Microsoft Giveaway Drowns Out India's Open-Source Software Movement


Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, visited this information technology hub earlier this month to try to persuade leaders that Microsoft and other purveyors of proprietary software are poison.

By Wednesday, it was clear he wasn't winning.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates had been handing out so many freebies to India's federal and state governments in the last three days that talk of open-source software had started annoying government officials.

Stallman, who founded the Boston-based Free Software Foundation in 1985 to promote the development of freely distributed software, urged Indians to spurn free gifts from Microsoft and adopt free, open-source software.

He and others accuse proprietary software companies of getting poor governments and companies addicted to their expensive software.

'You should not make accusations against a company because it is successful,' countered Vivek Kulkarni, information secretary of Karnataka state, after Gates arrived in Bangalore and announced Wednesday that the state capital would be given free Web-building software to provide online information and services to city residents.

'We are a poor country. We cannot develop operating systems and platforms on our own,' Kulkarni said.

Kulkarni said he could not find enough software programs or programmers for Linux, the standard-bearer of the free, open-source operating systems.

Free software enthusiasts termed Gates' visit an over-hyped nonevent. They say Microsoft's policy of regaling developing countries with millions of dollars worth of free software and training is blatantly self-serving and counterproductive if the stated goal is diminishing the digital divide.

'Proprietary software companies hand out free copies for the same reason that cigarette companies give sample packs to college kids _ to encourage addiction,' Stallman said during his Nov. 1.

He predicted that the Indian government would accept Microsoft's handouts, which would cut project costs _ in the short term.

Frederick Noronha, founder of Bytesforall.Org, an Indian group seeking to help the poor benefit from technology, called Gates' visit irrelevant to 95 percent of Indians.

The average Indian makes less than $400 a year. But Microsoft Windows can cost nearly that much after local taxes and import duties are passed on to the buyer.

Instead of growing dependent on the pricey upgrades to the software that Microsoft hands out free, Noronha said India is better off developing programming expertise in Linux, which can be freely copied and spread to the poor.

'Microsoft's software may be ubiquitous, but it restricts many freedoms of the users like any other proprietary software,' Noronha said.

Not surprisingly, federal and state governments happily accepted Microsoft's largesse. Gates said Tuesday that Microsoft would invest $400 million in India for computer literacy programs and to expand the company's partnerships and activities.

On Wednesday, Gates kicked off a project in Karnataka to provide broadband connectivity to schools. The state government, accepting his offer of free copies of Microsoft's .NET technology for electronic governance, then appealed for more money to computerize the state.

Stallman, Noronha and many Linux backers say the argument that governments can't find enough open-source programs or programmers is hogwash.

'There are many applications that the government could use,' said Noronha. 'And many more are coming. Further, it would cost next to nothing to develop new software on open source.'

Gates, in a brief chat with reporters here, asserted the Microsoft Windows had saved more money for its users than open-source systems.

'Software, by being comprehensive, can save costs by avoiding add-on pieces of software,' he said. 'We can save money in terms of speed of development or by being able to run on less expensive hardware.'

Windows was already being sold for a low price and Microsoft was willing to 'dramatically lower' its price for socially relevant projects, Gates said.

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