The Indian government is trying to encourage the use of computers across the country by distributing free CDs that contain localised versions of popular open source applications.
The government has started distributing CDs containing Tamil-language versions of various open source applications, including the Firefox browser, the OpenOffice.org productivity suite and the Columba email client. It plans to freely distribute 3.5 million copies of the CD to Tamil speakers worldwide, according to R.K.V.S. Raman, a researcher at the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, an organisation involved in the production of the CD.
Raman told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that the CDs are in considerable demand, following a newspaper and television advertising campaign last month.
"We have had a tremendous response to this [initiative]," he said. "In the first two weeks of the campaign we got about 100,000 hits daily on the Web site offering CDs, and about two to three thousand downloads [of Tamil-language applications]. We have already sent out around 50,000 CDs and have a backlog of 35,000."
Once the requested CDs have been sent out, further copies of the CDs will be distributed with computer magazines and newspapers, according to Raman.
Even the President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, has taken an interest in the project and met the team involved in the production of the CD earlier this month.
The next stage of the project is to distribute CDs containing applications in Hindi, the national language of India. This stage will be launched on 21 June and is likely to involve more than the 3.5 million CDs earmarked for the current phase, said Raman. Eventually, the government plans to release CDs in all of the 22 official languages of India.
Raman believes open source software brings two main advantages to the Indian population — cost, and the freedom to modify the software. "We are sometimes not comfortable with Western user interfaces — they don't make sense in our culture, particularly for rural people who haven't had much access to technology. If we want to modify the software we have to have access to the code," he said.
The Indian government's decision to ship free software in this way is likely to be a blow to Microsoft, which plans to release a low-cost version of Windows in India soon. Microsoft originally hoped to release its Windows XP Starter Edition — a low-cost, feature-restricted version of Windows XP — by the end of March, but is now aiming for a June release.