Open source evangelists lock horns with Nasscom

India's open source community is miffed over Nasscom's proposal for e-government projects to support multiple standards, instead of single patent-free standards.

INDIA--Proponents of the open source and proprietary software sectors have clashed over a proposal to support multiple standards for the country's e-government projects.

Last year, the Indian Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MCIT) released a draft policy, mandating the adoption of freely available standards in the deployment of the country's e-government projects--estimated to be valued at over US$4 billion.

The draft policy was established to guide the procurement of IT software and hardware across government departments and ensure interoperability among disparate IT systems. It aims to adopt single royalty-free standards for awarding e-government projects.

However, Nasscom and Manufacturers' Association for Information Technology (MAIT) wrote to the government earlier this month with suggestions that the policy should support multiple standards to ensure interoperability at zero cost. Nasscom is the trade body for India's IT-BPO industry, while MAIT is an industry body representing the country's hardware, IT training and R&D sectors.

A Nasscom official was quoted in a newspaper report, saying: "Making everything patent-free may not be a commercial proposition as there might not be good standards available. On the other hand, adopting a single standard may constrict the country to adopt an old standard, if a new and better standard emerges in future."

The trade body supports the inclusion of standards under Reasonable and Non Discriminatory (RAND) terms, and also the usage of multiple standards in the same domain.

Multiple standards favor proprietary
The Nasscom-MAIT proposal has miffed India's open source community.

Fosscomm, a consortium of organizations promoting the use of free and open source software (FOSS) in India, has launched a campaign seeking to ensure the government does not dilute the policy by allowing multiple and proprietary standards.

The industry group said multiple standards would introduce duplicity and reduce seamless interoperability between competing products.

"Whereas a single open standard would remove entry barriers and encourage innovation by small local firms, multiple standards would favor Microsoft and Indian software services majors that make money by servicing it," said an industry source from an OSS company, who declined to be named. "That's the reason why big Indian IT companies, like Infosys, Wipro and TCS, are not coming out in the open to oppose the Nasscom-MAIT recommendations."

Gurumurthy Kasinathan, director and founding member of non-profit organization IT for Change, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview: "In order to protect India's digital sovereignty, we must ensure national data is stored in formats that are open and free of all encumbrances like royalties, patent claims, and so on."

Fosscomm said in a statement on the directive: "Two central features of the draft policy are--single and royalty-free standards. However, we understand that there is a lot of pressure from vested interested [parties] to dilute these key aspects of the policy, by sneaking in provisions for 'multiple standards' as also possibilities of allowing revenue streams from some 'proprietary' standards."

Kasinathan said it is unlikely the government will accept Nasscom-MAIT's suggestions, noting that the Indian government last year rejected Microsoft's Office Open XML format bid.

OSS makes headway
Meanwhile, the open source movement is making headway across India, with rising adoption in telecom, banking and government sectors.

Concerned over licensing issues pertaining to proprietary software, Chennai-based Electrotek International switched to Linux operating system and FOSS for its office terminals almost a year ago. The company supplies R&D equipment in geophysics and oceanography.

"I thought we should set aside six weeks to learn Linux but as we began using it, we found it very user-friendly and we didn't need much training," Electrotek CEO P. Sivasubramanian said in a phone interview.

According to Asheesh Raina, Gartner's principal research analyst, open source adoption in India has "increased by leaps and bounds", driven by several factors such as cost and the maturing platform.

"With the recession, IT service providers are under increased pressure to reduce costs," Raina told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview, adding that enterprises can make substantial cost savings by switching to OSS.

India has also emerged over the last six to seven years, as the country with the largest number of Red Hat Certified Engineers. "There are over 15,000 Red Hat Certified Engineers and around 300 Red Hat training centers in the country," Venkatesh Hariharan, the company's corporate affairs director, said in a phone interview.

He added that while there are no numbers to indicate the increasing use of OSS, there are over 100 mailing lists for Linux and open source users where they can network, discuss and collaborate on the latest open source technologies. Large IT companies have also established internal Linux mailing lists for employees, he added.

Andreu Bartoli, global channel director for OpenBravo, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview: "Recession has definitely helped us. Today, companies are questioning the rationale for installing proprietary ERP (enterprise resource planning) applications. It's a movement." OpenBravo is a developer of Web-based open source ERP and point of sale (POS) software.

No longer just for geeks
George Karimundackal, CEO of Redstart Solutions, also noted growing awareness that open source tools are "good in terms of quality, performance and pricing". The Bengaluru-based company builds and implements e-commerce tools based on open source. Karimundackal said the perception that OSS is mainly for geeks, and not for the mainstream user community, is fast changing.

According to Hariharan, OSS adoption is significantly higher--and particularly important to Red Hat--in three sectors: government, banking and financial services (BFSI), and telecommunications.

He noted that over 70 e-government projects currently run on open source, while financial services companies such as Life Insurance Corporation, New India Assurance, Axis Bank, Central Bank, IDBI and the National Stock Exchange are also using OSS.

Gartner's Raina added that large service providers such as Capgemini, ITC Infotech, TCS and Infosys, today have dedicated teams that look into implementations of open source technologies.

Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.

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