Open Sources 2.0/Open Source: Competition and Evolution/OSS in India

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Open Sources 2.0

Alolita Sharma and Robert Adkins

In modern times, India has accomplished miracles through the power of collaboration. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) has the potential to accomplish yet another set of miracles in automating government and industry, and producing affordable education for all.

Three earlier revolutions using collaboration have dramatically improved the basic infrastructure within the country. The first revolution was called the Green Revolution, which started in the 1970s and took India from being a grain deficit to a grain surplus country. The second revolution, in the 1980s, was the White Revolution, which used the power of dairy cooperatives to enable large-scale milk production. Not only could India's own population be satisfied, India also became an exporter of dairy products. The third revolution, in the 1990s, was the Gray Revolution, which used India's plethora of English-speaking engineers and scientists to capture a significant share of the world's outsourcing business in software and pharmaceuticals.

Open Source Software (OSS) is poised to become the next revolution—perhaps named the Gold Revolution. OSS promises to build India's local infrastructure and create new wealth based on information services.



OSS is a boon for the Indian export market. However, automation of any sort is only beginning in the domestic market. Hence the local market languishes in the adoption of all automation tools, whether proprietary or open.

Domestic Market

The localization and adaptation of computer-based solutions to move the local economy in India from pre-automation to automation continues to be a very slow march. Business processes remain predominantly manual. For example, it is reported that most doctors in India are practicing the same way they did 75 years ago—with pencils and pieces of paper. Ideally, OSS can promote the cost-effective adoption of automation, especially when legacy constraints are minimal. However, ground realities often discourage adoption of OSS.

Developing economies such as India's tend to foster low wages for services and support while permitting low prices for proprietary products because of piracy. This has led to a proliferation of proprietary technologies with affordable support structures and, at the same time, a resistance to OSS.

The resistance to OSS is driven by three main factors:

  • The parity of "purchase price" when equalized by piracy
  • The perception of a lack of maturity of OSS solutions
  • A higher cost of support due to relative scarcity of Linux-trained labor

However, a recent trend is the emergence of local businesses that provide support for point solutions important to small to medium-size enterprises (SMEs) in India. For example, companies have sprouted up in metropolitan areas to support the migration of email from large-scale proprietary server environments to the equivalent OSS solutions. This is partly because companies which have significant server-based infrastructure have been recent targets of licensing enforcement campaigns by proprietary vendors and government enforcement agencies. The perception of increased risk in using unlicensed software has provided the impetus for OSS adoption.

In contrast, automation for the export economy in India, with its highly skilled, English-speaking workforce, is beginning to exploit some of the new business opportunities offered by open source, especially in providing services for migrations from Unix to Linux and from Microsoft platforms to Linux.

Outsourcing and OSS

Meeting the needs of the outsourcing market, low wages in India have fueled a substantial generic services economy with a global reach. Now, the outsourcing industry is beginning to take a serious look at using OSS for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) solution development and implementation, for migration services, and for complex systems integration. As early as 1998, Dr. Ajay Shah, a consultant to the Indian Ministry of Finance, realized the importance of exploiting the inherent characteristics of OSS to build a services industry which could amplify the traditional Indian outsourcing services business. Today Indian companies like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) have translated Dr. Shah's realization into sophisticated methods of services provision—for example, employing the state-of-the-art "ongoing cost reduction formulas" for client companies using the year-over-year economic advantages of OSS. The emerging market for OSS-based development and services has created high-value jobs in India for developers and, in addition, for business process analysts and service providers.

A principal portion of OSS outsourcing requirements centers around migration from older software platforms to Linux. For example, interest is rapidly increasing in retooling software from earlier, proprietary Unix platforms to Linux. Much of the conversion of traditional Unix applications and tools, like the earlier bonanza of Y2K work, is being done in India.

A second set of OSS outsourcing requirements involves building custom business applications using the new open source environments.

Companies taking advantage of these new outsourcing opportunities include HP India, Cognizant, Infosys, Wipro, Mindtree, IBM India, and many others.

Infosys, a top Indian IT company, is building a Linux migration practice as part of its multidimensional systems services and integration business strategy. Recent projects at Infosys illustrate both migration services and custom application development. For example, to meet the needs of a large petroleum industry client, Infosys ported applications for visualizing oil exploration data to Red Hat Linux from Solaris and IRIX. For another client, Infosys migrated a multinode high-availability application cluster from Solaris to Linux. In a project to help a leading peripheral manufacturer in Japan develop a new cost-effective product line, Infosys built Linux-based POS terminals using Java POS international standards.

