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Time Indian techies logged in: Free software movement

Geeks, computer guerrillas and the philosophy of freedom ruled Bangalore’s Palace Grounds last week. Microsoft and proprietary software...

Written by Johnson T A | Bangalore |
December 5, 2005

Geeks, computer guerrillas and the philosophy of freedom ruled Bangalore’s Palace Grounds last week. Microsoft and proprietary software were almost bad words; open source, free software and Linux were the operating terms.

After four days of ideological debates, tech exchange and interactions with some of the who’s who of the free and open source world, India’s biggest ever free and open source software conference (FOSS.IN) wound down this weekend. The message from the virtual Woodstock software engineers to Indian programmers was loud and clear: break free from company-driven coding and express themselves in the open source and free software world — which offers among other things star status for innovators.

Attracting over 2,700 techies, FOSS.IN, in a way signalled the coming of age of the open source, free software movement in India. ‘‘The free software and open source movement is about self determinism, it is about guerrilla activism. You don’t meet too many people in that space in India as yet but as the middle class grows you will see it,’’ said Intel and the Open Source Initiative’s, Danese Cooper — a star herself in the FOSS world.

‘‘Why should programmers in India not achieve the status of a cricketer or a Bollywood star? It’s obvious that open source will be used by everyone. Solve local problems in India using open source software,’’ Cooper who calls herself a guerrilla evangelist for FOSS told Indian programmers at the meet.

‘‘Empowerment at the individual level produces great products. FOSS changes everything. This process is challenging software development,’’ says software consultant, Linux advocate and organiser of FOSS.IN, Atul Chitnis. “This event’s primary objective is to empower individuals to allow them to get involved with free and open source software,” Chitnis said.

Given the large number of programmers in India, contributions by Indian programmers to open source and free software projects is sluggish compared to countries like Sri Lanka. For instance, Google’s recent open source summer of code project for students threw up no project mentors from India while Sri Lanka contributed four.

‘‘With free software, a developing nation can take greater control of its infrastructure, avoid paying hard-currency licensing fees. There is no doubt that use of free software in India is growing, but the country has not always been strongly represented in the development community,’’ wrote editor of Linux Weekly News (LWN.NET) and one of the speakers at Bangalore, Jonathan Corbett, in his introduction to FOSS.IN.

The Indian government, while not publicly championing open source in governance, education or other spheres has been privately supporting the movement. FOSS.IN — known in its earlier four editions as Linux Bangalore — itself was sponsored by the Ministry of Information and Technology. ‘‘The IT ministry is fairly open to open source. Prakash Karat recently said open source is helping India democratise IT. The approach however varies from state to state. All application development for the Maharashtra government is now in open source. Karnataka is more pro Microsoft,’’ said Red Hat’s Venkatesh Hariharan.

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