An Indian Institute of Technology professor--and open-source evangelist--discusses the role of Linux and open source in India.
Open-source software meets the basic criteria of useful and affordable that people and businesses in emerging economies such as India need to adopt them. But, says a prominent Indian IT scholar, there's no shortage of other reasons why Linux and its ilk are leaving an indelible mark on the Indian software market, particularly for the country's 2.5 million small and medium businesses.
The open-source model suits India, where most businesses have previously made no investment in IT; many large businesses rely on Unix; and Microsoft Windows is seen primarily as a desktop operating system, says Deepak Phatak, the Subrao M. Nilekani Chair Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology's Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology. Phatak, who spent much of last year traveling his native country evangelizing Linux and open source, also contends that the open-source model offers better support than proprietary vendors do in India. And he isn't concerned with the intellectual-property concerns that have arisen from Linux use in the United States.
Concerns over whether intellectual property has illegally been contributed to Linux aren't likely to stem the tide of users moving to open source, Phatak says. Many Indians respect intellectual property, he says, "but they also believe that intellectual property should also be widely disseminated as part of a larger knowledge base."
The fact that the open-source community offers users a direct dialogue with the developers of a particular application provides particular appeal in India. This direct connection is something that's been lacking for Indian businesses, many of which must resolve software problems through system integrators rather than the vendors themselves, Phatak says.
Phatak talks about the open-source community as a good forum for international software development. He rejects any notion of technology nationalism, that companies in India or any country would hesitate to buy proprietary software simply because it's developed by American companies. As proof he points to the success that American companies Red Hat Inc. and Novell have had selling their Linux distributions and services abroad. "People want software that runs their businesses properly," he says.
In fact, Phatak thinks U.S. programmers' open-source approach has changed the world. "Americans may not realize this, but the [general public license] is one of their greatest contributions to the world," he says, explaining that the GPL allows open-source software to coexist with proprietary software.
He considers the coexistence crucial. "The whole world can't depend on open source," the scholar acknowledges. Moving forward, the software world will consist of both those who develop proprietary code and those who develop open-source code. The success of this model depends upon two things--what he calls the "g-factor" and the "j-factor."
"Proprietary vendors should avoid the g-factor and not become too greedy, otherwise people will choose open source," Phatak says. "And open-source developers should avoid the j-factor and not become jealous that someone else might be profiting from their work. They should be delighted that people are using it."
Phatak isn't concerned that his country's achievements could be obscured if they're contributed to the open-source community rather than marketed independently: "Recognition comes if what you do is useful to people."
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