The Visit Of Two Software Titans

Updated: Nov 29 2002, 05:30am hrs
November 2002 witnessed the visit of Bill Gates, the software moghul, to India. The richest man in the world on his third visit (and the longest visit till date) received enough media attention both, for the right and wrong reasons. His commitment to invest $400 million (nearly Rs 2,000 crore) was a big morale booster to the tech industry in general and techies in particular. Gates donation of $120 mn to support AIDS control out of Bill and Melinda Foundation unfortunately received more brickbats than bouquets.

The same month also saw the visit of another titan, Richard Stallman, the founder of Free Software Foundation, who was invited to speak at IT.Com. Since 1984 he has been a strong proponent of free software and has created a community of professionals who write high quality software, undertake to support them, make them co-work with others software and most interestingly, agree to do all this free. Stallman himself developed high quality compilers, tools and a host of utilities under the banner of GNU (an acronym for GNU is Not Unix).

When Linus Torvalds contributed the kernel Linux, it became the operating system that was loved by many professionals. Those who were either jealous of the success of Microsoft Windows or saw its possible monopoly in the operating systems arena, quickly promoted Linux as an alternative to Windows. Riding on the success of Linux came the Open Software movement and the now famous GPL (General Public License) that permits professionals and corporations to use the free software and distribute it with added features to others. The distribution of the source code was a special feature of this movement. It is expected that such open source philosophy would lower the costs of software ownership a view widely held by many, though not subscribed (and even fiercely questioned) by many others.

The Indian media missed the essence of the visit of both the titans. This was partly influenced by a lack of understanding of the intricacies of software development over the past two decades, and partly by the tendency to create a shallow big fight that is common on the Indian TV scene to score some brownie points.

Much of the column centimetres were devoted to the Windows Vs Linux game. The essence of Free Software is the philosophy of sharing something so rare among governments, corporations and academic institutions in India. The real issue is not Windows Vs Linux it is one of share vs possess; otherwise one cannot explain users copying priced software and violating the law, instead of making an effort to locate free software. So, the real impact of Stallman was lost!

An interesting feature of Gates visit was his focus on the developer community. In fact, at Infosys City his talk was to thousands of developers, not in his capacity as chairman of Microsoft but as Chief Software Architect. Gates recalled his dream of putting a computer on every desktop. The fact that at least 20 per cent of the global population has realised this dream over the last quarter century is indeed a tribute to Bill Gates.

Second, Gates repeatedly mentioned about the quality of engineers produced by Indian institutions. Third, he talked of the influence the developer community in India and the work done by people on campuses like Infosys and Wipro has had on global software production. This is the best endorsement any nation can aspire to get in any industry, an endorsement by the CEO of the No 1 company in the global industry. There is hardly any other industry where India has come any way near this level!

But we should not sit on our laurels. We need to quickly analyse the reasons for our success and implement strategies that would sustain this success and multiply it in other industries. Can something be done to further strengthen our technical education Can we scale our success of the IITs Can we multiply the success in other fields of education Can we help in the birth of many more companies like Infosys and Wipro even in other areas These are the issues one would have liked the media to highlight.

The author is Director of the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. Views expressed herein are personal. He can be reached at askss@iiitb.ac.in