Why the LG MyPC failed

Linux-Based Desktops Fail to Excite the Market

It isn’t very surprising that LG’s MyPC failed to make any significant inroads into the Indian market. It’s not just cost alone which is going to make users shift from Windows.

LG has been bundling Red Hat 7.3 along with it. A default install of RHL 7.3 would make any Linux newbie cringe. It isn’t even as good as Windows 98 as far as looks and ease of use is concerned. (Not that I’m blaming RH for the whole thing.) They ought to have tried Mandrake 9.0, ELX Linux, SuSE 8.whatever, Xandros, even RHL 8.0 (but Bluecurve’s got too corporate a look for the home desktop user). But RHL7.3?!

It just seems to me that this entire exercise of Linux-based PCs was a failure because of complete and total lack of planning. Short sighted opportunism on the part of LG and Champion Computers led them to introduce such PCs into the market. No one is going to shift to Linux just because it’s cheap – least of all the individual home desktop user. He’s got to have compelling reasons to do so.

More than anything else, I find the reactions of the managers of these firms particularly disgusting:

Manikandan, deputy general manager, LG Electronics India said, "We have not been getting very encouraging response for our Linux-based 'My PC' in the metros, whereas the response has been a little better in the upcountry market.

"One reason could be because the upcountry market is more open to new things," he explained. "The second reason is obviously, the low awareness of Linux, and users' comfort level with other operating systems".

According to Kapil wadhwa, who is the director of Champion Computers,

"We have been using Windows since the last 10-12 years. So how can you expect somebody to simply start using Linux overnight when it has no visibility at all?"

"In India, acceptability for Linux is still to come about and it will take some time before the end user is comfortable with it," he said.

True, but weren’t efforts lacking on your part? You need to bundle a better OS than RHL 7.3 (at least, a better-looking OS ) if you want to realistically compete with the pirated Win2K -WinXP market. 99% of your target market uses their machines essentially as a games and entertainment machine. Ever thought of the fact that users wouldn’t be able to run these games? Ever thought of bundling Transgaming or some other such software along with it and using this fact as a marketing ploy?

"Wadhwa said that it is only after educational institutes begin teaching Linux, that users will begin feeling comfortable with it."

To say that people will start using Linux only if educational institutes start teaching it is ludicrous! Surely people don’t use Windows just because it’s been taught in school?! Did people start to use Windows simply because institutes started teaching Windows, or was it the other way round? MS has spent billions of dollars into user-interface research just so that any ordinary person can use their systems. What about the 40yrs+ generation? They use computers at home and at work without them being taught any of this in school. Computers are easy enough to use without them being taught.Don’t blame the people for your faults. You will alienate your market faster than you can say “GNU!”.

What about the visibility factor? This is what Kapil Wadhwa of Champion had to say:

"However, our technical staff tries to handle basic Linux queries from customers. But more has to be done to create some kind of visibility," he said.

And who, dear sir, is going to create this visibility, if not you? If you want your PCs to sell, and if you know that Linux’s visibility is low, is it not up to you to create it? I would never have known about this LG MyPC thing if I had not been flipping through an obscure channel by the name of TMG Enter where this was a 1-minute report.

Basically, these comments sum it up for me:

"I believe some government sectors are beginning to train their employees in Linux. Also, a few educational institutions have begun to impart Linux knowledge. It will take some time before it gains some visibility and helps us push our Linux-based PCs in the market," said Manoj Kumar of Champion Computers.

These are people who care nothing at all about the real advantages of Linux. They neither know, nor do they care, about the GNU, Free Software and Open Source movements. For them, Linux is nothing other than a cash-saver. Free as in speech, control over software, means nothing to them. That is why they will eventually fail. If they use their marketing skills and money power to highlight the correct aspects of Linux, then they will be able to convert even those who have been using pirated Windows for years.

What about support? How about manuals, guides, included simplified documentation, always-available helplines? What about marketing? Linux-based PCs came and went, leaving quite a bitter taste in the mouth as regards India Inc., views on Linux’s advantages.

