With a penguin as its mascot, Linux can be bought for a few hundred rupees or downloaded free from the Internet and the same software can be copied across dozens or hundreds of computers, unlike its proprietary counterparts such as Microsoft’s Windows. One can also modify the software programme code to suit individual needs.
While Microsoft say Windows is far ahead in terms of security and user convenience, supporters of the open source software, which no one owns, highlight its cost advantage and flexibility for a developing economy like India.
According to a study conducted by Red Hat India, a Linux vendor, the Linux operating system will be installed in 200,000 desktop personal computers in India by December 2003.
"Deployed on a large scale, Linux will save India a large amount of money," said Kiran Karnik, president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom).
He added that the open source movement was making rapid strides in India with the developer community evincing interest in the platform.
"But looking ahead, I don’t think it is going to be an either/or kind of situation. Both Microsoft’s Windows and Linux will have their own markets in the country and the future of the Indian computing system will be a mix of the two," Karnik said.
According to an official study, only 16 percent of the central government offices currently use Linux as a platform but this is expected to grow manifold in the coming years.
A number of states including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Maharashtra are either implementing or proposing to launch e-government projects using Linux operating system as the platform.
"One reason for the growth of Linux in the last 18 to 24 months in India is that every company - particularly small and medium-sized - wants to cut costs," says Atul Chitnis, an advisor to the Bangalore Linux Users’ Group and chief technology officer of Exocore Consulting.
Enthused by Linux’s cost advantage, the central government has unveiled a Linux India Initiative, which will include encouragement of free software solutions at the educational level.
The Karnataka state government has decided to use Linux for its ambitious Mahiti Sindhu programme, which seeks to computerise 1,000 primary schools in different parts of the state.
"It definitely has a very bright future. Over time, it is bound to dominate both Microsoft and Sun," said Vivek Kulkarni, secretary in the Karnataka government’s IT ministry. "It is cost effective and except for the lack of Linux programmers, there is really no other problem in it being used in e-governance projects," he said.
The treasury department of the Madhya Pradesh government has spent Rs.400 million for installation of computers with Linux software in their offices.
The state government has also spent nearly Rs 200 million to install 6,000 computer systems in schools across the state with the Linux software as part of its Rajiv Gandhi Shiksha Mission.
West Bengal Electronics Industry Development Corporation Ltd., the state’s nodal IT body, has also formed a Linux cell to support various official IT projects in and outside the state.
On the corporate front, global tech giant IBM is likely to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Karnataka government to set up a Linux software development centre at Hubli.
Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest software company, is reportedly planning to set up a Linux lab in its Delhi facility.
The Linux movement in India is being helped by thousands of volunteer programmers who are pushing for the source code to be available freely to anyone who wants to tweak it to suit his or her own needs.
Nasscom says that the rapid proliferation of Linux in worldwide markets, among large enterprises, is finding an echo in the Indian market as well.
"Linux has a lot to offer to business users - stability, completeness, and support. These are three major issues for any corporation that needs to depend on its computers," said Chitnis of the Bangalore Linux Users’ Group.
Chitnis said that Linux, with its intrinsic strength as an easily customisable operating system, could well be used to spark off an Indian language software revolution in the country that envelopes and percolates down to the grass-root levels.