Linux For Suits

April 2003

Subcontinental Smackdown

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:

  1. India's has half a million software developers, many working on Linux projects.
  2. Despite the relatively small number of PCs in India, it's still the world's leading exporter of software.
  3. The earliest adoption of open-source software in India, more than 10 years ago, was at military installations and sensitive research sites.
  4. India's National Stock Exchange uses Linux for critical applications.
  5. Hindustan Lever Ltd., India's largest consumer products company (a subsidiary of Unilever), is evaluating Linux for data warehousing, inventory management and e-commerce.
  6. In Pakistan, Linux is mandated for many government organizations. "A few months ago, we asked all offices to move the servers to Linux," said Salman Ansari, an adviser to Pakistan's minister of science and technology in Islamabad. "Those who wanted to use other, more expensive software were permitted to do so only if they could justify it."
  7. Pilot programs exploring Linux have been undertaken by India's Supreme Court and by the High Courts in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
  8. India's Central Excise Department has moved 1,000 desktops to Linux.
  9. The Delhi Road Transport Office (RTO) has a Linux pilot program.
  10. C-DAC, the Indian government's supercomputing organization, has moved entirely to Linux.
  11. India's National Stock Exchange was one of the first to use Linux.
  12. India-based corporations advocating Linux include Asian Paints, IDBI. Reliance, Texas Instruments, the Times of India group (publishers of The Times of India), Raymond, Bombay Dyeing, Godrej Infotech, HDFC Bank, Hindustan Dorr Oliver, Central Railways and Air-India.
  13. Other educational institutions using Linux include the Indian Institute of Technology, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the Sardar Patel Engineering College in Andheri, Mumbai
  14. in Maharashtra, the government has made Linux mandatory to their curriculum.
  15. The Linux India Initiative is an aggressive pro-Linux effort by the Department of Information Technology. It is focussed primarily on academic institutions.
  16. The Linux Localization Initiative is working to translate Linux documentation into as many regional languages as possible, including Bengali, Marathi, Konkani, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarathi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Urdu, and Tulu.

No wonder Gates wanted to deal with the problem personally, and with more than financial generosity. Reports the Times,

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:

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

He's counting on broadband, and talking mostly about enterprise environments:

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,

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.

My points:

  1. We're talking about highly resourceful people here. Lots of them.
  2. We're also talking about values that are very much in line with what Linux, free software and open source are all about.

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.