A short essay on education

The Book Is Not Enough

“Never let school interfere with your education”, quoted Mark Twain once. His words ring true even today, even perhaps more so now than then. There is no doubting the fact that the quality of education being dished out in today’s schools, even colleges and professional courses, leaves much to be desired. For far too long now, we have focussed on the theoretical aspect of education, ignoring its practical face.

Education is meant to prepare a child to live in the world around him. How much of theory can help him to do that? Sadly, very little. We all must work towards reviving that forgotten art of practical training. Rather than trying to drill textbook content into a student, let us expose him to the world around, so that he himself seeks textbooks in order to glean more knowledge about what he’s just seen.

This shift in teaching philosophy is especially crucial among the younger students. For Science, do away with classroom teaching altogether. More can be learnt about the atmosphere, and air and wind (things that we were taught in the 1st and 2nd standards), by spending a day on the field, than a week indoors. For Mathematics, forget the practice of ‘formulae’ and ‘rules’ and move to examples from daily life. A book from the Childcraft series contains this stunningly insightful example to demonstrate the concept to Units, Tens, Hundreds…

“Once upon a time, before man knew of numbers, a shepherd used to take his large herd out to graze everyday, and return at sunset. To make sure none of them went missing in the meadow, he let them in through a gate that allowed only one sheep to pass at a time. Every time a sheep passed, he would lay a pebble on the ground, in a line. Whenever there were ten pebbles in the line, he would lay one pebble in another line, and start the first line once again. The shepherd knew that he had enough sheep to fill three pebbles in the first line, and two in the second.” (Meaning that he had twenty-three sheep). Wasn’t this an ingenious idea, and what better way to explain to a child this concept?

As a child moves into higher standards, his subjects change, but the modus operandi of teaching remains the same. He learns about the solar system. Does he look at the diagrams in his textbook? No. His class is taken to a planetarium where he looks at 3-dimensional, moving model, and grasps the concept. For learning about the earth, they are taken on field trips.

Robert Kiyosaki, business owner and teacher, lamented the fact that “… we do not learn from history. We only memorise historical dates and names, but not the lessons.” We need to rectify that immediately. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. If indeed they do not learn from history, it will be a tragedy.

Along with this practical shift, we have to prune useless theory too. In the tenth standard, we had to memorise most of India’s railway network, along with every single place in this vast country where mica, bauxite, copper, and a few minerals I haven’t heard of since, were mined. We forgot all of that right the day after the exam. What the purpose was of teaching us all that, is still a mystery to me.

Hope springs eternal, though. The world acknowledges that India has some of the world’s finest teachers. There is no doubt that, sooner or later, the next generation will be learning by experiencing the world, not by reading about it. Clearly, the book is not enough!

Letter to the Editor of the Indian Express about the SQL Slammer worm

Your editorial “When the worm turns”, on 28th January, brings to the fore a worrying aspect of computing that seems to have escaped the notice of most of us.

The SQL slammer worm, as you mentioned, exploited a gaping vulnerability in the Microsoft database program SQL Server, used by many many businesses around the world on their mission-critical systems. You have described the enormous damage it caused around the world, particularly in “wired” countries.

Now, at the end of your editorial you have written “Now, if only Microsoft would hurry up and plug that glitch in their software.” This is a crucial point to make and is the crux of my whole argument – should the world rely on just one company to keep its systems, worth billions and billions of dollars, up and running? By this I do not mean that Microsoft is to blame per se. It is perfectly natural on its part to provide software that businesses need. The fatal mistake that businesses are making is, going in for software that is closed source, like all of Microsoft’s.

Closed source software is the kind that does not allow the end user to see or modify the source code (the files written in various programming languages that make up the end product). This means that Microsoft and Microsoft only can control SQL Server (and indeed all its other products). Any vulnerability in the program can be fixed through patches issued only by Microsoft, which may choose when to do so and whom to distribute these patches to. True, major Anti-Virus companies have issued fixes to guard against this worm and others, but as usual this is a reaction, these are steps taken only after the damage has occurred. The question we need to ask ourselves is “Why should there have been such a vulnerability in the first place?” This vulnerability remained because no one was able to review SQL Server’s source code in order to notice the problem. If the source code had been released to the public along with the product (or even as the product was being developed), many of the known and (God forbid!) as yet unknown bugs might have been revealed long back.

