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Updated: October 1, 2013 18:42 IST

Setting code free

Deepa Kurup
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Members of Free Software Users Group (FSUG), Bangalore, staging a candle-light vigil to protest patenting Software, at Town hall in Bangalore. File Photo: K. Murali Kumar
The Hindu Members of Free Software Users Group (FSUG), Bangalore, staging a candle-light vigil to protest patenting Software, at Town hall in Bangalore. File Photo: K. Murali Kumar

It’s been 30 years since legendary hacker Richard Stallman typed a short missive informing the world about his plans for the future of software: ‘Free Unix!’. On September 23, 1983, he started work on GNU — a recursive acronym for GNU’s Not Unix — a UNIX-compatible software system that was ‘free’ in the truest sense of the word.

As Stallman would later go on to describe, the freedom wasn’t just about the price tag but about the freedom or liberty to run, copy, change, improve and distribute the software. In short, it took the control of software production from the hands of big business and proprietary strangleholds and gave it back to users. The battle, as Stallman would continually and fiercely emphasise for the next three decades, was as much about ideology as it was about technology.

Thirty years later, open source software is all around us — be it the widely-used Android operating system or variants of Linux that power your servers. But, software freedom — of the unfettered kind that Stallman advocated — remains a distant dream with the new and centralised technologies such as the cloud and ‘software as a service’ models constantly “making users surrender control over their computing”, as Stallman articulates in his 30th anniversary post this week.

Even in Bangalore, the technology capital of the country, much of the activity around Linux is more in the realm of open source movements. Linux user groups are popular among professionals, and short courses that train technologists on Linux platforms earn good money. Stallman’s message and movement, however, do continue to find resonance among the younger lot on campuses, where over the past decade, several GNU Linux User Groups or GLUGs — that distinguish themselves from the technology-focussed LUGs — have sprung up.

GLUGs

These GLUGs are technology-focussed groups that collaborate closely on writing code for free and open source projects, organise seminars on these technologies, take up causes that are related to digital freedom, and are near evangelical on using and working on Linux-based technologies. In fact, a few GLUGs have even managed to convince private engineering college managements to migrate entire laboratories — that were earlier deeply entrenched in a proprietary ecosystem — to free software systems. At least three leading engineering colleges have migrated completely to Linux systems in their common labs; even in subject labs that deal with high-level computing environments such as Matlab. GLUGs have managed to facilitate a migration from proprietary platforms such as Matlab to the free software option GNU Octave.

Says Prabodh C.P., assistant professor, CSE department at the Siddaganga Institute of Technology, Tumkur, and a free software activist: “GLUGS are a great way of exposing students to a world beyond books and tech theory. The idea is to enable students have a peer-to-peer learning approach, where they come together and learn together, somewhat like a common interest group.”

Mr. Prabodh explains that though at the outset GLUGs just start with discovering, learning and practising on new GNU Linux-based technologies, as the group matures, typically the technology sessions expand into looking at the ideological roots of free software and why it makes sense. “A lot of it also inspires students into activism around technology,” he explains.

Take the Free Software Movement of Karnataka (FSMK), which has helped set up over two dozen such GLUGs in the State. The large student base this movement has been able to build through GLUGs means that over the years the activism has looked not only at technology but also at issues that lie at the cusp of technology and society. The FSMK has organised seminars, talks and demonstrations on many issues related to technology, explains Mr. Prabodh. Opposing a university pact with proprietary software firm Microsoft, protesting international patent regimes that attempt to stifle technological innovation and Internet freedom, are among some of the issues that fired the imaginations of these young students.

As a rule, free and open source projects are current, constantly updated and deal with cutting-edge technologies. Developed collaboratively, it means that students work closely with each other and learn to not only use the code that's been put out by someone but also add to it and contribute it back. So apart from being an ethical choice, it is a great technological choice for students, says Mr. Prabodh. Academics-wise, universities are slow in keeping the syllabus current. “Any revisions that take place are once in four years, and they are mostly marginal. Free Software helps them work with the latest and current tools that are globally used. Another concern about engineering students is that they are not employable; working together in a team on a project, not just a local, but a global one gives them that exposure and training. It also adds value to their resume.”

Nitesh Jain, final year student at BMSIT and a GLUG member, agrees. He says being part of a GLUG opened up a whole world of opportunities. “I was earlier used to the Windows ecosystem, where obviously there was little tinkering I could do as the entire system is closed. Also, GLUGs have helped me collaborate with like-minded people and experts from the open source community from across the world. I found that often when I’d read something in my text, I could relate to it at a practical level cause I have worked on it in a Linux environment.”

Compared to his classmates, he says, he finds himself in control of code. For instance, when something simple happens like some code not running, he's able to debug it and get to the root of the error. “This is because generally the education system just teaches us to even approach practicals in a passive way. We learn what to do and try to get a certain output.” Also, he finds himself ahead of the syllabus — while his class teaches HTML 4, he has already worked with and is familiar with HTML 5.

Shashank Chakravarthy, another final year student and member of the GLUG at SJB Institute of Technology in Kengeri, says that even in engineering colleges there's little awareness on the many possibilities of working in a GNU Linux-based environment. “The general opinion is that it is an ecosystem that is user unfriendly. But, once people started learning, they realise that the system provides immense freedom.” My work at GLUGs gives me an opportunity to understand all that I learn in my theory classes in a deeper way, and then use it on current and collaborative projects.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan, a fresh engineering graduate, says that though she passed out of college in May, she returns to her college GLUG to work on projects. She says being part of a GLUG gave her confidence to enter the rather male-dominated world of technology and take on fresh challenges. “Generally, even girls in engineering colleges are diffident when it comes to hard core technology domains. This owes to their social conditioning. But what I've seen in GLUGs in my college and elsewhere is that girls get an opportunity to shed their inhibitions. GLUGs can go a long way in breaking the glass ceiling in technology.”

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