships, innovation, localization, and the Development Center". Later, at one of his public appearances, Gates promised an additional $20 million for computer education in India's schools. In a meeting with Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan, Gates also promised $1 million for the Media Lab Asia project. We don't know how much more was promised privately, but odds are it wasn't zero.
So: did it work?
The better question might be, How could it work?
Here in the U.S., spending on Information Technology (IT) is notoriously down. There are enormous pressures on companies to manage to the bottom line, cutting costs everywhere. While there's a great deal of whining about this by CEOs and IT technology suppliers, the conditions hardly compare with those in India, where the $600 price of a cheap PC might amount to a year's salary.
So you might say cost is a rather high priority to Indian technology customers. Which naturally brings us to Linux, free software and open source -- all of which are notoriously free, while Windows is anything but . Unless, of course, you buy an unauthorized copy, in which case the cost ranges from free to just a few dollars.
No doubt the cheap black market pricing of Windows' earlier generations did much to allow computing to spread as far as it has in India. But the New York Times reports that the distance isn't all that great, since there are still only about four million PCs in a country with a population exceeding a billion people (and expected to pass China by the middle of the century).
This means the market is still wide open. Even if Microsoft had a 100% OS share in India, it would still "control" only a small share of the ultimate market.
In fact, Microsoft has far less than a 100% share. While the New York Times reports that "less than 10%" of India's PCs run Linux, even 9, 8 or 7% shares are multiples of Linux' desktop shares in the U.S. and other western countries.
That's a huge reason behind Bill Gates' junket to India. There is no country in the world where Linux is a stronger threat to Windows' dominance. Yes, China's government backs Linux in a big way. But India is a true democracy with free market economy, and therefore much more open to any case Microsoft cares to make.
It will be an uphill battle. Here are just a few reasons* why, all gleaned from recent reports:
No wonder Gates wanted to deal with the problem personally, and with more than financial generosity. Reports the Times,
Among other recent measures, Microsoft recruited perhaps India's best-known software executive, N.R. Narayana Murthy, the chairman of a leading software exporter, Infosys Technologies Ltd., to endorse Microsoft's technologies in large newspaper ads. The headline on one quoted Murthy as saying: "When I saw Windows XP in action, I was amazed. How did Microsoft get hold of my wish list?"
One thing that surely wasn't on Murthry's wish list: Windows XP's customer authentication requirements. Unlike earlier versions of the OS, Windows XP is built not to work unless the user calls or logs in to get the software turned on by Microsoft's authentication process. If Microsoft has its way, all copies of XP in India will be paid for.
Windows XP isn't cheap. And even though it's competing with a free OS, Gates said on his trip that Microsoft had no plans to discount the OS, beyond the usual breaks for educational organizations.
I'm sure people have found workarounds, but the Indian government, which creates and enforces copyright law, is in a less flexible position than private businesses when it comes to paying for the commercial software it uses. That's certainly one reason why Gates' trip was so focused on government and education.
But given the competitive situation -- fee vs. free, bux vs. tux -- how can Microsoft win against Linux in an economy where its goods carry luxury pricing?
I don't know, and I don't much care. That's Microsoft's problem. What's interesting to me is the other stuff that borrowed interest in Microsoft's problem brings up -- such as the potentially leading role that Indian developers are likely to play in the Linux movement.
There are some very ambitious Linux developers in India. Take Rajesh Jain, for example. After I wrote Tux Fights Bux for the Soul of India on the Linux Journal Web site, a reader wrote to clue me in on what Jain is up to with his new company, Emergic. The reader called Jain "eloquent... and a successful entrepreneur... Like Michael Robertson, he was in the Internet (News) business with IndiaWorld, which he subsequently sold. I think that along with Lindows he is one of the folks trying out something in a different fashion with Linux, and there is definitely a huge market at the lower end if he makes the right (whatever those might be) moves."
Here's how Jain describes his plans:
Emergic is about creating a software platform which brings down costs of technology by a factor of 10, thus making it affordable for consumers and enterprises in the worlds emerging markets.
Emergic is about realising Bill Gates vision of a computer on every desktop and in every home -- a vision which has not yet gone beyond the worlds 10,000 large companies and 500 million consumers, most of whom are in the worlds developed markets.
Emergic is going to become the computing platform for the next 500 million consumers and the worlds 25 million SMEs who have not been able to adopt technology because of its dollar-denominated pricing.
Emergic is targeted at the worlds emerging markets, because they are where technology has not yet penetrated deeply, and yet, for whom, technology offers perhaps the last opportunity to better integrate into the worlds value chain and improve the standard of living for their people.
Jain wants to drive the cost of hardware down to $125-150 or less, and software down to $5-10/month. And he wants to do it by leveraging old computers as thin clients and running the apps (all the usual Linux suspects). He explains
What is different about Thin Clients this time around? After all, they've been talked about ever since computing began.
The major difference is the re-use of older hardware. We use older cars, older manufacturing plants, older homes, but we dont tend to use older computers...
The worlds developed markets have been saturated with technology. New PC sales now imply upgrades, creating a huge supply of older computers. (These PCs) still have a lot of life left in them -- after all, they are no more than a few years old (and they) can be available for USD 100 or so in large numbers or more USD 125-150 in smaller quantities.
He's counting on broadband, and talking mostly about enterprise environments:
Server-based computing using Linux (and built on the X protocol) is now possible because LAN speeds have gone up to 100 Mbps enabling the transfer of a lot more data over the same network. The result is that a Thick Server (which is actually a new desktop with 1 GB RAM and 2 hard disks in a software RAID configuration) can easily support 30-40 users. Such a Server would cost about USD 1,500-2,000, implying a per client cost of no more than USD 50.
Taken together, the Thin Client and Thick Server combination not only brings down the cost of both hardware and software by 90%, but also provides the IT manager complete control of the client desktop from the server. What every user sees on their Thin Client can be standardized and controlled from the Thick Server itself. In addition, the use of Linux does away with all the virus-related problems. Server-based computing also centralises management of data (backup and restore, for example).
There's a lot more to his plans, but rather than focus on those, let's look at some other things that are happening in the culture itself. For example, at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Writes Peter Day in BBC News,
The Indian Institute of Management is not merely for potential Internet billionaires, and the students in their new blue gowns are not the reason for my journey.
I go to Ahmedabad to have lunch with a tableful of some of the most ingenious people I have ever met -- inventors and gadgeteers from the fields and villages of rural India where 700 million of its one billion people still live. Over rice and dhal and vegetables eaten with the hand, they talk excitedly about their inventions and ideas.
They are gathered under the auspices of the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Innovation. The acronym spells "Sristi", the Sanskrit for creation.
Sristi is the creation of Anil Gupta, the professor from the Institute whose Honeybee Network has been collecting creative ideas from around rural India for the last ten years. The idea database now exceeds 10,000.
Then there are Dr. Sugara Mitra's hole in the wall experiments (see Natural Forces from the March 2002 issue), by which street urchins in New Delhi and elsewhere around the country learn computing from free public kiosks.
That's why I wouldn't be surprised to see Tux beat Bux in a big way here, first.
*Sources: 1-7, New York Times; 8-15, Business World India; 16, The Inquirer; 17, Linux Banglalore.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.