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The War Of The Surfs

Free vs pay. Two software icons hit town looking for their share in a battle for minds and/or pockets. More Coverage

The War Of The Surfs
Abhijit Bhatlekar
The War Of The Surfs
Both are 20th century cult figures. Both are seen as tech gods by millions of followers across the globe who have built strong software communities around their respective ideologies. Both will find their rightful places in history. And both came to India at around the same time. But that's where the similarities end.

The clean-shaven, meticulously-dressed Bill Gates became the richest man on earth by selling proprietary software. Powerful politicians and top-notch businessmen queue up to rub shoulders with him. In contrast, the unkempt Richard Stallman (we know you are already asking Richard who!) looks more like one of the Grateful Dead. But he is also the world's best-known proponent of free software, a man who coined the word "copyleft" as opposed to "copyright", and is revered by the nerds.

To put it a bit subtly, while Gates is the champion of capitalism, Stallman is better known as a maverick communist who believes that all software should be available free to everyone. In blunt terms, both hate each other's guts, and whoever wins this proprietary vs free software war will end up destroying the other. Most of the future battles between them will be fought in India and China, two of the biggest and fastest growing markets for software products.

So, now you know why they came to India; to convince policymakers and users to adhere to their convictions and beliefs. Gates wants India to choose Microsoft as its operating software platform, after charging a nominal sum for each copy sold. Stallman believes the fight is more ideological than about market control, and is still hopeful that Indian users will opt for free software like Linux or gnu. Already, Linux, a late entrant compared to Microsoft, has made deep inroads in the Indian market with users ranging from young hackers to even central and state government departments.

So, when the world's richest man arrived in India, he came armed with his chequebook. During his high-profile trip, he announced that Microsoft (and his personal trust, the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation) would invest $500 million in India, 80 per cent of that amount over the next three years. "This will be the largest investment we make outside the US," said Gates, adding that it would span health, e-education and training, and partnerships and development activities in the Indian software sector.

Without disclosing any details of the proposed investments, Gates jetsetted to tech centres like Hyderabad and Bangalore and political and commercial venues like Delhi and Mumbai, where he met ministers, CMs and industry bigwigs. In each city, he made vague promises that a part of the proposed fund would flow into the region. Even states like Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, where he didn't set foot, are hopeful that Microsoft will invest in their e-literacy initiatives.

No one was dying to meet Stallman, except the fanatics who believe in him. The St Ignatius of the free software cult went to Goa, which has a large number of Linux users, and Kerala, where his Free Software Foundation (FSF) is headquartered in India. (It may be a mere coincidence that Microsoft wishes to spend a part of its money in Kerala.) Well, Stallman did come to Delhi to meet policymakers to push his case but while the Microsoft chief met telecom and IT minister Pramod Mahajan, the FSF founder dealt with the IT secretary.

So, who will win this tech tussle? Gates, who signifies money power and commercial logic, or Stallman, who epitomises the moral crusader? No one knows, but one gets a few insights by analysing the two strategies. Microsoft's is clear. Its proposed investments will try to achieve three sub-objectives that will help conquer the Indian market, expected to be among the company's top five markets (at present, it's among the top 30) over the next few years.

The first is obviously to use local skills to develop solutions for its ambitious .Net project. In fact, a number of Indian firms are already involved in .Net and Microsoft plans to jointly devise go-to-market strategies for the project with Indian partners. "India has so much potential to provide world-class IT services and products that the future of computing power will depend largely on its contribution to global software development," explained Gates.

Gates' decision to pump another $100 million (apart from the $150 million that has already been invested) into its development centre in Hyderabad, and additional sums to chalk out new relationships with Indian firms is a step in that direction. In a bid to woo companies here, Microsoft is dangling a number of carrots. It has featured Infosys' N.R. Narayanamurthy in print ads endorsing the company's products and, in Bangalore, Gates hinted at a large business process outsourcing project for Wipro.

Simultaneously, Microsoft wants to focus on e-education to accelerate computer literacy in the country and has earmarked $20 million for project Shiksha. The aim is to make 80,000 teachers and 35 lakh government school students IT-literate in the next five years. The real benefit: the next generation of computer users will be hooked on to Microsoft products. Even analysts admit that Gates' philanthropy "would actually promote Microsoft's commercial prospects".

All these efforts will yield results only if Microsoft is able to woo the government, likely to set the agenda for the future course. Doling out $100 million over the next five years through his personal charity for solving the aids problem in India is a good beginning. The Gates Foundation has agreed to give the money with no strings attached; the government can freely decide how and where it wants to spend it.

Sources in Microsoft deny such charity-commerce links. They contend that the Gates Foundation has always maintained that it is globally committed to issues like aids, education and infectious diseases like tuberculosis and malaria. It has given large sums to ngos and global institutions like the World Health Organisation. So, a commitment to the Indian aids programme was only natural, they say.

Even Stallman feels that his interest in India is logical. But for him to win this war with Microsoft, it's not enough to be morally correct. In the recent past, there has been a lot of pressure on him from friends, colleagues and followers from the younger generation to change track. The latter set feel the best way to fight Microsoft is to prove that free software is better than proprietary ones, use commercial models to expand its usage.

So they find no conflict with a company that is selling Linux manuals and making money. Stallman's uncomfortable with such moves. For him, free is free, especially information. He says one can sell manuals and software but only if the free version is also available so that the user has a choice. Likewise, he openly says he will advocate the use of free software even if it's bad. That makes his critics feel that Stallman is somehow negating the success of the entire movement.

The internal strife has now reached a stage where Stallman is publicly criticised and slowly being sidelined. The freeware guru is also feeling left out, what with Linux inventor Linus Torvalds hogging the headlines in the recent past. Caught in the disharmony between his personal philosophy and the practical arguments of friends, Stallman's a sad man today. Only the supreme reign of freeware can make him happy. Just as only the unquestioned dominance of Microsoft over Planet Earth's PCs is Gates' Holy Grail.
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