The importance of open source:

Drug companies have a great explanation as to why patents must persevere. They say that they spend a lot of money on developing new molecules, new medicines and if they weren’t allowed a legally enforceable manner to recover that cost from people/consumers et al – there would perhaps be no motivation to develop new molecules, new medicines and make perhaps the world a better place. But then drug companies say a lot of things for example from 1898 through to 1910 heroin was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough medicine for children. Bayer marketed heroin as a cure for morphine addiction before it was discovered that heroin is converted to morphine when metabolized in the liver. The company was somewhat embarrassed by this new finding and it became a historical blunder for Bayer All that tells you in my humble opinion is that drug companies can be wrong and well the records shows that they did not know better! But heroin notwithstanding patents provide protection and keeps poor sub Saharan patients away from AIDS medicine and they argue that this is a good thing. It is perhaps that great bane of the capitalist world that a lot of people have ranted about. The poor don’t deserve anything! Developed nations governments have perhaps realized this and they have Medicare in America – health insurance. Michael Moore a man prone to make movies on the ills of American society has a made a documentary on the subject called Sicko which speaks of the trouble the average American can face getting medical assistance in the land of the free and brave. In India however we have a way of making things easier and we hate to pay – something about the fact that we are not yet the richest people in the world (the fact that three of the top twenty five rich people in the world notwithstanding!)    In India we had patent protection of a different type it is called process patent – processes can be patented not the product itself. India today has the largest number of US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved drug manufacturing facilities outside the US. In addition, Drug Master Files (DMFs) filed by Indian companies with the FDA is 126 higher than Spain, Italy, China and Israel put together. DMF has to be approved by FDA for a drug to enter the US market. This makes us the world’s largest maker of bulk drugs. The Indian patent act of 1970 amended on March 22, 2005 marks the end of a protected era and signals a new phase in the integration of India into the global pharmaceutical market. The new amendment seeks to make copying of post-1995 patented drugs illegal. Part Indian ingenuity and part regulation have led to the fact that the poor Indian (and there are many of them out there) have access to some of the best medication on the world.

 

Unlike drugs and software however is another ball game – it is not as much patent regulations as the fact that for every software maker there has always been a pirate. But the big SW makers have clamped down in a big way and the difference is noticed. I recall in 1997 there was this little cramped alley on Brigade Road at Bangalore opposite Rex Cinema that hosted a multitude of small sellers selling pirated copies of every known software in the world from Microsoft Windows and applications to Oracle’s RDBMS; anti virus; CAD/CAM s; Adobe – the whole shebang. This was before they got busted by a zealous software industry and disappeared. They did disappear from Bangalore’s Brigade Road yes – but anyone who has the time and inclination to survey the footpath vendors of DN Road and near Hutatma Chowk (the erstwhile Flora Fountain) at Mumbai will be rewarded with a plethora of pirated software options at less that 400 rupees – $10. I bet Kolkata, Chennai, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and even Delhi have their own little places. But then soon pirated software had its cost – it was a lot like selling drugs – if you got busted and you were mainstream – there was hell to pay. Soon the only people selling these were the non lethal crook types. Sure there were ways for the real digital cognoscenti to download it off warez sites and other such locations but there was always a cost to pay. Until that is Linus Trovalds and his ilk came onto the picture with his version of a computer operating system originally developed in 1969 by a group of AT&T employees at Bell Labs including Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie and Douglas McIlroy. Here was a strong OS with a penguin as a mascot and it was strong and best of all it was free. Linux is one of the most prominent examples of free software and open source development; its underlying source code can be freely modified, used, and redistributed by anyone. The Linux kernel was first released to the public on 17 September 1991, for the Intel x86 PC architecture. The kernel was augmented with system utilities and libraries from the GNU project (is a computer operating system composed entirely of free software. Its name is a recursive acronym for GNU’s Not Unix, which was chosen because its design is Unix-like, but differs from Unix by being free software and by not containing any Unix code. GNU was founded by Richard Stallman and was the original focus of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) which was  to create a usable operating system, which later led to an alternate term, GNU/Linux. Linux is now packaged for different uses in Linux distributions, which contain the sometimes modified kernel along with a variety of other software packages tailored to different requirements. But this piece of code did not catch on – for one it was just about as unwieldy and geeky as UNIX had been. But that was until the African Ubuntu. This is a predominantly desktop-oriented Linux distribution, based on Debian GNU/Linux but with a stronger focus on usability, regular releases, and ease of installation. Ubuntu is sponsored by Canonical Ltd, owned by South African billionaire entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth who among things also went to space from the money he made by founding Thawte in 1995. The company specialized in digital certificates and Internet security and was later sold to VeriSign in December 1999, earning Shuttleworth Rand 3.5 billion (about 575 million US dollars at the time). The name of this software distribution comes from the African concept of ubuntu which may be rendered roughly as "humanity toward others", though other meanings have been suggested.The most recent version, Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn), was released on April 19, 2007. Version 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) is scheduled for release on October 18, 2007. Ubuntu aims to use only free software to provide an up-to-date yet stable operating system for the average user.

 

The best way to perhaps understand Ubuntu is to understand the African philosophy that it came from. In the words of nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu ‘A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.’ while the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu ("a person is a person through (other) persons") may have no apparent religious connotations in the context of Western society, in an African context it suggests that the person one is to become by behaving with humanity is an ancestor worthy of respect or veneration. Those who uphold the principle of ubuntu throughout their lives will, in death, achieve a unity with those still living. Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows. A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but Ubuntu has various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve? Philosophy aside this is in fact the best way to explain what open source software is all about. Software and computers have caused the greatest development that mankind has seen and to keep it away from those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay licensing fees is by far the worst kind of oppression there is.

