The lack of a compelling desktop client version may stall the progress of Linux
MOBILE PHONE in hand and Blackberry peeping out of a pocket, a penguin in a lounge suit is seen taking a call: "Hey, Yahoo, Disney's on the other line. Call you back." Below the illustration, the blurb on the cover of Information Week magazine reads: `Open-source software, led by Linux, is barrelling into big business....' That was a year ago when major corporates from, Yahoo and Walt Disney to ABN Amro Bank and Continental Airlines, were in the news for having ditched their legacy computer systems and hitched their corporate wagons to the rising star of Open Source operating systems. With the largest technology service and software companies - IBM, Oracle, SAP - now offering two parallel streams of application platform: proprietary and open, corporations around the world now have a real choice.
Fast growing markets
Stick with what has worked well for them in the past, or make a change to a newer, more `open' environment, which seems to offer significant cost saving without sacrificing anything significant by way of security, speed or reliability. In recent weeks attention has focused on rapidly growing markets in the developing world where the relative absence of legacy computing systems, makes the choice more interesting. India is on the radar of dozens of software service providers, waiting and watching, which way large spenders will jump. And the media has caught on to the excitement: `Linux spreads its wings in India' reported Business Week earlier this month, with Nandini Lakshman reporting that eight state governments here have put their treasury operations on Linux systems, while Maharashtra is fuelling its revamped health care system on Open Source systems.Pankaj Mishra writes in the September 30 issue of CTO Forum that 18 of 28 Indian states have embraced Linux in some form or are running pilot e-governance schemes. The `Open Source Symposium' and Red Hat Developer Day on successive days in Bangalore last week, provided another opportunity to assess to what extent the Penguin's Progress across India is the unstoppable march many watchers seem to suggest. Dataquest's annual survey of the Indian Industry (July 15, 2006) suggested that the Linux market in India is around Rs 144 crore and that Red Hat was the giant of the Linux space garnering 95 per cent of the (distribution) pie while others included SuSe ( Novell), Debain and Knoppix.What is often forgotten is the fact that the Linux flavour or distribution is merely the tail that wags the dog... in this case a large dog worth Rs 128 of the Rs 144 crore and accounting for support, training, services and consulting. System integrators like Wipro, TCS, CMC, HCL and PCS have all discovered good business opportunities in building a layer of application on top of a distribution like Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
Indeed, Iain Gray, Red Hat's Senior Director for Global Support Services told development engineers at the Bangalore meet: "Altogether too much time is being spent on the infrastructure or the `middle' layer, when it should be spent on the application layer, which drives profit instead of eating into them."The message was implicit: Let Linux fuel your infrastructure, while you drive the lucrative applications riding on top of this stable system." Neat. But when states like Kerala talk of migrating their entire school systems to Open Source - it is time to examine whether idealism (and ideology) is not perhaps clouding the logic of cool common sense.The reason is simple: Open Source operating systems for the server-end of the enterprise - whether it is Red Hat or Suse or even the ubiquitous Java which Sun Microsystems is committed to make completely open-source by 2007 - are well evolved, with proven stability and security features. Open Source at the client end - particularly on the consumer desktop - is at best, a `work in progress.' Distribution leaders are the first to admit that their desktop Linux offerings are nowhere near as robust and user-friendly as the industry leader, Microsoft's Windows.
PC and TV
Maybe that is why nearly 97 per cent of Indian desktops still run a version of Windows. The new version, Vista, that is expected in early 2007, will feature even closer integration between PC and TV; will call for even more seamless mating with a host of digital devices. The right device drivers for every thing on this ever-growing list (and backward compatibility with last century's dot matrix printers) ... that is the true Achilles' heel of desktop Linux. "We are not yet there," Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik told me three years ago when he visited India, "I don't want to announce a desktop Linux unless our guys have got the user experience right." They're still not quite there, Red Hat's India President and Managing Director Nandu Pradhan told me ... but they are getting very close.And more interestingly, he added, a lot of the work to create a user friendly, dummy-proof desktop Linux, not just in English but in Indian languages, is being done by the company's Indian engineers in Bangalore.When Kerala launched its path breaking Akshaya programme of e-literacy, it created Malayalam language tools tailored to run on Windows XP. When Open Source advocates and lay fans asked why the training was restricted to the Microsoft platform, the state's Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (CDIT) was quick to replicate the same learning packages for a Linux PC.