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India’s open source future

India’s open source future
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First Published: Tue, Feb 17 2009. 11 17 PM IST

Image: StockXpert
Image: StockXpert
Updated: Tue, Feb 17 2009. 11 17 PM IST
Today, nearly every corner of the world faces the challenge of a stagnant or shrinking economy. Bleak economic forecasts, shrinking budgets and increasing pressure on businesses and governments to meet the needs of their customers and constituents—often with less resources to do so—are becoming commonplace. While I’m not naïve enough to suggest a “one-size-fits-all” cure for these problems or that the solutions will be driven by only one industry or region, I do believe that, because technology and innovation drive global economic progress, the remedy for many of these challenges is in our hands.
Image: StockXpert
India is, of course, not immune to these challenges. But the country is very well positioned to meet them. India is one of the world’s fastest growing tech economies and one of the leading participants in the global shift towards free and open source technologies—those eschewing the dependencies of cost and barriers to access that often “come standard” with proprietary technologies. As such, I believe India can play a central role in fostering and adopting the innovations driving its own economic and social growth as well as positioning itself for a larger role on the global economic and technological stage.
India’s use of open source technology and its part in the development and deployment of open standards is not new. Sun Microsystems estimates more than three-quarters of a million Indian developers are members of the Sun Developer Network, actively contributing to communities built around MySQL, OpenSolaris, OpenOffice.org and Java. Indian companies such as Life Insurance Corp. of India, Axis Bank, Canara Bank and Tata Communications use open source technologies as a core part of their business. State governments are also embracing open source. Kerala took the lead in open source when it became the first state in the country to completely banish proprietary software in the mandatory IT test administered to half a million students every year. Even the voting systems for popular TV shows such as Kaun Banega Crorepati and Indian Idol run on open technology. In fact, a recent report from the India Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, seeking to quantify the economic impact of open source Java in India, estimates that the value of the “Java economy” in India is approximately 2.1% of the Indian GDP.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Open source technology drives new job opportunities, particularly for India’s software developers and technology entrepreneurs. Given the high cost of proprietary technology, many developers rely on open source equivalents such as MySQL, Ubuntu, Linux, OpenSolaris, Java and OpenOffice.org—the same technologies that power companies such as Google and Amazon. Using these resources, the global job market has opened to them and their businesses, transforming Indian developers and entrepreneurs into active participants in the global knowledge economy.
Businesses also benefit from the opportunities and efficiency enabled by open source innovations. Brazil, another of the so-called “emerging markets”, provides a strong example. In 2003, its president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, spearheaded a countrywide movement towards open standards. It’s now estimated that at least 70% of Brazilian enterprises use open source software, many of which are experiencing cost savings attributable to open source solutions. Banco do Brazil estimates it has saved $9.4 million since converting its operations to open systems.
Though many of the benefits are economic, some have a broader social impact and help ensure that the control of India’s technological future remains in India’s hands. I like to draw a parallel between a country’s written and spoken language and the language of computing. No one owns Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali or English and India’s citizens aren’t “taxed” by anyone for using them. So, too, should no one company own the language of the Internet or be able to charge India’s government, citizens, developers or businesses to use it. Embracing open standards and open document formats—those that aren’t owned by one company or require you to purchase technology from a company—helps ensure that the Indian government and its citizens can retain control and have equal access to the country’s valuable data for generations to come.
This mirrors the advice I’ve given to the new US administration and to governments around the world—develop an open source policy and standardize your country’s IT and vital data on standards, not on vendors.
India is already beginning to enjoy the benefits of open, community-driven technologies. But more can be done and even more positive outcomes are possible.
The demand for free, open systems is growing and India possesses the innovation and expertise to deliver on this demand and to benefit from it. An even stronger commitment to open source technologies from India’s government and its leading businesses can help the country further capitalize on this opportunity and catapult its economic development forward.
Scott McNealy is chairman and co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc. and chairman of Sun Federal Inc. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Feb 17 2009. 11 17 PM IST