[Fsf-friends] The Battle for Bangalore

Frederick Noronha (FN) fred@antispam.org
Fri Dec 23 01:33:02 IST 2005


The Battle for Bangalore

India is turning into a battleground for the hearts and minds of
software developers. On one side are the forces of opensourcing, ranged
against them is Bill Gates's Microsoft. It is a battle neither can
afford to lose, writes Gervase Markham

A nasty catfight has been going on in Washington and the American press.
The essence of the battle calls into question the patriotism of CEOs who
would sell out their countrymen for a quick buck by taking advantage of
offshoring - a word guaranteed to cause an American software engineer to
choke on his high-caffeine Jolt.

American companies, being squeezed by low-cost, high-work-ethic
competition from Asia, are looking to cut overheads by outsourcing their
IT jobs. The destination of much of this exodus is the booming tech
sector of India, as the world's second most populous country leverages
the widespread knowledge of English, a legacy of its colonial past. The
nexus of this growth is Bangalore, which boasts more than 200 technology
companies and the highest number of engineering colleges of any city in
the world.

And now a different fight has begun in earnest. In terms of the global
IT landscape, it is perhaps more significant. It is the battle for the
hearts and minds of those tens of thousands of Indian software

On one side is Microsoft, hoping to tempt them with visions of a
smoothly-integrated development system from a single vendor. On the
other side is the free software movement, talking about the importance
of liberty, unrestrictive licensing and control of your own computing
environment. At stake is the ability to harness the brainpower of an
entire subcontinent of hackers.

In the most recent exchange of fire, Microsoft's shot made the loudest
bang. Buoyed by a no doubt sincere but also profile-raising series of
visits by Bill Gates to Delhi slums and AIDS counselling centres, there
was extensive international coverage of Microsoft's "Ready Launch 2005"
event at the Bangalore Palace. There, Gates announced a $1.7 billion
investment in India over the next four years, split between "donations"
of software to schools, job creation and building, and developer

However, reading the reports, one can't help but see a slightly
patronising tone in their approach. One announcement which typified this
was "Code4Bill" - a recruiting exercise dressed up as a competition,
involving a series of online tests and real-world interviews. These
whittle down the entrants to a final 20 who win internships at Microsoft
India, and maybe even (gasp!) a job. The lucky grand prize winner gets
to work in the "Bill Gates Technical Assistants Team" in Redmond for a

By contrast, the FOSS.IN (FOSS stands for "free and open source
software; .IN is the country code for India) conference, a week
beforehand in the very same venue, received comparatively little
publicity. There were 2,700 attendees gathered to hear big names in the
Linux world such as Alan Cox, the impressively-bearded Welsh kernel
hacker, who gave "brutally technical" programming talks. The event's
sponsor list reads like a roll call in the ABM ("Anyone But Microsoft")
army - Intel, Google, Sun, HP.

At first glance, despite the Microsoft marketing muscle and donated
dollars, free software should be a shoo-in. In a country which wants to
encourage entrepreneurship and expand its economy, why pay more for less
control? However, the free software community has its own, rather
unexpected hurdle to overcome - a cultural one. Despite India being "the
world's largest consumer of free software", not much code is making its
way back to the major projects. It seems that Indian developers often
have a difficult time engaging with the community. 

There have been several reasons suggested for this. One is that the
Indian university system is more oriented to creating large numbers of
employable graduates who pass tests, assembly-line style, than
encouraging creativity and risk-taking. In a country where an
engineering degree is the ticket to a reasonably comfortable life, no
one wants to rock the boat. Another factor is that Indian developers are
often most comfortable with a structured work plan and clearly-defined
boundaries. This style of working is not a good fit for the
self-motivated, somewhat chaotic style of the free software bazaar.

So at the moment, the scales are evenly balanced. India is there for the
taking. In five years' time, will India be Coding 4 Bill, or Coding 2
Gervase Markham works for the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit
organisation dedicated to promoting choice and innovation on the
internet. His blog is Hacking for Christ

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