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The question of open source

The question of open source
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First Published: Thu, Oct 29 2009. 11 11 PM IST

Photo: Stockxpert
Photo: Stockxpert
Updated: Thu, Oct 29 2009. 11 11 PM IST
Open source software poses a seemingly uninteresting question: Should we have access to the source code of software that we use? One simple response is that we have the software and it does its job. So why bother? That answer works at a certain utilitarian level, we have what we paid for and so do not have to bother about how it works and how it was made. And because it does its job, we are further distanced from bothering about source code—not all of us are computer scientists and know much about software and how it is written.
However, I believe access to source code and the nature of software is an important issue for India. Open source software is poised to have a deep impact on our economy and change, forever, the way we view software and other products of human intellectual activity.
Photo: Stockxpert
Programmers create software by writing code in a human readable language, such as Java or C, which is then compiled and converted into a long string of ones and zeros that can be understood by the processor of a computer. The code that is used to create the compiled software is known as the source and for a typical software, such as a word processor, consists of millions of lines of code.
Firms that make and sell software typically sell only the machine-readable ones and zeros and do not give away the source. Without source code, it is impossible to see the program or make any changes to it. Open source software, on the other hand, explicitly makes the source code available to anyone who wants to see or modify it.
But the more important aspect of open source software is the fact that it is “free”. This freedom follows from the nature of the licence (called the GNU general public licence, or GPL) that open source software is typically distributed with—the licence allows you to use and see the software, modify it at will, and redistribute to whomsoever you want.
Free software is a philosophy of sharing that espouses collaborative creation and free and open dissemination of intellectual activity. Programmers from around the world collaborate to create free software and GPL licence ensures that their efforts remain forever in the public domain.
Free and open source software has an economic aspect: It is free of cost—anyone can download the software from websites. Some firms sell free software too, but they do so by providing special benefits such as support and customization. Personal computers are often used to run applications such as word processors, email, Internet browsers, etc. All these applications have free equivalents that are of very high quality. For instance, Linux, the free operating system is a direct competitor to Microsoft Windows. Similarly, the Open Office software is a free competitor to Microsoft Office.
In a recent study, I found that many large commercial organizations, government departments, small firms and education institutions have started using free software on desktops and on servers. Life Insurance Corp. of India, for example, runs around 18,000 desktops on free software, as also thousands of servers. While doing so they are saving crores of rupees in licensing costs. The IT@School project of Kerala put free software on 50,000 desktops in schools across the state and saved many crores of rupees. Smaller firms shaved off many lakhs of rupees from their IT (information technology) budgets by switching to free software.
If, in 2010, about half the personal computers sold in India come with free software instead of the proprietary software they are bundled with right now, the savings for India as a whole could be around Rs10,000 crore. And this is a conservative estimate.
The economic benefit, though, is only part of the story. The other part is the intangible benefits free software provides. With free software, organizations can experiment and tinker with software before adopting it; free software is available easily and updated rapidly, so organizations can always access the latest technology; they are not driven by vendors for their software choices (as is the case most of the time); and they can restrict the use of pirated software in their organizations.
Free software embodies the values of learning, sharing and open collaboration that have been the basis of knowledge creation throughout history. In Kerala, hundreds of thousands of children are not only learning with high-quality software but also are indirectly imbibing the values of sharing and openness that the software is built with. In this manner, free software promotes the highest values of human culture: that the hard work put into creating hundreds of millions of lines of software code is not meant entirely for private profit but for the benefit of people around the world.
I return to the question I started with: Should we have access to the source code of software that we use? The answer is an unequivocal: yes, we should. Free and open source software represents openness, sharing, and a culture of learning and enquiry. It invites us to understand, build upon, and advance the software tools needed for our community. It presents an infinite potential for innovation and discovery, and a challenge to our youth to stand on the shoulders of giants to build software and tools for the future.
Rahul De is Hewlett-Packard chair professor of quantitative methods and information systems area at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Comment at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Oct 29 2009. 11 11 PM IST