Why public software

From Karnataka Open Educational Resources

Why public software, Prof Rahul De, Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru

Public institutions support the public ownership of resources since that is essential for enabling equity and social justice. Software is an important digital resource, and has a central role in the new ‘digital society’ being created. Hence the public ownership over software resources that are essential to participate in the digital world is essential. Public Institutions should therefore adopt and promote such ‘public software’ to create such an eco-system of universal access to basic software as well as community participation in its creation and modification.

The pedagogical argument for Public software

“Constructivist approach to learning”

The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005, produced by NCERT emphasises that learning happens when the learner actively participates in the process of learning and not when the learner is a passive recipient of knowledge as a finished product. This is applicable to computer related learning as well. Software can be really learnt only when the learner actually is able to modify the code, write software, and develop applications.

To reflect the spirit of the NCF, our schools should provide learners with the opportunity to create and modify software. Expecting students to write software without having access to free software is like expecting students to write books without allowing them to read books. This is possible only through the use of free software and not through proprietary software. Secondly if our students learn only proprietary software, they will become dependant on it and also purchase proprietary software for their own individual or household use – this is largely the situation in India, where most households use proprietary software, since they have not even heard of free software. Private software vendors offer their software at extremely low prices to schools, because they want to make students dependant on their software and not explore alternatives. Thirdly, digital learning material created by the teachers and students (which the NCF regards as an important part of the learning process), created using proprietary software, will get locked into the proprietary formats of these applications and will require one to continue paying money even to open them and read them. Open standards and software exist precisely so that this is prevented. One needs to point out that proprietary locking, while free alternatives exist, is a ploy to continue milking the user for profits far into the future. We already have this unfortunate situation where teachers have made hundreds of presentations using proprietary software, to read which, each user needs to procure a copy of the software, thus making user pay for learning material created by the public school system.

The Indian Government has recently notified the 'policy on open standards in e-governance' by which proprietary standards should not be used in government.

Promoting local language resources through local language software

We may think that English is the 'natural' language of software. However software has no 'natural' language and the domination of English in software only indicates that there have been lesser efforts to extend software applications to other languages. We want to put in maximum effort to protect, grow and develop local languages in India.. This is especially important in Information Technology, so that its benefits are available to the entire community and not limited to English speaking citizens. Many countries are putting in lot of effort and resources into making software and software platforms as well as digital information resources in their own languages. For example, in Japan, France, Germany, China, Russia; Internet and other software applications as well as digital information have been developed in local languages. This form of local language software and applications development can be best done by local software engineers working with free software. In contrast, when proprietary software is used, changes can be done only by the vendor , and this means fewer people can be involved in this effort. More importantly, this causes our language software to become dependant on the market and business priorities of the sellers. Hence the public sector needs to lead the efforts in developing software and digital information in local language, and this can be done very well through the education system - in our network of schools, colleges and teacher education and support institutions. The countries mentioned above and Kerala have succeeded in creating their local eco-system for local language software and digital information. Back to top

The social argument for free software

“Samudaya” software – the social argument for free software Free software is created and modified by communities of students, volunteers, employees and entrepreneurs working together in a spirit of collaboration, while proprietary software is produced by business organisations only. Most of the free software has been produced in this collaborative manner by people acting in a spirit of contribution and collaboration across the world. Hence free software can also be called “Samudaya software”. Thus the use of free software is completely in line with the emphasis on development in public sector.

Promoting the local development through “Swadeshi” software Free software has other important economic benefits: development and independence. Although India has achieved political freedom 60 years ago, we are still suffering from economic colonisation. This is specially true in the IT Industry which is dominated by many foreign multinationals. When governments buys a software license, the license fees directly benefit multinationals based in foreign countries. However if free software is used, it can be further developed and customized by local software engineers, and local software enterprises and entrepreneurs can also provide support, consultancy, training, services etc. This means that money paid for such services remains in the local economy and also local IT capabilities are developed. This is a very critical consideration in the context of reducing imbalances in economic growth and livelihood opportunities. Public Sector has always been a place where local entrepreneurship has been promoted and using free software can promote local software engineer entrepreneurs. Kerala already has the vision of being the free software destination in India and the next such qualified state would be Gujarat. Free software can make the vision of the Chief Minister on 'IT' (Indian talent + Information technology = India Tomorrow) a reality.

