Open Source Software in Government – Letter to the Linux Interest Group

On the LIG and other lists there have been discussions over the past few days, about the ramifications of Mr. Bill Gates’ visit to India and the donations that he made simultaneously to fight AIDS in India ( as Chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and to Microsoft India (as Chairman of Microsoft).

What I found particularly disturbing is the way that our chief ministers were falling over themselves in order to get further investment from Microsoft into their states. This is not because our CMs are tech-savvy (although this is what Vilasrao Deshmukh, S.M.Krishna and Chandrababu Naidu would like us to believe), it is solely because to them, Microsoft is

  • a cash cow, a source of huge funds, and
  • a high profile (U.S.) company, with whom, if associated, they would be able to enhance the image of their respective states.

These states are also beginning, or have begun in some small way, an e-governance drive. In this light, Mr. Gates, the businessman that he is, probably sees an opportunity to make further inroads into the Indian market.

The BusinessWorld cover story says,

"Now take another look at the Indian market. Two-thirds of the packaged software sold in the country is picked up by the government. The rest is largely accounted for by the private corporate sector."

If Microsoft can target the Government, it could make a lot more money, considering India is slated to be among the largest software markets within the next 5 years. It is already on its way to doing so. Mr. Gates always lends a sympathetic ear whenever any CM meets him. And then after his visit, Microsoft India is always quick to follow up on any new initiatives that he might have brought up. So our technologically advanced states already have a Microsoft bias, in both governance and education.

In this light, it’s very important that we have a credible and unified approach ready to convince our state governments that they ought to use Open Source/Free software in their e-governance drives. The benefits of doing so have been oft-repeated on this list, so i’d better not go thru them again. This needs to be done because for all the task forces that our government(s) might set up, and all the vocal support they may give to Open Source/Free software, this seems to vanish into thin air whenever someone like Bill Gates lands up here. Then all the begging-bowls come out again, mainly for the reasons mentioned above. (Yes, i am worried and insecure, NOT because of Microsoft, but because our Governments (at the centre and states, regardless of party) have a long history of making awful policy decisions, and letting the most stupid issues cloud their judgement).

I suppose the reluctance at the top to go ahead with adopting Open Source/Free software in governments is the same FUD that used to dominate the corporate world in the mid-to-late nineties – user-unfriendliness, lack of applications or support, and, (i think, most important) the fact that with Open Source/Free software, the Government doesn’t have one company of even a fraction of the stature of Microsoft while dealing. Given how conservative our government (and bureaucracy) is, this is the one factor that prevents it from having faith in Open Source/Free software, no matter how much its benefits are drilled into them. The government thinks it needs ONE company to deal with, not a community “out there”.

So either we need to find some way of making it believe that the community “out there” does provide better software, or find some Open Source/Free software company that acts as the facilitator (and hence the link bet. the community and the government). Maybe Linux distributors with an Indian prescence – Red Hat comes to mind first – could fit the bill.