Publication Date

June 20 2003

In November 2002, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates met with India's President APJ Abdul Kalam. At this meeting, Kalam advocated for open-source software codes, which are available for alteration so anyone with the technical knowledge can change the programme to suit their needs. Among other things, Kalam worries that most people in developing countries such as India can't afford commercial systems and software. Thus, he thinks, the number of people who can afford to be IT-connected will remain small, with implications for economic growth and development. Furthermore, in the words of the author, "Of equal concern is the loss of choice, or freedom, that proprietary technology imposes on democratic governments by controlling the programming codes of, and being privy to, official government projects. Open-source programming would remedy this, as well as allow local adaptations."

Despite developments of open-source software packages such as "Knoppix", commercial for-profit, or "proprietary", software is still the norm in India. This is especially the case in government departments: Gartner Research Services has found that the Indian government spent $1 billion on IT in 2002. An April 2003 report in the Economic Times states that 91% of government departments in New Delhi use Microsoft's Windows 98 software; nearly 67% use Windows XP; and 16% use GNU/Linux. Kalam's urging, then, is an exception to the trend.

One professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology worries that, for those who hold the dominant positions in society, "'localization' to vernacular languages and local cultures may be unnecessary and/or even undesirable, since English (or French, or Spanish, or another European language) may provide the best possible access to the rest of the world." For these and other reasons, Sunil Abraham, whose Bangalore-based firm Mahiti customises open-source products for NGOs, believes there must be greater transparency and civil society participation on IT issues in India.

There have been some movements toward open-source software elsewhere. Countries in which legislation has been passed urging open-source use include Brazil, France, Italy, and Spain. Countries in which non-legislative actions have been taken include China, Germany, and South Korea. Open source solutions are being proposed in Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, and Venezuela.

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