June 17, 2005

Interview: Axmark and Behlendorf on OSS for India

Author: Mayank Sharma

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has a strong base here in India, and Richard Stallman has met the leaders of the country on more than one occasion. But with proprietary software businesses being so dominant and influential, all an average IT professional sees is a tug-of-war. We spoke with two open source business leaders -- David Axmark, co-founder of MySQL AB, and Brian Behlendorf, founder and CTO of CollabNet -- to understand the benefits of an open source IT economy for a country such as India.

NF: What does open source mean for India?

Axmark: An opportunity to compete on equal footing with the developed nations. An opportunity to market company and personal skills without a big budget. An opportunity to be independent of the large software vendors and be in control of your own destiny.

NF: The Indian development community is well known. How about its open source image?

Axmark: Well, its kind of non-existent as a contributor. India is more of a potential than a reality in this area.

NF: Why should companies think of using open source software? Which type of corporations, big or small, are likely to gain the most from the switch?

Axmark: The most obvious reason for the switch is of course to lower costs while still being fully legal. I do not think the size of the organization matters in this case. Another point is flexibility. OSS tends to be much more flexible, since there is no need to make limitations in the low-price option of your product, as proprietary software vendors do.

NF: What does India need to do to make the migration process easier for a small-business owner?

Axmark: India should have boxed solutions for the local market supporting local laws and regulations, languages, logistics, etc.

NF: Do you see more open source development companies coming to India for reasons other than cheap labour?

Behlendorf: Of course. "Labour" makes it sound like writing software is a mechanical work, like laying bricks to build a wall, or manufacturing steel beams. The authoring of software, and to only a slightly lesser degree the support and custom development of software, is a creative event. To accomplish that you need an educated and motivated staff, and you need a staff large enough to tackle the size of the development challenges we have. A command of the English language and an ability to communicate clearly in the written form is also important. For those reasons, a technical team from India gives our company more on a person-for-person basis than teams in most other countries would. And, the 12-1/2-hour time zone shift allows us to work on solving bugs or implementing features around the clock, if we manage things correctly. The difference in wages is, no doubt, a further incentive, but I predict that advantage will disappear if wages keep increasing as they have been. Finally, there is the business opportunity here for our software.

NF: Are there any lessons to be learned for the corporates in India from the community development model?

Axmark: Definitely. The Internet makes different development models available. As of now, OSS companies from the U.S. and E.U. are outsourcing some stuff to India; instead, companies could form in India and establish a bit of sales and marketing in the U.S. and E.U.

NF: Any lessons that India can learn from the success of MySQL and MySQL AB?

Axmark: Well, the main lesson should be that it is possible to start a successful company without special business knowledge or any capital if you are willing to work hard and basically start the company on your free time.

NF: Brian, You come to India often. Do you think people here, in general, are starting to get the hang of the whole open source movement?

Behlendorf: I am greatly encouraged by the interest in open source software for reasons beyond the fact that the price is right. I see enthusiasm for it on the basis of education -- that this body of published open source work represents a significant opportunity for students to learn how software works, and to learn good coding practices, particularly in a globally distributed project. I also see real interest in the economic independence and strength that an IT industry based on open source can bring to India. I hear of companies touting the flexibility of code they have the rights to modify, too. Where I think we could and will see improvement is in the involvement of Indian programmers in worldwide open source projects as significant contributors. For that to happen, the Indian companies using open source software need to realize and rationalize the value of making such contributions rather than keeping them to themselves. That is happening, but more slowly.

NF: Mitchell Kapor in a recent interview said Firefox has caused Microsoft to improve Internet Explorer. Is open source software becoming a benchmark for proprietary software vendors? How does this translate into the image of open source software?

Axmark: OSS removes bad proprietary software. Look for example to what happened to the compiler market after gcc came around in the '80s. Some compilers could handle the competition, but most just went away. As a customer, the choices become easier when there are fewer choices. Of course OSS in many cases produces too many choices.

NF: Open source awareness and adoption has been slow in India. What is the missing catalyst?

Axmark: I think Internet availability and price is something to look at. And history. Open source usually takes time to grow, and India lacks a long history.

NF: What about perception of open source Software among people who are aware of it? Many still think of it as hobby software. How will India pass the "can-you-really-make-money-using-OSS" barrier?

Axmark: It seems that India is a few years behind when it comes to the business view of OSS. In the west, companies like IBM, HP, Intel, Google, and Yahoo and all the new OSS-based startups like Sourcelabs and Spikesource have made OSS "OK" for businesses. The question there is whether it is always cheaper when people are expensive. In that sense, it turns out, OSS is even more cost-effective in India. Hopefully, India will catch up and start treating OSS as a real option.


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