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5.1.2007 | Von:
Atul Chitnis

The Fox of Innovations

Open software "levels the playing field", says Atul Chitnis. Working on eyesight with peers around the world, programmers from developing countries gain the insight and confidence necessary to compete on a global scale.
Atul ChitnisAtul Chitnis (© Atul Chitnis)

The Indian government promotes open source software – why?

Most people think it's money, but it's not. I know this because I sit on several of the government committees. The rationale is that they are trying to make sure that people are actually exposed to real technology and understand the technology. What's happening with proprietary software is that you're so abstracted from the actual technology, you are only dealing with very high-level APIs and don't know what's happening at the lower level, so that your understanding of the technology with which you're working is pretty low.

The government finds that people who work with proprietary software tend to know a little less about the software than people who work with free and open source software and are exposed to everything from ground-level upwards. If someone is really interested in knowing how something works, he has every option to find out how it works.

  • Interview in German

  • So one could call it an educational programme?

    In a manner of speaking. I would call it a survival system [laughs], but opinions differ.

    Can you name particular initiatives?

    At the central government, we have several committees which are pushing free and open source software in various levels within the government and within the country. The government itself is pretty predisposed towards open source software. But by the request of the community, we have asked them not to favour the open source community, just to provide a levelled playing field, and this they have been doing very heavily.

    Then there are educational efforts, again from the central government, where they aid and setup projects which help develop free and open source software in India.

    Finally, there are state level initiatives. For example, the state of Kerala has announced recently that it has removed all proprietary software from the educational system, and they will be using only free and open source software. There are several initiatives of this sort.

    What open source software products are right now being developed in India?

    One of the best known products is the development idea called "Anjuta", which is used worldwide. It's headed by someone in India, by the name of Naba Kumar, and is heavily in use even on industry level. Even on a commercial level, you find people that prefer Anjuta over everything else.

    There are – obviously – a lot of localization projects that come out of India. Any country that has a non-English user community is likely to need that, so given the number of languages that we have in India, there are a huge number of people who are doing localization of software. They work under the aegis of the Indlinux project. And because they are really good at what they do, they started developing technology which other countries are now using in their localization efforts as well because all the tools, all the schemata, all the templates have been created, the instructions – everything that's required is already there, premade, for them.

    To move from India to the larger scale: What are the possibilities of open source models for developing countries in general?

    Most importantly, people have to understand that free and open source software is not necessarily an end in itself. It's what it achieves in sometimes very abstract ways that counts. For example, it influences the change of technology. It influences people into looking into technologies they would otherwise not have considered, simply because the free and open source world is able to deliver those technologies and they actually work. It is able to influence the way in which software is being developed. All these are rather abstract things.

    Then there are concrete products. Take the classic example of Firefox. Firefox is an excellent example of a product challenging an existing player which had actually shot the mothership – Netscape – out of the sky many years earlier. And Firefox comes back to rechallenge that superior, making heavy inroutes within months.

    Now it's not the 11,5 per cent share that Firefox has in the international market, which is important. What's really important is that if you look at the Internet Explorer from version 2.0 through 6.0, you find virtually no change whatsoever: the same security issues, the same feature set. Then out comes Firefox, and all of a sudden we have got Internet Explorer 7 coming out, which addresses a whole lot of security issues, with a whole lot of new features which they were forced to put out for the simple reason that there was a competitor out there that everyone preferred.

    One of the things that developing countries tend to lag behind is actual technical information. The technical information is there, but it's not something that you can easily get at. If you are in a U.S. university, for example, you are in an environment that feeds you that kind of information, rams it in your throat. But if you are in a developing country, despite the internet connectivity and all that's available, you'll find yourself in an environment where you cannot get a lot of information about something. Not having that information limits what you can do. And obviously, innovation is the first thing which takes a beating.

    Take a country like India, for example. India is known as a country that provides a lot of services to other countries, but on its own doesn't really produce any products. There's no great innovation coming out of there. That has been largely because India went through this detour of doing mostly commercial, proprietary software. It is over the past five, six years that India has really gotten heavily involved with free and open source software.