There is a software movement called Open Source Software. This movement believes in free access to the source code of products, and cooperative development of software. Through this model of software development, excellent products have emerged, such as the Linux operating system, and the Apache Web Server (a web server is the software that drives a website). Open Source Software gives complete control of the software to the end user, with the freedom to use modify and redistribute the software as he wishes (with some restrictions to maintain the free nature of software). This software is the kind that we ought to be using, simply because of the control that it grants us. No longer does an organisation have to depend upon a handful of companies to maintain its software, and thus, its data.

This last point is important. Most commercial software, especially database products, store the customers’ data in its own format, which is readable only by that company’s software. The details of the format will never be made public. This renders the company totally dependent on the software vendor to guarantee access to the data. As we all know, data is the cornerstone of any organisation. Should businesses, whether small or collosal, leave control of their data in the hands of a single company?

As far as the question of security goes, Open Source Software undergoes intense testing and review by developers around the world. Most bugs in the software are reported immediately, and fixes are released in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks, as with commercial software.

Will the businesses which lost money due to this worm , or the countless users who were unable to access their email, hold Microsoft accountable for this devastation that this worm has caused? No. It will be the insurance companies who will have to dole out any compensation. Time and money lost is lost forever. And after all this, we have no guarantee (and it is unreasonable to expect one) from Microsoft that its products will no longer contain such vulnerabilities.

Microsoft will continue making buggy products, which will continue to be a bigger menace to the world business, as computing technology makes further inroads into our lives. It is up to us to decide whether to risk our fortunes upon a single, unamenable entity, or upon Open Source products, which are freely modifiable, and thus more secure.

Rebuttal to Mr. Sanjiv Mathur, Head of Marketing, Microsoft India

Mr. Sanjiv Mathur, Head of Marketing, Microsoft India, had his viewpoint on Open Source Software in Governments published in the November 27 issue of the Economic Times. Here is a point-by-point rebuttal of his claims made in the article.

To begin with let me first clarify the term ‘Free software.’ The word ‘free’ here specifically means what you can do with the software, not the price.

And you can do a lot more with free software than you can with commercial software.

While you can obtain the basic software free, it is distributed and sold for a charge by companies who develop applications on it.

Oh, really? Does the Samba team charge for the excellent software they provide that involves reverse-engineering Microsoft’s networking standards and providing interaction between UNIX and Microsoft-based products? Does the OpenOffice.org team charge for its revolutionary office suite, which according to a poll on linux.com satisfies the needs of nearly all MS-Office users? Do the KDE and GNOME teams charge for the superb desktop environments they’ve built? On a larger scale, in case he’s referring to distributors, does RedHat charge for the entire 3 CDs worth of RedHat 8.0 that they’ve put on their ftp site for download? Do any of the other distributors? Wrong, sir, wrong. Most companies that develop applications on Open Source platforms do NOT charge.

And by the way, where you draw the line between “basic software” and the “applications developed on it”? Because Linux is essentially a huge set of applications ranging right from the kernel to the desktop environments, working together to produce an OS. There is no “basic software” anywhere in the UNIX world. All are applications. Mr. Mathur is still stuck in the Windows world where you have a “basic” Windows product and then have to buy additional applications that run on it.

As a result, the pricing structure becomes very similar to commercial software as companies promoting free software charge for initial >installation, support, training, etc.

To suggest outright that the pricing structure of Open Source Software is similar to commercial software is flawed. Unless a company specifically approaches a Free/Open Source Software vendor for support as regards initial installation, further support and training, there is no obligation upon that company to pay the vendor. Such charges as mentioned by him are not mandatory, and indeed, several companies moving to Free/Open Source Software do not opt for support from the vendor.

Though the price debate is still under the microscope, the total cost of ownership underscores the fact that when you invest in software or hardware, there are a number of hidden costs that come into being. In the commercial and free software debate this element becomes of critical value as studies reveal that TCO of free software is quite high.