Well-publicized projects at Wipro in the financial services and messaging services markets also illustrate the harnessing of OSS to drive cost-effective outsourcing services.


OSS is providing the first steps toward an information society in India and thereby helping to close the digital divide. Examples include the Open Source Simputer project, CoIL-NET & TDIL localization projects, e-governance projects, and others.

Maharashtra and Kerala state land record systems have separately demonstrated the cost effectiveness of applying OSS, including database technologies, to what traditionally has been a slow and manual process.

Government-sponsored software technology parks of India (STPIs) are often used by companies to demonstrate their solutions to large government customers. One example is a 2003 MoU between IBM and the state of Karnataka to build an OSS center of excellence in the government-built Hubli software technology park. IBM has also set up a similar Linux Center of Competency in Bangalore, which provides development and testing services for Linux applications. Other OSS resource centers have been built or are being planned.

Two 2004 MoUs between IBM and the state of Uttaranchal have initiated a statewide university education program and an eGovernance program for an OSS-based framework addressing both legacy and new applications. These applications cover municipal services for record keeping, taxation, and social and health programs.

Also, IBM signed an MoU with the union territory of Chandigarh to set up an eGovernance Solutions Center for Linux for the local government. The center will help Chandigarh develop eGovernment applications using open standards and IBM's open source-based development framework.

Oracle's eGovernance Center of Excellence, set up in partnership with HP in the state of Haryana, helps government agencies develop better ICT policies and deploy improved ICT systems using OSS and Linux.

Challenges in Local Adoption of OSS

The trend toward OSS adoption faces a number of significant challenges.


The perceived lack of support available for OSS in India is largely due to support services being readily available for legacy platforms. The legacy support industry has been built over many years. However, today there are a growing number of channels of support for OSS. Because of its collaborative nature, a great deal of high-quality yet inexpensive or free help for OSS is provided online. Furthermore, if a user has money, the same level of support is available for OSS as for proprietary solutions, and at the same prices. It should be noted that, while readily available, legacy support is often of poor quality. Furthermore, users or organizations that already have Unix skills find few difficulties in supporting OSS applications or systems. As more students trained in OSS enter the workforce, increasing support services options will emerge. In addition, as more OSS services revenues are derived by the software industry, the OSS services infrastructure will mature, and greater fulfillment of support requirements will be possible.


The high seas are unfriendly to both OSS and proprietary products.

According to industry sources, more than 70% of proprietary software is pirated in India. Rampant piracy equalizes the price between "free" software and proprietary software. Since there is little legitimate market value for proprietary desktop packages, there is little financial incentive to develop a local software product market. IT growth is consequently stunted. OSS is seen, by some, as an antidote to these effects because it has the potential to transform the technology consumer of proprietary products into a technology collaborator of open solutions.

India's commitment to maintain compliance with World Trade Organization (WTO) and WIPO standards in the protection of intellectual property will encourage the proliferation of OSS packages. In particular, antipiracy drives and subscription licensing models are already improving the attractiveness of functionally equivalent OSS packages in India.


Proprietary as well as OSS vendors have committed considerable resources to localizing software in India. Microsoft has pledged millions of dollars to the localization of its proprietary software in Hindi, Marathi, and other major Indian languages. Red Hat has announced a plan to build a U.S.$250 million center to support localization and other software development. IBM has initiated various multimillion-dollar localization projects. Government agencies such as the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and the Department of Information Technology (D-IT) also have active programs to develop localization solutions. And OSS community resources have initiated projects to localize various components of the OSS suite. Examples include the Indic-Computing Project, and IndLinux.

Localizing the killer applications of open source, such as, the KDE and GNOME suites, and the Mozilla browser and email applications, has increased adoption and usage by the non-English-speaking majority of Indians.

In fact, localization efforts are the main channel by which Indian contributions are being made to OSS projects. Desktop localization projects are the most active collaborative efforts in India. Projects include BharateeyaOO, IndLinux, JanaBhaaratii, and AnkurBangla.

The BharateeyaOO project represents the "Indianization" of It is a cross-platform project for translating a rich office productivity suite into languages appropriate for non-English-speaking Indians. Availability of major computational tools in local languages is already helping to bridge the digital divide and spread computer usage and learning in the rural areas of India.

The IndLinux project has created a Linux distribution that supports major Indian languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, Oriya, Telegu, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil. Like BharateeyaOO, this project tries to bridge the digital divide by bringing the benefits of computer and information technology to non-English-speaking Indians.

