Reply to a Request from the IT Nation Business Review

The popularity of Linux in India

What are the different Linux flavors available in India?

Well, I have seen RedHat Linux installed on nearly all Linux PC s that I’ve seen. Mandrake Linux seems to be the only other distribution that has any sizable user base. There is a disturbing perception here that “RedHat” means “Linux” and “Linux” means “RedHat” . Whenever users refer to the version of Linux they’re using, it’s always something like “He’s using 7.3 still, even though 8.0 is out”, referring to RedHat Linux 7.3 and 8.0 . I even saw a poster of a training institute that said that they offered courses on “…..Windows 2000, Linux 7.2, Solaris……”. What Linux 7.2?!

How will the different companies in Linux stand to benefit with the recent initiatives taken by the Government of India?

The government, tragically, seems to be taking a very narrow view of Linux and free software in general. It considers only the “free as in cost” aspect of free software, saying that India is a poor country and thus Linux has a very strong case in India….

But free software is much more than that. Indeed, the “free as in freedom from licencing issues”, and access to source code, is a much more important aspect of free software. The Government needs to understand that by adopting free software, it is achieving control over its software and data, that its software systems are owned by itself and not by some third company.

The Government still needs to do a LOT more as regards its “new initiatives” with Linux and free software. To cite a crucial example, in our school computer syllabus, students are taught that “A computer consists of 2 parts, hardware and software. Hardware means either a Intel 486, or the newer Intel Pentium processors, and software means MS-DOS or Windows.” Further, the syllabus goes on to teach them MS-Word. Thus we have a generation of students, who have been insightful enough to opt for computer subjects in their schools, but who end up learning just about Microsoft products. These students wrongly believe that Windows is the only OS that a computer can have installed, and that only Intel makes processors. They do not teach word processing, but rather MS-Word. This is a shocking scenario and needs to be rectified very soon. Imagine the chaos when the industry moves to Linux and Linux-based products, and our students are still learning this stuff!

Further, the Government has to stop falling at Bill Gates’ feet every time he visits India, and not treat him like a head of state. For more of my views on this please refer to an article I wrote to the Linux India Mailing List, which can be found on my website at http://www.geocities.com/tuxonline/writings/ossingovt.txt .

Still, these initiatives taken are a positive step, better than none at all. Let us hope that Linux companies can take advantage of these initiatives, particularly in Government computerisation.

With an increasing number of low cost PCs in the market, what will the future of Linux in India be?

In India, as well as worldwide, prices of computer hardware are falling rapidly and regularly. In contrast prices of Microsoft products are rising, examples being MS-Office and Windows XP. Thus, the price of software is increasing in terms of percentage of total computer costs. There will come a time when this percentage will just be too high to be acceptable to users.

We are also seeing OEMs in India offering PC s preinstalled with Linux. For instance, LG is offering its MyPC with RedHat Linux 7.3 preinstalled, Compaq is also introducing a similar package. However, these same vendors, in their advertisements regarding their other models, they put up a sign that says “Compaq/IBM/LG recommends Microsoft Windows XP” . This confuses prospective buyers (one of them was my aunt, so I know!), who are attracted by the costs of this Linux PC (almost Rs. 7000 less), and on the other hand they see this sign about XP. These vendors should define very clearly the intended audience for the Linux PC s and the XP ones.

Further, what about the after-sales services? Are there technicians who have enough knowledge about Linux that they can tackle most problems? There still exists this huge fear complex in the minds of most small-time computer vendors about Linux. About a year ago, my speakers developed some problems. When I contacted my vendor about it (he’s a medium-sized assembler) he promtly sent over a technician to investigate. The moment he found that I run Linux, he not only refused to help me, he even terminated my warranty, saying that I had violated his terms, that they did not support Linux, and, to top it all, that Linux had caused the problems with my PC!

The version of Red Hat Linux that LG is supplying with the MyPC is pretty old now, and can hardly be considered for desktop use as a replacement for even Windows 98. So it is hard to imagine any organisation that would switch to the MyPC. Software also needs to be provided along with these machines. For instance, Linux does not have the number of games available for Windows, but one can run most Windows games on Linux using special software. This software needs to be bundled with the PC.

What are the robust desktop versions of Linux in the market today? Which is a strong contender to Microsoft Windows?

There are excellent desktop Linux versions available today. The first one that comes to mind is Xandros 1.0 (http://www.xandros.com) . This version of Linux, which unfortunately sells for as much as $99, is a very very advanced Linux distribution which can safely be declared a competitor to Microsoft Windows XP.

Another distribution is Lindows (http://www.lindows.com), which a lot of OEMs in America (Walmart, for one) are already offering as preinstalled. Among the traditional ones are Mandrake 9.0 (http://www.linux-mandrake.com) which has for long been consistently providing high quality desktop software. Sun Microsystems and RedHat are working separately on a distribution of Linux specifically aimed for the corporate workspace. These distributions are being watched closely, as both Sun and RedHat are touting it as the “next-generation” Linux.