Prove it. This doesn’t make sense. As mentioned by R. Gopalakrishnan, secretary to the chief minister of MP, the TCO of Free/Open Source Software is anywhere between one-half to one-tenth of the equivalent commercial solution, even when accounting for your “hidden costs”.

Microsoft believes in the overall benefit of the software ecosystem — one that recognises the roles of government, education, private industry and end users to develop a healthy interaction that advances the public knowledge base, protects IP rights, furthers innovation and spurs further growth.

Our primary concern is not with open source as a whole, but with the GNU General Public License. Its role in discouraging the development of commercial software threatens to undermine intellectual property, stifle innovation, and limit entrepreneurism while reducing choice in the market.

Reducing choice?! The fact that the Open Source community has over 3 high -quality equivalents for every major commercial offering, speaks volumes for the proliferation of choice in the Open Source market. Instead the very nature of GPL is what encourages and fosters Open Source products of high quality – because everyone gets to make use of the best code contributed by the most talented developers.

The best catalyst for software innovation and industry growth is the market place, supported by a strong regime for intellectual property protection. If an organisation is looking at moving over to free software, it is attracted by the short term benefits where the initial investment may be less than what they would need to do for commercial software.

But price is what Microsoft is harping about; the Open Source community has always stressed upon the “free as in speech” advantage that Free/Open Source Software offers. And while Microsoft brands the Open source philosophy as “communist” and “anti-American”, listen to their Head of Marketing speak – “supported by a strong regime for intellectual property protection”. This kind of “regime” is exactly what fosters monopolies. If Microsoft is really interested in advancing technology, then the best way to do so is to make public your best technologies, so that others can extend them. The best implementation shall win. Those that don’t make the grade will lose due to lack of market acceptance.

However taking into account the longer term implications; they definitely need to think of the overall value proposition that a platform offers vis-a-vis the other.

Same flaw – Same argument. See above.

They need to evaluate the basic acquisitions costs of free software vis-a-vis the long term costs which include integration costs between various components, backwards compatibility costs, collaboration with the partner community, trained manpower.

He mentions integration costs between various components. The best part is that a lot of the integration is done by the distributors themselves. Then again, the integration part isn’t as hard as Microsoft makes it out to be – excellent sites like Linuxfromscratch.org describe how to get a complete Linux system, using nothing but the source codes of various software. Imagine doing that with Windows 2000 components!

From a larger perspective, the UNIX philosophy isn’t even about the kind of integration that Microsoft (and the Windows world) are used to. UNIX is all about tools, tools which each achieve one fixed function, and then to combine these tools in almost infinite ways in order to achieve your end. This is what gives UNIX its fabled flexibility and transparency.

As far as integration between components goes, if each one of those components follows clear, open, simple standards of communication (as opposed to cryptic, closed, binary-based standards) , there shouldn’t be any problem.

These costs are absorbed by the commercial software companies and the value is passed onto the customer. Moreover, once free software is installed, it also becomes a source of elevated security vulnerabilities for IT buyers, because the source code is freely available: no one person is responsible for it.

This argument is now beginning to bore me – Open Source software being more vulnerable to security just because its source code is available. How does Microsoft explain the fact that in spite Windows NT/IIS Web servers making up a small fraction of web servers on the Internet, as opposed to UNIX/Apache-based ones, the former are the ones which are most frequently hacked? Indeed, UNIX wouldn’t be such a hit on mission-critical servers (such as web servers) if it were so vulnerable just because its source was available. Go check out NetCraft.com for a rating of the longest-running web servers; all of the top ten run BSD, a free variant of UNIX. I quote “Applied Cryptography”, Bruce Schneider, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, page 3, speaking about the public key-private key encryption algorithm:

"All of the security in these algorithms is based on the key (or keys); none is based in the details of the algorithm. This means that the algorithm can be published and analyzed. Products using the algorithm can be mass-produced. It doesn't matter if an eavesdropper knows your algorithm; if she doesn't know your particular key, she can't read your messages."

