There is an abundant pool of free, community-oriented, creative resources that is constantly being improved upon to combat the world of patents, licences and digital restrictions of proprietary software. There is also a growing community of contributors who talk about freedom to run the software for any purpose, study how it works, have access to its source code, redistribute copies, and publish the modified and improved versions.
Prabhu Ramachandran started writing his own programs and putting them on the web when some of his colleagues in IIT-Madras needed to visualise data, and there were no free tools available then. Months later, he came up with MayaVi, a free scientific data visualiser, written in Python using Visualisation Toolkit for the graphics, as a counter to many non-free data visualisation software.
“I realised the need to contribute to the community because I was using many free compilers, editors and applications myself,” says Dr. Ramachandran, now faculty with the aerospace engineering department at IIT-Bombay. “The sheer joy of coding your own applications and getting acknowledged by hundreds of people who benefit from them is a learning experience because with more inputs, the code gets finer,” he says.
Operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS and applications such as Adobe Photoshop or CorelDraw are available in machine-readable form; the source code, or the human readable form, is kept secret. This kind of competition should have logically improved the quality of software over time but it did not, says V. Sasi Kumar, a free software activist, who is on the Board of Directors of Free Software Foundation-India.
He says some good software has actually been pushed out by inferior ones that were made popular through questionable, if not entirely unethical, business tactics.
Most free software activists strongly endorse the need to usher in affordable computerisation in schools by encouraging the use of free software. Making the syllabus vendor-neutral and giving teachers and students the choice of software that suits their budgets and needs, and thereby teaching the children principles, not products or brands, is what they aim for.
Atul Chitnis, founder, FOSS.in, believes that the battle between proprietary and free software is almost over, because all major technologies have at least a component of free software in them. “Affordability is also an issue; no venture capitalist will be ready to fund a start-up that plans to work entirely on proprietary software.”
Very recently, Microsoft signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the All-India Council for Technical Education for allowing students to access all the latest Microsoft tools free of cost. In the past five years, Google, as part of its Summer of Code Programme, has been offering student developers stipends to write code for various open source software projects.
Arun Chaganty, member of Linux Users' Group in IIT-M and a Google Summer of Code student, says engineering students do feel the need to have a specific take-away from programming outside normal regime, and opportunities to contribute to a software will bring them closer to a community of people which shares similar concerns.
The challenge for free software also lies in strengthening itself, including by presenting a user-friendly interface and facilitating everything from writing documents to online communication and creating multimedia content, in order to become a viable alternative to non-free software. There is a rising appetite for software that users can create, modify, use without restrictions and importantly trust, and it is equally significant for corporate bigwigs to acknowledge this upcoming surge.