Finally, India has its very own desktop Linux distribution, ELX Linux (http://www.elxlinux.com)! This distro has received favourable reviews from various sections of the computing industry, and is on par with Xandros and Lindows.

How do you plan to promote Linux awareness on the desktop?

There are some very obvious steps that all of us Linux advocates should take. The first one is to maintain relationships with various OEMs and resellers, to encourage them to start providing good desktop versions of Linux preinstalled on their PC s. This will immediately cause mass awareness about Linux. Next is to work collectively to remove all the FUD (Fear, uncertainty, doubt) that ordinary users still have as regards Linux. I was invited in October to deliver a seminar on this very topic : Linux on the desktop. Right after this, I was flooded with calls on how to obtain Linux, how to install it, and so on. So, given enough correct information , people are certainly willing to switch to Linux.

We also need to drop the mindset of “Linux is cheaper than Windows”, because as more and more is expected from Linux and free software, developers and software vendors will have to put in more resources. This will cause the price of most free software products to rise. So we must be prepared to pay.

The biggest advantage that Linux and free software enjoys over commercial software, is the control that it grants to the end user over the software. Issues such as access to the source code, freedom to modify and redistribute it, and other such principles are crucial in the long run. No software vendor will be allowed to dictate terms to the user. These freedoms also encourage multiple software developers for the same product, leading to the proliferation of choice for the end user. These are the issues we need to be talking about to people. This is the argument that’s going to make them shift to Linux.

Evolution of Linux

Licensing and cost issues

Free software is released under a number of icences, chief among them being the GPL, the BSD Licence, and the Netscape/Mozilla Public Licence (MPL). The Linux kernel itself is under the GPL. The major features of each licence are :

  • GPL: the GPL does not allow you to make your modifications private. If you
    modify a GPL-ed product and redistribute it, you must do so only under the GPL.
  • BSD: the BSD licence allows you to make your modifications private.
  • MPL: This licence has special provisions for the developer. It allows
    Netscape, for example, to re-licence the modifications the you’ve made to its software.

The tricky nature of most of these licences is meant to preserve the free nature of the software. However, traditional software companies who are used to working with commercial software, find these impossible to work with. The solution to this is to rethink your entire software philosophy. Refer to Eric S. Raymond’s seminal work on this subject, The Magic Cauldron.

Is there support coming in from major IT companies supporting Linux (Hardware/ software)?

Most of the “major IT companies” in India are solutions providers, and are willing to use Linux only if the client requests it. I spoke to a marketing executive from Wipro in July last year, and asked him this very question. He replied that Linux is gaining acceptance as an alternative to traditional UNIX servers, but clients still find it too risky to try Linux on their workstations. When asked why, he said that they thought Linux was still not ready for desktop use, and that there were’nt enough applications to run on that platform. He did, however, concede that their own developers found Linux an excellent development platform.

As far as support from hardware companies is concerned, yes, there are a few hardware vendors who have Linux drivers for their products ready for download on their web sites. But these are few and far between. Another area of concern in the free software community, is that these drivers themselves are closed-source, and proprietary. The community complains that this is against the spirit of free software, and I would tend to agree with them.

Current acceptance in India

How would Linux companies plan to tackle the following current Issues?

* The shadow of Windows (Microsoft muscle power, users opting for pirated copies of Windows)

Microsoft muscle power is certainly a big obstacle in the adoption of Linux in the Indian industry, and so is the high piracy levels in India. That is why I said earlier that it is not the “free as in cost” aspect of Linux and free software that we should be harping upon; rather, it is the “free as in speech” part. Do users want control over their systems or are they willing to give these freedoms to some company? As Benjamin Franklin put it so beautifully, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Microsoft’s chief income comes from large organisations who deploy Windows-based systems. These are the entities that Microsoft is targeting in its anti-piracy drive. It knows that individual home users in India cannot afford to buy genuine copies of Microsoft products, and on top of that, upgrade them whenever it comes out with newer versions. It is probably in Microsoft’s interests, to not target the individual market, to let them continue to use pirated copies. Why? To achieve what is called product “lock-in”. If, right from the onset, if the only thing that users use are Microsoft products, naturally, they will be most comfortable with these poducts in their workplace, leading to adoption of Microsoft products in the workplace too. They probably realise that this rampant use of pirated software is actually creating a “Microsoft Generation”.

Linux companies will probably target the menace of Windows in a very simple manner : to produce software that it technically superior to Microsoft’s products. But what they really need is a fantastic marketing organisation, to convince users, both individual and corporate, that their products are indeed better. Microsoft’s forte has never been developing the best products, but to make users think that these are the best.

*Hardware / software support

I don’t think that this is an individual issue to be addressed. Once the user base for Linux achieves a certain critical mass, hardware vendors will be under tremendous pressure to make sure that their products are Linux comaptible : take the recent announcement from chip-maker AMD that it will make sure that its chips are well-supported by Linux. Software support for Linux will drive the hardware support. This is already happening. To give you a really significant example, two years ago, a number of groups, including the NSA (National Security Administration), HP, Immunix, approached Linux Torvalds, now the lead maintainer of the Linux kernel development team. Each wanted its solution to be the approved security mechanism for Linux.

