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Subcontinental Smackdown

Doc Searls

Issue #108, April 2003

In the global fight between Tux and Bux, where's the best place to bet on the penguin? Try India.

Linux for Suits

Subcontinental Smackdown

On November 11, 2002, the William and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a commitment of $100 million towards HIV/AIDS prevention in India. The announcement came on the eve of a highly publicized visit to India by William Gates himself. Timed for release with his arrival there, Microsoft announced it would be “deepening its India commitment by making investments of approximately $400 million US over the next three years in several aspects of its India business including education, partnerships, innovation, localization and the Development Center.” So, did it work? The better question might be: how could it work?

Here in the US, spending on information technology (IT) is notoriously down. Although there's a great deal of whining about this by CEOs and IT technology suppliers, the conditions hardly compare with those in India, where the $600 US price of a cheap PC might amount to a year's salary.

No doubt the cheap, black-market pricing of Windows' earlier generations did much to allow Microsoft to spread as far as it has in India. But the New York Times reports the distance isn't all that great, because there still are only about four million PCs in a country with a population exceeding a billion (and expected to pass China by the middle of the century).

But unlike earlier versions of the OS, Windows XP is built not to work unless the user calls or logs in to have the software turned on by Microsoft's authentication process. If Microsoft has its way, all copies in India will be paid for.

Windows XP isn't cheap. And even though it's competing with a free OS, Gates said Microsoft had no plans to discount the OS beyond the usual breaks for educational organizations. Given the competitive situation, how can Microsoft win against Linux in an economy where MS goods carry luxury pricing?

I don't know, and I don't much care—that's Microsoft's problem. What's interesting to me is the other stuff that borrowed interest in Microsoft's problem brings up, such as the potentially leading role that Indian developers are likely to play in the Linux movement.

There are some very ambitious Linux developers in India. Take Rajesh Jain, for example. After I wrote about India on the Linux Journal web site, a reader wrote to clue me in about what Jain is up to with his new company, Emergic:

Like Michael Robertson, he was in the internet news business with IndiaWorld, which he subsequently sold. I think that along with Lindows he is one of the folks trying out something in a different fashion with Linux, and there is definitely a huge market at the lower end if he makes the right (whatever those might be) moves.

Here's how Jain describes his plans:

Emergic is about creating a software platform that brings down costs of technology by a factor of 10, thus making it affordable for consumers and enterprises in the world's emerging markets.

Emergic is about realizing Bill Gates' vision of “a computer on every desktop and in every home”--a vision that has not yet gone beyond the world's 10,000 largest companies and 500 million consumers, most of whom are in the world's developed markets.

Emergic is going to become the computing platform for the next 500 million consumers and the world's 25 million small and medium [-sized] enterprises, who have not been able to adopt technology because of its dollar-denominated pricing.

Emergic is targeted at the world's emerging markets, because they are where technology has not yet penetrated deeply, and yet, for whom, technology offers perhaps the last opportunity to better integrate into the world's value chain and improve the standard of living for their people.

Jain wants to drive the cost of hardware down to $125-150 US or less and software down to $5-10 US/month. And he wants to do it by leveraging old computers as thin clients for running applications, all the usual Linux suspects. He explains:

What is different about thin clients this time around? After all, they've been talked about ever since computing began.

The major difference is the re-use of older hardware. We use older cars, older manufacturing plants, older homes, but we don't tend to use older computers.

The world's developed markets have been saturated with technology. New PC sales now imply upgrades, creating a huge supply of older computers. (These PCs) still have a lot of life left in them—after all, they are no more than a few years old [and they] can be available for $100 US or so in large numbers or $125-150 US in smaller quantities.

He's counting on broadband and talking mostly about enterprise environments:

Server-based computing using Linux is now possible because LAN speeds have gone up to 100Mbps, enabling the transfer of a lot more data over the same network. The result is that a “thick server” (which is actually a new desktop with 1GB RAM and two hard disks in a software RAID configuration) can easily support 30-40 users. Such a server would cost about $1,500-2,000 US, implying a per-client cost of no more than $50 US.

Taken together, the thin client and thick server combination not only brings down the cost of both hardware and software by 90%, but it also provides the IT manager complete control of the client desktop from the server. What every user sees on their thin client can be standardized and controlled from the thick server itself.

There's a lot more to his plans, but rather than focus on them, let's look at some other things that are happening in the culture itself. For example, consider the work being done at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Writes Peter Day in BBC News:

The Indian Institute of Management is not merely for potential internet billionaires, and the students in their new blue gowns are not the reason for my journey.

I go to Ahmedabad to have lunch with a tableful of some of the most ingenious people I have ever met—inventors and gadgeteers from the fields and villages of rural India where 700 million of its one billion people still live. Over rice and dhal and vegetables eaten with the hand, they talk excitedly about their inventions and ideas.

They are gathered under the auspices of the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Innovation. The acronym spells Sristi, the Sanskrit word for creation.

Sristi is the creation of Anil Gupta, a professor from the Institute whose Honeybee Network has been collecting creative ideas from around rural India for the past ten years. The idea database now exceeds 10,000.

Then there are Dr Sugara Mitra's hole-in-the-wall experiments (see “Natural Forces” from the March 2002 issue), by which street urchins in New Delhi and elsewhere around the country learn computing from free public kiosks.

My points: 1) We're talking about highly resourceful people here—a lot of them. 2) We're also talking about values very much in line with what Linux, free software and open source are all about. That's why I wouldn't be surprised to see Tux beat Bux in a big way here, first.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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