You think software is boring? Think again

Free software is the sharing of creativity

Mumbai, India and Montreal, Canada — You may never have heard of Swatantra Software, but Linux, open source and free software should ring a bell. In January, attending the fourth World Social Forum (WSF) as a freelance journalist, I got to know this term. Swatantra in the Hindi language means freedom. This is what the Free Software Foundation of India is promoting: Freedom in the use, modification and exchange of software.

You believe software is boring? Think twice. Free software proposes a paradigm shift from software as a product under license, to free knowledge distributed to the benefit of all.

Richard M. Stallman is the man behind the GNU (GNU's Not Unix), a very ambitious project he started in 1984, meant to develop a totally free operating system for personal computers. Stallman was at this year's WSF in Mumbai, promoting the completed GNU/Linux operating system and giving a hand to FSF India, the subcontinent's version of his Free Software Foundation. The eccentric hacker* reiterated that, “Software technology is embedded in society, in culture. It is not a business model. It is the sharing of creativity.” The last time Stallman showed up for a speech to a similar audience, in 2002 in Porto Alegre, Brazil during and after the second WSF, he was attending the International Free Software Forum.

Since 1984, Stallman has become some kind of a star, a software celebrity in the free software movement. This long-haired guru's name is also associated with a “wake-up and smell the coffee call” for the software sector of the economy.

Multinationals such Sun Microsystems and Red Hat have increasingly integrated free software networking solutions in their distributions, even going as far as ditching proprietary software in the case of the latter.NASA uses only FreeBSD and GNU/Linux for the development of its space research. Even countries and some states — such as the Extremadura in Spain — have switched to free software distribution for their administration and education systems. Desktop solutions have also spread quite effectively, even here in Canada. Computing Canada reported earlier this year that Foresbec Inc., a hardwood lumber exporter from Drummondville, Quebec, installed OpenOffice on all its desktops in order to avoid paying licenses associated with Microsoft Office software.

But what exactly is free software and why is it so popular? G. Nagarjuna, president of India's FSF says, “Free software is software that is owned by the public, not corporations. It generally runs under a general public license (GPL).” Microsoft Word for example, has to be bought from Microsoft — otherwise piracy is invoked. This piece of software cannot be studied, modified and shared with your neighbour and that is precisely what FSF stands up against. It wants software to reclaim its original status of embedded knowledge and means of communication. “Software uses codes, which is human language. How then can a guy like Bill Gates say: 'You are a pirate if you use my language without paying the license fee'.”

What FSF is advocating is the spread of a free (in terms of freedom) and efficient alternative to Microsoft software solutions. And it works. The entire media centre at the venue of the WSF was equipped with a Gnowledge free software package so that all journalists could experiment with Mozilla to browse the web, OpenOffice Writer for writing and The Gimp to modify images. The entire FSF India team was on the spot, offering user support.

Hundreds of volunteers from the Babels translation team at the WSF have also benefited from free software. Coined Nomad, the internet-based translation project of the WSF has been launched with people from the arts, linguistics and computer engineering. “'Speak Freely' is currently used to treat sound on a multi-cast protocol while a second component is being developed. We hope to have it ready for the WSF 2005 so it will act as an archiving system, a memory of the events through streaming technology,” says Sophie Gosselin of France, a member of the art collective Apo 33.

“Our main project in India is the localization of software,” emphasizes Nagarjuna, who has been using free software for the last 16 years. As of today, there doesn't exist any software solution in Telugu, Maharati, Malehalem or any other of India's regional languages. “This is a crime the government is perpetrating. Paying billions of rupees for licenses and not investing in local self-reliant software solutions,” he adds. If we look at the numbers, it certainly can be read as a crime. Of the 20 per cent of Indians who master English, only a third is computer literate. This leaves about six per cent of the total population with an access to software. From these facts, FSF decided to act...and it paid off. The government of Kerala in southern India has already invested 600,000 rupees with the FSF team for them to introduce Malehalem into free software packages.

In Bangalore, Freeos.com, a software company pays one developer full time to localize their free software distribution, while Mahiti, a users' group operating out of that same city, does free software support for NGOs in the form of workshops.

“All these promising initiatives are successful because of our software's orientation. It is designed to benefit this segment of the population which is still limited in its ability to communicate through computers. Software in local languages is a necessity, otherwise all we do is colonize and alienate in a Microsoft way,” says Juan Carlos Gentile, an Italian hacker present at Stallman's talk in Mumbai.

The free software people are not against the software industry. On the contrary, they encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to use free software for their usual business. But they also insist on the fact that software is fundamentally a language and that businesses have the responsibility to teach and transmit that language. “It should be integrated as a service in their business outlook. Software is not a product, that's all we are saying,” argues Gentile. One way to do this is for companies to consider getting paid for software support instead of getting paid for the software itself. It can be sustainable and prevents developers from inventing solutions that are disconnected from the needs of the customer.

The idea is to introduce free software in a logical and strategic way. Over the years, hackers have tried many routes, such as the ethical one, the politically conscious one or the economical one. They have failed in most cases since ordinary people are not interested in shelving their somewhat functional Windows operating system only in the name of an abstract principle of freedom or zero cost.

In other words, as expressed by system administrator Sébastien Grenier, “There is no point in trying to get people on board by changing a loony for four quarters. Most people will only make a move if what they end up with, is at least equivalent to what they already have in terms of stability, security, user-friendliness and functionality.” Enhancing the technology and adapting it to peoples' needs, it seems, helps catalyze the message of freedom, not the other way round.

Grenier, working for a middle-sized NGO in Montreal says that people in his office are demonstrating a willingness to switch to free software since several useful functionalities meet their needs better. In pragmatic terms, this means for instance that the free software distribution Mandrake 9.2, which permits you to instantaneously transform a text document into a Portable Document Format (PDF), actually leaves Microsoft Word lagging behind. Moreover, the needs of users are leaning more and more towards sharing and communicating information. “This evolution, extremely close to the free software fundamentals of open access and manipulation of codes, means that the use of free software will increase tremendously in the coming years,” says Grenier, who has been working with like-minded people and projects around the globe.


* Contrary to popular belief, a hacker is not an anti-social being. A hacker is one who is passionate and even obsessive about programming, as opposed to a cracker who breaks the security on a system, often with malicious intent.

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