In this series, we cover unusual groups. This week, Ketan Tanna profiles a movement unleashed by a legendary hacker
They are not idealists. They are fighting for a cause because, among other reasons, they are making a living out of it. These are Indiaâ€™s free software warriors who want to extricate people from the hold of Microsoft and other proprietary software, and in the process spread a whole new economy. They are the ambassadors of a global revolution that they call, â€˜swatantara softwareâ€™, an operating system that can be freely downloaded to any network. It tries to eliminate the enormous expense involved in buying and maintaining software.
And like the human body, it heals itself from the inside. But free software does not exactly mean free. Innovatively modified versions of the software are sold to those who are interested but these versions can be further modified by others. In fact, thatâ€™s how free software grows and improves itself. And thatâ€™s how it has become much more difficult for hackers to crack than the Windows.
On a rainy morning, five supporters of the Free Software Foundation of India (FSF India) have gathered in a small room in the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) in suburban Mumbai. Meena Kharatmal, a thirty-three-year old graduate in marine science and a scientific officer with HBCSE plays host. She had no clue what free and proprietary software were all about till she met Dr G Nagarjuna, chairperson of FSF India. Nagarjuna too does not have a formal background in software but was slowly drawn into the open software movement heralded by legendary programmer and Robin-Hood-like hacker, Richard Stallman who started a project called GNU (GNU is a curious acronym that stands for GNUâ€™s Not Unix), and Linus Torvalds who created a revolutionary operating system called Linux.
The free software movement, which is often wrongly called Linux to Stallmanâ€™s overt irritation instead of GNU/Linux, tries to resolve the problem of not just the huge cost involved in installing software but also the issue of incompatibility between various software and hardware brands. The movement has millions of passionate followers and in India there are several groups
like FSF which try to promote the idea of free software. An increasing number of corporates and government offices are shifting to GNU-Linux.
Besides passionately discussing the future of the movement in online forums and in the tangible world, the 200 members of FSF India also promote the idea through seminars and other forms of interactions with corporates and individuals. They are sustained by donations and sponsorships from leading companies including IBM, Cisco and Intel.
Twenty-five-year-old Vihan Pandey, with his flowing beard and thick mustache, is one of the most striking members of the group. In fact, from some angles, he faintly resembles Richard Stallman. He looks like a free spirit who has emerged from the Jehangir Art Gallery and that, in a way, is the inner personalities of most people who are associated with the free software movement.
Pandey works as a GNU/Linux consultant with an online travel company and there is an unmistakable force in the way he talks that makes others listen. â€œI donâ€™t think you can classify Microsoft as capitalists and free software guys as socialists or communists,â€ he says targeting a common perception.
â€œThe main point is not to let others make choices for you. You do what you want to do. If you really want to classify this movement call it the human way of life. Inherently, a human wants to help others. This movement is all about helping one another and letting talent bloom across countries. The free software world is in fact the best of capitalism and socialism,â€ he says.
According to him the future of free software is in hand-held devices. Many cell phones already use GNU/Linux. While the spread of the revolution has been slow, he says, the future is increasingly looking bright.
Companies like IBM, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard are asking an increasing number of their engineers to work with the open source as they find it more secure.
The GNU/Linux server growth was 5.4% last year and the revenue generated through sale of customised versions was $1.5 billion for the quarter ending November 2006.
Across India, there are many groups in big cities and small towns that have come together for the purpose of developing free software. There are over 60 active online groups that disseminate free software information. There are also scores of GNU/Linux Yahoo groups. One of them with 400 members is called â€˜Linuxvadapavâ€™.
Research firm IDC (International Data Corporation) which tracks server shipments says that in India, GNU/Linux had a market share of 19.3% in 2005, 21.1% in 2006 and is expected to grow by 25.7% in 2010.
Among the majors who have gone for GNU/Linux based applications in India are LIC, Canara Bank, Central Bank of India, UTI bank, Kaun Banega Crorepati SMS system and various Airtel applications. The state governments of Kerala and West Bengal too have adopted GNU/Linux to cut costs. TNN