Open Source India 2013, which started off in evangelical mode, is now a conference that means business

Ten editions ago, when a group of open source enthusiasts got together to organise a tech conference ‘free and open source’ was a technological niche. Back then, it’s only popular champion was Linux, and all attempts were to popularise Linux-based desktops. The tone was distinctly evangelical and the attempt was to convince technologists about the merits of the Linux ecosystem.

Today, the aura is very business-like at the ongoing three-day Open Source India 2013, the open source convention that moved to Bangalore four years ago to fill the void that Bangalore’s own left (though it returned last year with another edition).

The stalls outside the conference halls feature names that old-school FOSS enthusiasts would tell you belong to the ‘enemy camp’ — there’s Microsoft, Oracle and many other proprietary technology firms. The conferences and workshops are technical, and barring one or two sessions, they’re all about coding on various open source platforms.

‘A conscious step’

“The change in focus was a conscious step we took,” says Rahul Chopra, Editorial Director of EFY Enterprises, which organises the convention. The first step perhaps was a change in the name in 2006, when it was renamed from Linux Asia to Open Source India.

“When we started with the conference, things were radically different. Linux was the champion then, and the idea was to get people to use Linux on their desktops, and therefore, to get into the open source ecosystem,” he explains. But even as open source won several important battles — as far as tech infrastructure goes, open source has won hands down — the desktop remained unconquered, with early adopters all getting hooked on to the Windows way of life.

But then as the focus moved away from desktops in the second half of the noughties, several “open source champions” raised their head. Today, the world has changed, emphasises Mr. Chopra.

With Android — now a household name — retaining the gargantuan share of the smartphone market and many others such as Drupal, Perl PHP, Joomla and MySQL proving their merit in the tech world, open source has become a household name. “More importantly, there has been a big shift in the approach to open source in the tech community. If anything, young technologists want to get on board and there is a buzz around open products and platforms across technology domains,” he says.

Yes, there are the detractors or the puritans, concedes Mr. Chopra.

‘Open source strategy’

On Day 1 of the conference, organisers drew flak for hosting stalls by the champions of proprietary software. “We are aware of this criticism. But, we are convinced that today, open source is an industry-wide thing. No company can exist without an open source strategy, which is why there is nothing left to be evangelical anymore. From the tech biggies to the dotcoms, companies can’t exist without open source,” he says.

Indeed, open source platforms are a natural choice for the smaller companies because open source allows it to scale easier and without a huge cost differential.

Mandar Naik, Director-Platform Strategy at Microsoft India, is convinced that the open source community, and conferences, have moved from the ‘proprietary versus open source’ divide.

Traditionally perceived by advocates of software freedom as the enemy, proprietary software champion Microsoft has come a long way. In fact, as Mr. Naik points out, Microsoft last year formed its Open Source subsidiary, Microsoft Open Technologies Inc. “This was a notable step. We realise that we are a proprietary company but we were keen to engage with and embrace the open source community to our platforms,” he says.

Mixed source model

Mr. Naik believes that today it is impossible for any company to function in a non-mixed source model. “The mixed source environment is a reality, and you are seeing this in tech platforms across domains,” he says.

The open source ecosystem has finally matured in India, says Rohit Rai of MongoDB. Earlier, there was a mindset among consumers that free software must be free, free as in free beer, says Mr. Rai, referring to the popular definition of software freedom that tries to make the distinction between free beer and free speech.

Having worked for the past 12 years with RedHat and Novell, Mr. Rai says that open source was always technically successful but it is only now that it has attained financial success in the Indian market. “The real return for investments made by open source companies is only starting now,” he says, commenting on the market for open source in India.