 

Free software and open source thought not very common with the common man has been the backbone of a lot of the world’s great computing endeavors for quite some time. The logic off course is that you want to save on the licensing costs and you need something that is strong and reliable and has the world’s population (geek population at least) working to always support and improve. Google is one of the greatest such examples with all its servers working on open source with code written in Python – an open source language. They buy plain jane machines which they ramp up into supercomputer levels through use of opens source operating systems. Those who will recall will remember that the Param PADMA – the Indian supercomputer made by CDAC is essentially 248 processors (54 Nos. of 4 Way SMP & 1 No. of 32 Way Symmetric Multi Processing architecture) running Linux (and AIX – IBM’s version of UNIX). This cluster is ranked 171 among the top 500 supercomputer sites of the world If however anyone thinks that is not a good enough performance – remember that the top most performing supercomputer over the last few years the Blue Gene/L and located at  the Terascale Simulation Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, used by scientists at Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia National Laboratories runs Linux. The 360-teraFLOPS machine handles many challenging scientific simulations, including ab initio molecular dynamics; three-dimensional (3D) dislocation dynamics; and turbulence, shock, and instability phenomena in hydrodynamics. It is also a computational science research machine for evaluating advanced computer architectures.

 

 

So yes this free operating system developed and maintained by the world’s hobbyist geeks is in fact the best possible operating system for super computers – but what about you and I. For a long time there really was no way out of the hegemony of the Microsoft operating system with its GUI based ease of use and depth of applications. Sure there were always security risks and stories of application crashes that were legendary – but the engineers at Seattle worked on the code and by the beginning of the new century were finally able to deliver a much more stable o/s – the Windows XP built on the Win NT kernel. The software was good and the applications – the office productivity suite that MS makes most of its money on sat neatly together. Off course there were court cases and Department of Justice subpoenas to be answered from the Netscape and anti trust hearings of the last century – but somehow things were finding a way of solving themselves when most needed. Needless to add the O/s was one of their best selling ones and open source – ubuntu or otherwise really did not have a chance. But that is where the arrogance of a leader must come in and they launched Vista and that was – in my humble opinion the beginning of the end. Like all new operating systems (from Microsoft) it was buggy; needed terabytes of storage with Seagate (the memory makes) even insisting that Vista needed between 250 GB to 1 TB (terra byte) to be really useful! and have called Vista the poster child of storage!

 

But it wasn’t just storage that was the problem – before long Vista was attacked by a 13 year old virus called stoned angelina! Before long corporate IT managers were hesitant about the move to Vista and did not seem as excited as they should have been and even after a service pack installation 1 – corporate IS managers have said that they will probably stay with XP for upto 3 more years! Microsoft Corp. says it has sold 42 million volume licenses of Windows since it released Windows Vista to enterprise customers last November. But the company claims to have no statistics on how many of the corporate users who are eligible to move to Vista have actually done so. As part of its efforts to encourage organizations to take the plunge, Microsoft late last month announced that it will ship the first service pack update of bug fixes and functionality tweaks for Vista during next year’s first quarter. The SP1 release will be accompanied by a third and final service pack for Windows XP, Vista’s six-year-old predecessorMicrosoft not to be outdone declared that they would stop support for XP and all new computer manufacturers were forced to go the Wow factor and pre install Vista. This was the final sign of arrogance and the opinion makers of the IT business were soon out for blood. First Google sued them for issues with search on Vista and then the press was outing the low adoption numbers and before long the penguin lovers were all over stating that Ubuntu had won thanks to Vista with tips on how to get your grandma onto opensource and well there are also a list compiled of the five ways that Linux is better than Vista – better security; less hardware and storage needed; no DRM and limitations; increasing applications and no license fee!

 

 

The giant from Seattle recapitulated and confirmed extension of XP as the press asked with cheer Why Microsoft must abandon Vista to save itself?  and as a final insult while Microsoft is still pushing Vista hard, the company is quietly allowing PC makers to offer a "downgrade" option to buyers that get machines with the new operating system but want to switch to Windows XP.  And Microsoft has in the meantime launched Halo 3 a videogame with lot of effects and early adopters (and this is version 3 as the Windows os was when it finally succeeded)  and might perhaps even change tack to become a gaming company. And why not – if Apple Computers could become a digital music player and phone maker I am sure MS can also re invent itself. So where does that leave open source – in my opinion and experience since I already have it on my desktop – it is probably coming soon to a computer near to you. Delhi based computer resellers recently had a workshop on linux and that makes me think that the days of the pirated software on the ‘grey market’ (white box) PC are indeed over.

 

 

In Europe Linux is expected to soon kill Windows and by 2009 Russia expects to move totally to a Russian OS based on Linux to decrease dependence on foreign software. . India never to be left behind has already taken the lead at various state governments with Tamilnadu and Kerala having rejected MS Windows for Linux and have also voted against the OOXML initiative of Microsoft at the ISO. At Allahabad the courts there have given a rising reception to open source.

 

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About Soumya
A technology enthusiast, forever enamored by all that it hath wrought and of course here is an attempt at making sense of it all and perhaps simplifying it!

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