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Updated: August 25, 2010 17:15 IST

Hacking for change

Deepa Kurup
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The FOSS community in Bangalore is sharply divided between those who view FOSS as a purely technology point and others who perceive it as activism. Here, FOSS activists protest against the move to bring software into the ambit of patent regimes'. File photo: K. Murali Kumar
The Hindu
The FOSS community in Bangalore is sharply divided between those who view FOSS as a purely technology point and others who perceive it as activism. Here, FOSS activists protest against the move to bring software into the ambit of patent regimes'. File photo: K. Murali Kumar

Nineteen years ago, on August 25, Linus Torvalds initiated the development of the Linux Kernel by creating a Free operating system. He proposed the name ‘Freax'. Better sense prevailed, and the name Linux was chosen over Torvald's hipper choice.

In what is now known — often pejoratively — as the ‘back office of the IT world', the once quaint operating system Linux is not so niche anymore. Sustained by the reams of code generated by passionate Linux hackers, zealous GNU Linux Users Groups that hope to use Free and Open Source Software (Foss) as a tool to bridge the ubiquitous technological divide and college GLUGs that keep the ‘tinkering' alive, Linux is no longer a ‘cool geeks only' concept confined to the world of academics and tech specialists.

Nineteen years ago, on August 25, Linus Torvalds initiated the development of the Linux Kernel when he announced on a mailing group that he had created a ‘Free' operating system. He named it ‘Freax'. Fortunately, better sense prevailed, and the name Linux was chosen over Torvald's hipper choice.

Today, Linux is more than just a buzzword or a complex Operating System for geeks and servers only. Free and Open Source Software has become so mainstream that even large corporations, even those known for their exclusive, closed and proprietary models, today contribute substantially to Open Source.

In Bangalore, Linux was used exclusively and extensively by academia. Early adopters of Linux, the scientific community in the Indian Institute of Science and research organisations deeply benefitted from free, collaborative and open nature of the GNU movement. So, the earliest informal Linux Users Groups were perhaps born in these academic circles.

In 1998, the Bangalore Linux Users Group (BLUG) jumped in. A group of zealous hackers, they made their mark when they participated in the Karnataka Government's flagship technology event Bangalore IT.com.

Later, they got together to organise a premier FOSS event, Linux Bangalore, where they exhibited Linux-based machines showcasing various applications. Visitors then noticed this little-known, niche operating system, and fellow geeks jumped on to the bandwagon.

Now defunct

While the original Linux Users Groups are now more or less defunct now — though old ‘Linux-buddies' still meet over coffee and discuss a hack or two — the younger Lugs have taken on a more evangelical role. Indeed, early Lugs like BLUG introduced the developer community to this then quaint operating system and built awareness and reams of code that sustained the Linux movement for years.

But today they are relegated to organising large-scale developers-only events like Foss.in. Atul Chitnis, a key member of BLUG, says that Lugs died because people simply stopped turning up at meetings.

While the traffic in Bangalore, that grew exponentially in the last decade, dissuaded passionate Linux hackers from turning up at meets, thus relegating LUG interactions to staid exchanges on e-mail groups, the fact that FOSS became mainstream over the years too played a part in the slow and steady demise of the older Lugs.

Just as BLUG faded into the sunset, even as founder members managed to keep it alive through large-scale events and hard-core technical hacker conferences such as Foss.in, newer groups of FOSS activists entered the scene.

Chitnis, who emphasises that he is in FOSS not for philosophy or ideology or politics, but for the love of technology and the hacker spirit, points out that FOSS.in has been able to turn around the image that India is just a consumer of FOSS.

“We got people to participate more and contribute more,” Chitnis says. Today, FOSS.in which continues to be a popular event in the developers' community attracts techies from all around the world.

A mass movement

While Chitnis and friends insist that the FOSS spirit is reflected in their popular tagline “Talk is cheap. Show me the Code”, the younger FOSS groups perceive it as a ‘mass movement'. In that sense, the FOSS technology community in Bangalore is sharply divided.

There are hardcore hackers who believe that FOSS activism is passé given that Open Source is now evidently mainstream.

Other groups such as the Free Software Users group (FSUG) and the Free Software Movement of Karnataka (FSMK) perceive FOSS as a means to drive “social change in a digital world”.

Ask Jayakumar H.S., who found that the ‘technical' LUGs could not sustain themselves because they did not look at the larger socio-political implications of FOSS. He believes that the Free Software movement, inspired by its founder Richard Stallman, is very different from its Open Source counterparts.

Members of FSMK, which functions much like the erstwhile LUGs in spirit with frequent meetings and hacking sessions, are clear that they are as much activists as technologists.

Jayakumar says when he started out attending LUG meetings, most of them were held in corporate offices and had a different set of people attending every time. He contrasts this to the 40-odd self-sustaining GLugs (GNU Lugs) that function in colleges across the State.

Activities

Besides taking FOSS to technical institutions, FSMK with the support of several FOSS advocacy NGOs such as ITForChange has conducted training camps for teachers in government schools.

While it has lobbied with the government for use of Linux-based operating systems and educational packages in schools, other FOSS enthusiasts in groups such as Sampada have worked actively to localise Linux Operating Systems in Kannada.

FSMK, which released a Kannada version of Debian – a GNU Linux operating system – is now engaged in developing educational tools in Kannada that can be used in secondary schools as ICT teaching aids.


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