    And the benefit of this is: The people who went to college and got exposed to free and open source software there – for a variety of reasons: ideological, technical – are now sitting in decision-making positions within larger companies. And they're beginning to influence what these companies are doing. So all of a sudden you see a number of Indian companies doing really innovative stuff. It may even be closed source. The fact is that a country that was only seen as a second-level service providing country is all of a sudden seen as a country that develops products. And that is a massive change at country level.

    And what are the limits?

    There are a lot of things where open source cannot help. One of them is culture. The entire culture of dealing with people tends to be very unique to a particular country. If you go to Japan, there's a particular way in which you give a business card. You do it the same way in another country, and it doesn't work. In India, it is not a given thing that you automatically give out your business card.

    These are things which are not going to change because they are largely influenced by the way the country itself functions. I wouldn't want to use an open source way of doing things to change that, because that's part of being unique as a country.

    Another thing: Open source is not going to do away with debt and taxes, in any country. But I'm sure people are going to try and promise that, and that's a bad thing. I think at some level, people are overcommitting on what open source can do for them.

    The thing I'm really worried about is the over-politicisation of open source. I run into people all over the world which are more interested in the political angle of it rather than the technical angle. Everything has its place, but I'm not so sure you should abandon the technical angle just for the ideological aspect.

    What are the prerequisites necessary to make open source software work for developing countries?

    I can only speak for India, which is the only developing country I deal with – unless you take Germany into account. Most people assume that India has a lack of resources. That's not really true. Computers are cheaper in India than in Germany. It's more a limitation of people not really thinking about having a computer at home. So not everybody has a computer at home. And that can be limiting.

    Somebody might work from nine to five at his office, but even though he is willing to get involved in free and open source software development, he may not have the required resources at home, which is basically an internet connection and a PC. It's not that he can't afford it, it's more that he looks at it as: "This is what I do from morning to evening. I don't want to do the same thing when I get home." Which I believe is not exactly unique to India, but it is fairly strong over there.

    In India, the software industry is largely seen as a high-gain thing. Being in that industry, you can earn ten times what your father used to earn. So people look at it from that perspective: It's a job. You run into people that literally say: "Well, that's my job, so I want to do something completely different when I come home." That's an issue we are fighting with. It's not that the resources aren't available. It's a mindset.

    What would be a solution to that?

    Well, the solution is to go and show them that getting involved in free and open source software is a lot of fun. And it's very productive in other ways as well. You get much better at your job, you learn aspects of team work that you wouldn't have heard of before; you're certainly not micromanaged, which is the way in any software firm these days. And you can actually learn to enjoy programming, developing, dealing with people, seeing people using your code.

    One of the biggest advantages is this: In India, many people seem to think that all the good stuff happens only in western countries – what I call the "God factor" –, and we are people who should only worship. There's a belief that it's some kind of genetic difference. But because people are now getting involved in free and open source software, they're beginning to see that it's not like that. They begin to function at a peer level. And that kind of experience – working at peer level with any kind of people all around the world – gives you a confidence that rubs off on your day-to-day work with other people. You become much more confident, you have a much bigger picture in front of you.

    Because in software companies as you would find them in India, you usually focus on very small things, immediate things, you don't look left, right, or at the big picture. You are only told, literally: "I want 600 lines of code by the evening." That kind of environment is not very productive, and people experience burnout with it.

    A lot of people that come into the free and open source world say that for the first time, they're beginning to enjoy their work. From my perspective, that's a big thing, because it works at a human level, and it has a really major impact on how things are going to be in the future.

    Open source software is often non-commercial. Is there a chance that it will actually raise the GDP, the economic welfare in a developing country?

    It's not going to be directly responsible for it, but it will certainly influence that happening. By empowering individuals, you are empowering a nation. A nation is its citizens. We cannot fix everyone: We cannot fix the tailors, we cannot fix the mechanics. But we can make things better for the software people. And by doing that – and India has a very large software sector – you would be influencing the way the economic outlook of a country is going to be, yes.

    Interview: Sebastian Deterding
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