Sunday, April 02, 2006

The strength of numbers and youth

Ever wondered why Bill Gates spends so much time in India, and why India is pretty much the only country where he spends so much public time?

It is because he needs India, and the Indian market. He needs India much more than India needs him.

Consider the current situation: Microsoft is at the top of the OS market in the US, where the government is unwilling to do anything meaningful about their monopoly status. In Europe, Microsoft is in a soup, partly because people don't trust them there. Hence the recent lawsuits, and the significant adoption of Firefox, OpenOffice and Linux in the area. Both China and India are big markets in both size, and growth potential. Microsoft wants a big piece of action in both countries. In both China and India, Microsoft software is absolutely free. Most computer hardware sellers give you any software you ask for, with a new computer. In the unfortunate case that you forgot to ask, you can buy a "installer" CD at the streetside. These CDs have all the software you'd need: Operating Systems, Office software,.. all in one easy packaging, and cost about Rs. 50. That's one US dollar. Like I said, software in India is all free. (And even then Linux is popular there. But that's a different story.)

So where does that lead us? China seems unwilling to support the large costs associated with running Microsoft products. Often, their government makes noise about this, supports the local Red Flag Linux, and forces Microsoft to keep their prices low. So Red Flag is more a bargaining card. (Aside from being a totally fun name!)

That leaves India. While Microsoft is aware of piracy in India, it loves the piracy, since it makes new computers users dependent on Microsoft for their needs. The dollars lost in today's sales will show up in handsome profits tomorrow. Also, India has a very small installed base of computers, in comparison to the West, and Microsoft would be sad to see Linux capture such a big chunk of the computer market. Thus the frequent visit to India, with Bill Gates at the centre of it all, to lure the Indians with his status as the world's richest man. And the Indian press loves mentioning how he is the world's richest man, again and again, till everybody is tired of the fact.

What India needs most is intellectual capability and choice in software. As the largest markets, if India and China choose to use Linux, Microsoft will no longer be the monopoly player. The OEM agreements in India are too loose, and software bundled with the hardware can be changed all too easily. This scares Microsoft. What would happen if 40% of the world decides that it needs Linux or BSD or Mac OS X on its machines, and not Windows? And imagine the nightmare if Indians and Chinese start contributing to Free and Open Source Software? Even at one bugfix for every thousand people, that is a mighty bug-fixing machine.

Both India and China may decide the direction of commodity software if they choose wisely. We need to learn our strength of numbers, and the strength of our youth. We need to have the confidence to stand up against a monopoly and say that we want a choice. We need to help out Linux, BSD, Apache, Firefox, and other Free and Open Source projects. Because in the end, Linux and Firefox belongs to us, while Windows XP and IE 7 never will.

So ignore Bill Gates altogether. He offers us dependance on an inferior technology. The Linux and BSD systems offer true freedom and independance from vendors. And they give us software we can own and control, and a position of power in the world: the power to say no to a convicted monopoly.