The AnkurBangla project has created a Bangla-language Linux distribution as well as Bangla support for some major applications such as office suites, databases, development tools, and desktop environments like GNOME and KDE. The project's objectives include developing and maintaining open source software targeted toward Bangla-speaking users.

JanaBhaaratii is an Indian government project run by the C-DAC and is funded by the D-IT. This project uses OSS to promote localized computing applications. The project will develop and deploy technology in Indian languages for a broad range of areas such as home use, mass applications, education, rural areas, info-kiosks, cybercafes, and e-governance.

Other projects include localized regional voter registration applications, such as the Voter List project, which uses a bootable CD distribution called GNUBhaaratii that is based on Morphix.


India's work culture embodies a complex mix of both rigid hierarchy and elastic opportunism.

Opportunism drives the consideration of special favors at all levels of economic activity in India. It is common to hear senior Indian administrators say that there is "no money" to be made in procuring OSS. Today, the Indian form of guanxi in the OSS world is a trickle at best. But some form of guanxi may always be needed to successfully conduct business in India. Guanxi "reciprocity" may ultimately be based on the growing wealth from the IT services economy. However, if some measure of transparency and containment of corruption is to be achieved, cost-effective and pervasive automation is key to reducing discretion in the conduct of government and in the application of governance. It's icing on the cake that automation can be achieved using legitimate, nonpirated OSS tools.

Organizational rigidity is the other face of India's work culture. India's tradition of social hierarchy in the workplace tends to reduce the value of collaboration. While innovation is a strong Indian value, collaboration is not. Traditional Indian business culture is strictly hierarchical. Collaboration with peers is less valued than performing a prescribed duty according to one's place in the organizational structure. This is slowly changing, as more relaxed and flexible Western business practices are adopted. Collaboration inhibitions are reflected in the lack of contributions to collaborative OSS projects.

Software Patents

Intellectual property concerns affect all software, whether proprietary or open source. Globally, the status of software patents is unclear, with a number of initiatives in various stages of contest. Software patents are allowed in both the U.S. and Japan. The European Union is examining its options. In India, unconstrained software patents are not yet allowed. However, recently, the government of India amended the Indian Patents Act to support patenting of embedded software to conform to WTO/WIPO agreements. There is strong pressure from industry bodies such as NASSCOM to extend IPR protection to all forms of software as a way of strengthening the Indian software industry. The counterview—that patents serve to inhibit innovation in software—is not widely recognized and, unfortunately, the FOSS community appears to be having minimal influence on keeping software free from patents. The new patent protections for embedded software came into effect January 1, 2005.

OSS in Education

Despite its IT prowess, India lags behind in contributing to large-scale OSS projects. It also lags behind in the use of OSS in the educational curriculum at all levels. Nonetheless, OSS is viewed by many in Indian industry and government as a key for improving the quality of education.

The enthusiasm for OSS in education is still in its infancy, since India's secondary school curriculum is today oriented toward proprietary products such as Microsoft Office, Windows applications, and development environments like Visual Basic and database applications like SQL Server and Oracle. In the curriculum, there is little support for generic computing concepts or platform-neutral software applications.

But there are exceptions, where FOSS advocates have worked with local school administrations to teach computing concepts using open tools and development environments.

More significantly, industry players such as Red Hat, Novell, IBM, and Intel have initiated open source resource centers and internship programs to grow the talent pool of open source engineering in India. Intel, in conjunction with the Department of Information Technology, has established an Open Source Resource Center to promote ICT education and curriculum development. IBM and the C-DAC have created an Open Source Software Resource Center (OSSRC) in Mumbai to foster OSS development, to increase understanding of OSS models, and to develop courseware which promotes OSS skills and builds a national OSS talent pool. Red Hat has launched a scholarship program with IIT Bombay to encourage OSS development skills. Novell has started an OSS internship program to boost student participation and contributions from India in OSS projects such as Mozilla, GNOME, and OpenOffice.


OSS is still early in its influence in India. While the outsourcing business of Indian IT industry is profiting from the new services and integration market provided by OSS, the domestic market is still immature. The domestic adoption of OSS is also handicapped by the ready availability of inexpensive, pirated, proprietary software products. However, there are signs of increasing use of OSS in government information processing and provision of services, as well as in educational curricula and in tools used to create educational content within many knowledge areas.

However, the long-term potential of OSS is recognized by some of the leadership of India—for example, by the current president of India, Dr. APJ Kalam. With continued advocacy, OSS can become a Gold Revolution that powers export as well as domestic industries across all economic segments and realizes the promise of a shared knowledge and collaboration-based information society.

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