* Reseller’s complaint of lack of training.

I feel that once resellers are convinced about the advantages of Linux, lack of training will be no problem, as they will start spending as much on gaining Linux expertise as they do today on gaining Windows expertise. More and more training institutes are offering courses based o Linux, primarily system administration and network adminsitration courses. This is a good think, bacause sysadmins and n/wadmins get to know a lot about the inner working of the OS. Once enough people get trained at theese institutes, such complaints will disappear.

Basically it is important to remember that the world has been using Microsoft technologies for the last 20 years at least. It will obviously take time for a new technology , however good, to gain general market acceptance. It is compounded by the fact that computers today play a critical role in all walks of life. For many people, moving to a new technology presents a certain risk which they may not wish to take suddenly. For Linux, it is sure to be an evolution rather than a revolution.

* The current state of confidence in the market in not high (Not many end users willing to try out Linux on the desktop. The channel does not seem to be confident of selling Linux OS)

But that’s where you’re wrong! There are more people willing to try out Linux as an alternative to Windows than ever before! You see, Linux has been garnering a lot more press attention than at any given time in the past, and nearly all of it has been positive. So when the average user reads about so many companies adopting Linux, and reads about the CEO/CTO of that company extolling the benefits that his company has gained from Linux, he thinks, “If these guys find Linux so cool, why not get it on my computer?” Because users are fed up with the unreliability of Windows (especially Windows 98, which most use), but they continue to use it because of lack of any other alternative. It’s like “passive acceptance” of whatever faults Windows has. Now they have an alternative.

* What will the Pros of Linux on desktop be

Most free software products tend to be very flexible, and that’s true in the Linux world too. The desktop environments for Linux are much much more customisable than Windows. An average desktop user used to the Windows GUI will be absolutely delighted at the amount of customisation that is possible. Then there is the advantage of choice. For every software that Windows can offer, Linux has 3 or more high-quality alternatives. More of my views on this at http://www.geocities.com/tuxonline/writings/whylinux.txt

For developers, Linux is a programmer’s paradise. Most programming language compilers and interpreters are installed along with a typical Linux installation. The GCC (GNU Compiler Collection) is one of the most sophisticated compiler suites in the world. There are fantastic text editors such as Vi and Emacs that make code writing easier. IDEs such as Kdevelop, Kylix, Anjuta are also available.

* What are the disadvantages of Linux as compared to Microsoft?

The one disadvantage that I can think of is the lack of games for Linux. It’s like major games developers are just ignoring Linux while developing games. The market for games is enormous, and whichever platform runs the most games, will have a great advantage in the individual desktop home user segment.

Areas which used to be major problems, but are now as good as gone, are difficult installation procedure, poor hardware support, lack of applications, lack of finish in the graphical desktop environments available, etc. These are no longer practical issues.

* How will the after-service issues taken care of?

These questions ought to be answered by the commercial vendors themselves. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question. After sales services will improve only when there is a large enough user base, but such a user base will develop only when assured of good after-sales services.

* What margins does the channel stand to gain?

Channels will find their margins reduced substantially. (as if they weren’t low enough already!). But they’ll have to adapt or die. As more and more people start to move to free software, control will pass from vendor to consumer.

Consumers will dictate terms in the new market. Channels will make profits, no doubt, but they’ll be razor-thin, as they adjust to the new market.

* The reasons for Linux companies undergoing cash crunch?

Linux has had to battle the huge market share of Microsoft in the Operating Systems and platforms space, so Linux companies are starting out with huge odds against them. Then, just as corporate interest in Linux was beginning to grow, the dot-com bubble hit, and so did the global recession. So it hasn’t been the best of times for the market in general, and certainly not for any industry that’s just finding its feet in the market. So take it as a positive sign that in the face of such huge disadvantages, Linux has taken such giant strides.

* Why is there a delay in standardized/ uniform Linux platform?

I don’t think it’s advisable for Linux to become standardised in the first place. The beauty of Linux is that there is so much choice, so much variety available. Current users of Linux would hate to see that choice disappear. It’s enough if all vendors of Linux agreed upon common minimum guidelines to follow, so that Linux doesn’t end up going the UNIX way, i.e, into fragmented, incompatible versions. I don’t think that this will ever happen, largely because of the free nature of software. And such standards are coming up : we’ve had the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard for years now. SuSE, SCO, Connectiva and TurboLinux have formed between them a consortium called United Linux, for cooperation in development, and to ensure that packages made for one distribution are guaranteed to work on the others.

I’d say that Linux development needs to follow a middle path – not become too standardised like Microsoft Windows, and on the other hand, not fragment like UNIX.

* Will Linux take off in a big way in India?

Oh, Yes!