Or, even more relevant, to “Practical UNIX and Internet Security”, Simson Garfinkel and Gene Spafford, O’Reilly and Associates, pages 40-45:

"... This is especially true if you should find yourself basing your security on the fact that something technical is unknown to your attackers. This concept can even hurt your security."

Scary, isn’t it?

Microsoft’s investments in e-governance in particular go back several years, and we were amongst the first IT companies to strike alliances with the central and state governments. Today, we have MoUs with 18 state governments in India, and are doing pioneering work in developing e-governance applications and solutions. Some results of our successful partnerships include the Gyaandoot Project with the government of Madhya Pradesh, the Bhoomi Project in Karnataka and work with the Treasuries department of the government of Haryana. We at Microsoft believe that a healthy software ecosystem is one built on choice with government agencies and all entities having the ability to select which software model fits their needs.

We believe that an open market approach where software products compete on their technical merits is the best model for the long-term growth of the software industries in all countries.

Good attitude. But having said that, don’t use your financial and political clout to undermine other offerings, whether closed-source or Free/Open Source. History is rife with examples of how Microsoft has used non-technical means to further its interests.

Software companies make heavy investments in R&D and if they do not have a chance to be compensated for their R&D spends, the cycle of sustainable innovation is disrupted and the health of the local software industry is jeopardised.

The form of R&D that the Open Source community puts in, is far more than any commercial offering, both in terms of quantity and quality, since those who develop Open Source Software are committed to the code they produce, the fact that they are at all coding the software bears ample testimony to the fact that they put in an amazing amount of time and research into their product. The beauty of the whole ecosystem is that developers do not *expect* to be compensated for the work they put in. Compensation is the fact that they gain a higher standing among their peers. To a true developer, this is the highest form of reward.

As a result, it would discourage any organisation to take on the effort of expensive R&D to improve upon the same as they would not see any benefit in doing so.

This would lead to a disruption in the software ecosystem. Both open source and commercial software are integral parts of the broader software ecosystem, and the two models have co-existed within the software ecosystem for decades.

We are not averse to sharing our source codes with our customers if it will be beneficial for them

Well, then by all means do so. It will be immensely beneficial for all, not least you.

, however we are concerned about the potential implications of GPL. The problems created by GPL result from the onerous licensing terms that it contains. The GPL requires that all third parties must have the right to make unlimited copies of GPL-licensed software and distribute them free of charge. Obviously, it is extremely difficult for a software company to generate revenue by distributing a program if everyone has the right to distribute unlimited copies of the same program free of charge.

He misses the other side of the coin – If anyone can copy your software and market it as their own, remember that they have to make it available under the exact same licencing terms that it was available to them. Thus if they can make unlimited copies of your software, so can you, of their product. Whatever modifications the “third party” makes to your software to make it better, you can view those same modifications and use it in the next version of your software.

Thus in a process that builds upon itself, the software in question keeps getting better and better. The vendor who in the end markets his product better, will win. But customers always have the option to switch to the other alternative(s) available. In the end, the customer benefits. Those are the new rules of the game. No one has, or can, decree that vendors have to keep making vast profits the way they have always been doing. If, in the interest of producing radically better technology, vendors find that they cannot do businesss the way they have traditionally been doing, then that’s too bad. New business models will evolve to fit the new trend in technology. All Microsoft is doing is stifling this evolution towards better software by branding it as “onerous”.

We believe that software has commercial value and attempts to render software free will ultimately undermine the software industry, causing less R&D to go into software development and ultimately less innovation for consumers.

Sanjiv Mathur, Head of marketing, Microsoft, India

And finally a contradiction. When he started this article he said that in the end, Open Source software in the marketplace is not much different from any commercial offering. So how will attempts to render software free “ultimately undermine the software industry”? The software industry as we know it today will undergo a sea change in the future. Software today is looked at as a product, rather than a service. That will eventually change.

Clearly Microsoft has a fundamentally different viewpoint on software than the Free Software/Open Source Software community. They shall go their way and we ours. May the best man win!

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.