April 7, 2005

Interview: Sudhir Gandotra on what India's open source community needs

Author: Mayank Sharma

Sudhir Gandotra is an open source marketeer par excellence. He is best known for Kalculate, an accounting package for the Linux desktop, but Gandotra has been providing support for Linux desktops for almost a decade. In this interview he talks of various open source adoption barriers that exist in India, his experience marketing a product that mandates the use of a non-standard operating system, and the reasons behind his Linux desktop for India.

Gandotra is a man of importance in India's open source community. Louis Suarez-Potts of OpenOffice.org, speaking on a panel at the recently concluded Linux Asia 2005 event, suggested ways to increase the number of Linux desktops. He said India needs more OSS support vendors, and he was aware of only one -- Gandotra's OpenLX Inc. At the same event, Gandotra unveiled a Linux distribution tailor-made for India. Gandotra discussed both efforts with NewsForge.

How's the state of Linux in India? Where is it primarily being used?

Linux in India is growing. On the servers, Linux usage is increasing without anyone having to convince people. The environment for Linux and its acceptance has grown tremendously and it is growing all the time.

There are the stakeholders who need to work aggressively to get benefits from Linux. However, these stakeholders, so far, in my opinion, are giving less to Linux and are interested in just getting the benefits of Linux.

Who are the stakeholders you are talking of here?

The government, OEMs, the media, the trade associations (especially those such as MAIT, NASSCOM, FICCI, and others), the anti-piracy cell, and the LUGs.

The government is doing nothing at the policy level. It needs to see that the country can save more than US $400 million per year by promoting the shift from Windows to Linux.

OEMs see Linux only as a means to save the money they have pay to Microsoft, and hence are bothered about just providing a couple of CDs with their PCs. They don't encourage the users to use Linux. By giving Windows supported software with their Linux PC, they in fact are encouraging piracy. This way, they are actually doing more harm than good to Linux. They need to be responsible toward their clients. Lack of a strong consumer movement allows them to go scot-free.

Large users of computers, such as educational institutions, big companies, and others, need to evaluate their cost of computing and push towards Linux. They will need to overcome the resistance of learning, which is only psychological, as there is hardly any learning curve for a Windows desktop user to shift to a Linux desktop.

The Indian media, which is using Linux for many operations, also needs to focus more on open source technology.

Trade associations need to stop reflecting the interests of the high-paying sponsors and be responsible and answerable to smaller users and the society at large. In particular, MAIT and NASSCOM need to look at things with a wider view. Other business associations should also vigorously spread the knowledge of new technologies, particularly Linux, as it can help their members reduce the cost of computing and put an end to piracy.

Imagine if the anti-piracy cell started an awareness campaign telling people not only to stop piracy, but also showing them a way out. This could be a positive way of interaction between the law and the citizens.

Also the LUGs here need to put their house in order. Most of them are groups of consultants who are using the LUG for exposure to get business for themselves. What they need to do is a lot of
promotion. Many LUGs are moving in this direction but a lot more is required. Linux is a movement and LUGs have a definite role in this movement. Those who cannot fulfill this role need to leave the decision-making positions and others need to take over the LUGs and steer them in the right direction.

You have been providing support on Linux for a long time. Have your customers' requirements changed over the years? Do you see any trends?

From curiosity to necessity is the direction that Linux is moving. Some years ago, it was out of curiosity that people would listen. Today, they see it as an answer to their virus and crash issues, apart from lower cost of computing.

Your first product, Kalculate, was also India's first accounting package for Linux. How was that experience?

It has been a tough journey. There's a lot of satisfaction for having done something positive. But businesses also need revenues, and that aspect has been hurting a lot. We are still hopeful and have faith that the Linux desktop is around the corner.

Are you planning to market Kalkulate abroad as well?

Kalculate is being marketed abroad. There is a good initial response and it is being evaluated by users in countries like Dubai, Kuwait, Egypt, South Africa, Australia, Mauritius, Sri Lanka,
USA, Singapore, and Malaysia, among others.

Tell us something about OpenLX. Does India really need a distribution of its own?

India is called the superpower of computing and it has only the typing and speaking ability to its credit. All Indians who do something big/great/new work for companies abroad and give away all that credit to other countries.

India certainly needs to assert its position, and in that direction, OpenLX and Kalculate are small steps. A lot more needs to be done.

We need our own Linux distribution to stop spending crucial foreign exchange for things that can be locally produced. Also, it will encourage and inspire engineers here.

India is still at a nascent stage of open source adoption. What unique challenges does this throw up in marketing open source products?

This is pure hard work, and since there are no visible immediate benefits, people are not coming forward to do this. For example, Kalculate was introduced in 2002 (basic version). No distribution or others involved in Linux have come forward to ensure that Kalculate grows. This shows a lack of not only business sense toward innovations but also a lack of community feeling among the companies.

If the companies involved in the "Linux business" were to come together, a lot more could be done.
To further this, we have also launched an OpenLX Alliance, currently of nine companies from India, one from Dubai, and one from the US. More are expected to join in coming months. The alliance has started working on various fronts to pitch for joint business contracts of products and services on Linux across the globe. We hope to set an example of "companies with community feeling," something like a cooperative.

How important is an OEM alliance for an open source software developer or vendor?

Crucial. For example, we are ready to offer OpenLX free of cost (bundling expenses to be borne by the OEM) to the OEMs, providing they lower costs.

What's next on the cards? OpenLX preloaded boxes?

Who knows? But we will do a lot more to make Linux grow here, and try to do it as fast as possible.


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