FOSS.in founder ensured that Linux reached a wide audience, enthusing professional and amateur users
Atul Chitnis, technology expert and founder of one of India’s earliest Linux technology conferences, FOSS.in, insisted that Open Source was not “philosophy, ideology or politics,” but simply about technology and hacking.
His passing in Bangalore, at 51, on Monday of intestinal cancer brought tributes for his role in making Linux popular for a range of users: from the military to the small entrepreneur. The Berlin-born technologist, who grew up in Belgaum, Karnataka, was a passionate advocate of open source software, and inspired scores of Linux enthusiasts. His lasting achievement was to convince PC Quest magazine to carry the first ever Linux distribution in India on its cover CD in 1996.
This, for most Indians, was their first introduction to Linux. “It’s easy to underestimate the value of this,” said Kiran Jonalagadda, founder of HasGeek in Bangalore. The Linux distribution was put out there, for people to use, and the cover story offered a detailed guide on installing it. This was the first time users got to know about Linux, as something that wasn’t just being worked on by geeks in the U.S. He also wrote passionately about it — from operating systems to setting up mail servers.
As a columnist and consulting editor with PC Quest through the 1990s, Chitnis witnessed a time when India was still finding its way in the digital space, and home users were slowly logging on. Prasanto K. Roy, who worked with him at PC Quest, calls him a “super-guru.” The entire project, where the magazine gave away Linux distribution package CDs once a year, was driven by him. His biggest contribution was that he was keen on presenting technology and technology literature in as simple and user-friendly a manner as possible.
What he wrote on Linux, on modems and BBS (bulletin board system) was very popular. A lot of it became the biggest source of information and reference material for those who were trying to set up anything in that era.
Chitnis was a key member of the Bangalore Linux Users Group, which organised offline meets in early 1999. These passionately organised events laid the foundation for Linux Bangalore in 2001 — later renamed FOSS.in — a well-attended technology conference which turned 10 in 2010.
“Talk is cheap. Show me the code,” was Chitnis’ refrain to friends and adversaries. He was quoting Linus Torvalds. In a 2009 interview, he told The Hindu that the biggest achievement of FOSS.in (for Free and Open Source Software) was that it was able to change India’s image from being a mere consumer of software to a producer.
In his last Tweet, posted two days ago, he randomly mentions Pink Floyd’s “Shine on you crazy diamond,” a tribute song written by the band members to their former mate Syd Barret. Music lover, amateur musician and a part of a Bangalore-based internet radio station, Chitnis leaves behind a young legacy of software activism.