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Kalam, Stallman discuss open source software

By Sandeep Dikshit

NEW DELHI, JAN. 31. The President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, last Thursday played host to two radically divergent poles of the global software industry.

The first to meet the President was Richard Stallman, the leading light of the free and open source software (FOSS) movement.

Ironically, the people waiting in the Presidential anteroom for the interaction to end were people from Microsoft.

Dr. Stallman has devoted his life to countering Microsoft's policy of selling software that cannot be changed because its code is kept a secret. It also cannot be shared because of licensing restrictions.

Talking to The Hindu, Dr. Stallman said the President was "receptive'' to his views that development of software should be seen as a political and social issue and not just from the technological point of view.

At a meeting that lasted 40 minutes, they discussed the need to give people an alternative way to use computers by popularising open source software (OSS).

"The President said this was a beautiful concept,'' said Dr. Stallman. Mr. Kalam had prepared for the meeting by downloading Dr. Stallman's biography from the Internet which in keeping with the FOSS movement guru's philosophy is available free of cost.

The two also went over several common interests, including the use of software in space programming. For the first time, the Mars Rovers vehicle is using OSS and it is reported to be functioning well.

They also reminisced on the development work on several software programmes in which both had taken interest.

Besides explaining the political philosophy of FOSS movement, Dr. Stallman said he also spoke to the President about the real intention behind Microsoft's plan to spread the use of computers in schools which was "akin to the colonial system of recruiting the local elite to help keep others in line.''

"I hope my discussion had some influence on the President and he will be able to resist being used that way.''

Dr. Stallman gave up a cushy teaching job in a prestigious American university after he perceived that "computer colonisation'' was spreading rapidly.

"There were only two options. Either I stopped using computers or I help everybody to escape. I chose the latter,'' he said.

He explained the concept behind FOSS. The word "free'' did not mean giving the software gratis.

Rather, it denoted the freedom to control the computer because the seller of FOSS also provided the source code or the manner in which a particular software was constructed.

"This way you can see how it works, you can change it and also share the software.''

By taking to FOSS, India would be able to cut down on the outflow of foreign exchange which was going to become very large in the near future.

So far, Microsoft licences were not being forced on individuals, but in the coming days, proprietary software companies would make it impossible for individuals to make copies clandestinely.

"The flood (outflow of foreign exchange) will then become a torrent,'' he said. Free software, in contrast, would encourage local information technology developers to innovate and adapt the software constantly. The result will be that money will circulate in the local economy, he said.

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