Best use of limited resources – the economics of free software

Free software does not forbid selling and buying copies, but it means that the school system, after acquiring a copy, is free to make more and redistribute them - for instance, to all the schools. The schools do not need to pay for permission to use these copies. This creates the opportunity for great cost savings. In developing countries like India, there is really no reason to spend public money on proprietary software when equivalent free software is available.

For instance, in a state where there are 40,000 schools, with 5 computers for each class, then we would spend - 40,000 * 5 * 25,000 = 500,00,00,000 (Rupees 500 crores) on basic private software (a popular operating system and Office applications suite). On the other hand, if the option of free software is selected, then this entire money could be used for other priorities such as basic infrastructure, hardware, research into hardware innovations. If we take the entire Indian Public school system, comprising of over 1.3 million schools, the amount that we can avoid diverting to proprietary software can amount to more than 25,000 to even upto 100,000 crores.

Software as a public good

Since Governments function on the same principles of free software - transparency/openness, putting public and community interest over private interest, public software should be actively promoted within the public (Government) system and specially the education system. Proprietary software functions on principles of competition, non-transparency / closed nature and 'for-profit' and these are more aligned to the business world than to the Government sector. Hence while Proprietary software has an important role in the business world, the public sector should prefer and promote public software. Back to top

Why Public Software is not yet popular?

However there are also several obstacles in the adoption and promotion of free software, including by the public sector. These include issues relating to support and maintenance, user training as well as 'user friendliness' of the applications. However a much larger obstacle is the general lack of awareness about the concept of free software and existence of free software applications. Just as Xerox is equated to photocopying, software for most users only means Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office. People of course now buy 'Xerox' machines that may be manufactured by Canon or other companies, in the case of desktop software, people only are aware of Windows and MS Office. Hardware (Personal Computers and Laptops) vendors also usually bundle Windows with their systems and do not offer a choice to the customer (this is actually a malpractice that is anti-competitive). Customers hence are not told about possibilities of opting for free operating system and office applications which can reduce the cost of purchase. Also not all features of one application are available in another and if a person is used to one application, there is a huge inertia to move to another application. Also there is a impression amongst many users of proprietary software that free software applications are not user friendly, support and training is not available, drivers are not available and some applications run only on proprietary software platforms. These impressions are not entirely true, though many of them pertain to the larger issue of the creation and sustainance of a 'eco-system' for free software. It is also ironic that many of the users who believe proprietary software to be superior have never used free software. It would be fair for a user to use a comparable free software application as well for sometime before concluding about its user friendliness Back to top

Why Public Institutions should use Public software?

The social, political and economic externalities of adoption of Public Software by society are enormous. Since Public Software is 'software by the people, of the people and for the people' , it represents democratic values. Hence Governments have special responsibility to both adopt and promote Public Software. Government efforts are necessary and even sufficient to build the Public Software eco-system that can lead to the thriving and universal adoption of Public Software as a principle of software. Realising this, many Governments have adopted policies that clearly promote Public Software, both within Government as well as in public institutions. The section on Policy gives several instances where Governments have clearly supported Public Software, this includes many governments in India. In addition, the actual software deployed in governments also can be Public Software.

Since Governments function on the same principles of free software - transparency/openness, putting public and community interest over private interest, public software should be actively promoted within the public (Government) system and specially the education system. Private software functions on principles of competition, non-transparency / closedness and 'for-profit' and these are aligned to the business world than to the Government or non-profit sector. Hence while private software definitely has an important role in the business world, the public sector should prefer Public Software. Given the similarites in the nature of the public sector and Public Software, we can even term Public Software as Public Software or Sarvajanik Software.

Secondly, government cannot purchase software whose source code is not provided to it. This has security implications. The vendor can insert code that can monitor the activities of the Government staff using the software and this can be a security threat to the Government. For this reason, the defence department of the US and many countries will not purchase private software and insist on open source. This threat is not an empty one – recent newspaper reports said that the World Bank has debarred a software vendor from contracting with them, since the vendor installed spy software in the projects they did for the World Bank. It is reported that spyware was also installed in software used by nuclear reactors in Iran, which could have caused a nuclear disaster, if not detected.

Policies promoting FOSS in India

National Policy on ICT in school education

MHRD Circular

  • MHRD Circular on adoption of FOSS

Download circular

  • Tamil Nadu GO on FOSS

Download circular