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Monday, 18 September 2006 18:35

A moving tale

By
If the move from Windows to Linux, which the government of the south Indian state of Kerala has been making a noise about, actually does come off, then it would be the largest such migration ever seen.

Kerala has a population of around 28 million so we are not talking small numbers here; the natives of the state are generally educated and left-leaning. And the people are highly politically aware - there is a famous saying about Keralites that they will not mind bumming their morning cuppa but will always buy their own newspaper.

But the question is - will it actually go through? Or will the administration make some compromises down the road?

If one has doubts, it's because the announcement appears to have more to do with politics than anything else - not that this is surprising. Kerala has two coalitions - the United Democratic Front (led by the Congress party) and the Left Democratic Front (led by the Communist Party of India - Marxist). While the former was in power, a deal had been cut with Intel and Microsoft to advance the Wintel platform in schools. The Left front won the 2006 elections - polls are held every five years - and the state has now shifted focus to Linux.

There have been times in the past when it looked like free or open source software (FOSS) was about to make giant strides in this country or that; some government made a pronouncement, the media got all excited (and usually ended up misquoting the person who made the announcement) and people from various parts of the FOSS sector started bleating about world domination.

Generally, a few days later, reality would return. By then the pronouncement would have been endlessly clarified by the spin doctors who surround every government official and what would have emerged was that the government in question actually said it would be creating a "level playing field" (a physical impossibility - ask anybody who's played a game at Melbourne's Colonial Stadium) for all kinds of software.


At this stage, the ruckus would often die down somewhat. Some commentators, the more sober ones, were prone to voice a sense of deja vu at this stage though those in the FOSS universe continued to dream. Generally little would be heard from the government in question for the next six months or a year.

The next stage in most of these tales has often been the one when it turned out that the project, which was so ambitiously announced, had run into difficulties. There would be talk of a limited study to assess the feasibility of the original grandiose plan. And at this stage, the cynics, among whom I count myself, would know what was happening behind the scenes - the announcement had had its intended impact and any proprietary software companies which were holding out had come over to the government's side.

Hence, when a move of this nature is announced by the public sector, one has to take it with a pinch (or probably a kilo) of salt. The fact is, no government department would really like to do something which saves money - this would only lead to a lessening of its budget the next year. Less money means demands from those who dole out the funds - surely a reduction one year means that such reductions are possible the next time too? This, in turn, means less staff and no head of any department would want that - the common wisdom is that the man who sits in charge of 20 is more important (and hence deserving of a bigger pay packet) than the one who is in charge of 10.

When it comes to a business, such decisions generally go through if they are made at the top. It is unlikely that they would succeed if they were made by those at a lower level. The same logic as in the previous paragraph applies.

There are cases aplenty when there has been a lot of smoke and then no fire, both in the public and private sector. In Australia, one large public sector company used the threat of a large-scale move to Sun's Java Desktop System (why they called a Linux distribution that is anybody's guess) to extort low prices from a rival vendor. And there are quite few private companies which have done the same, both for servers and desktop units.

As with everything else in life, one has to wait and see. China has already made strides with Linux - it has its own distribution called Red Flag Linux - but there is one advantage (if it can be called as such) in its approach: what the government says, goes. The opposite is true with India - one could not imagine a more chaotic country where things surprisingly work pretty well.

Given that the grand-dad of the whole FOSS world, Richard M. Stallman, has had a hand in the Kerala decision, an occasional trip by the great man to what is described as God's own country would probably push things along a bit - and lessen the chances of even a minor volte face.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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