“The future of India, I believe, is tied to how innovative we can become.“
Michael Philps sits down with the Director of the International Centre For Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS), Satish Babu, for an informal interview about ICFOSS as an institution and the direction of IT in Kerala and India more broadly. Satish Babu is also the president of the Computer Society of India (CSI), and represented the CSI as the President of the South-East Asia Regional Computer Confederation (SEARCC) during 2012.
1. What are the government’s aims with ICFOSS? What is the background behind the mandate of this government initiative?
“This institution is the culmination of work done in the last decade on free and open source software in Kerala. The initial software has been around for about 30 years or so, but nobody was interested because it wasn’t touching anyone’s lives. But about 15 years back it was clear that it would be pervasive and would begin to touch people’s lives. At that point we realised that the civil society in Kerala was kind of left of centre, and we were concerned we could be trapped by information monopolies which are global companies where as a user we don’t have any role. We just end up using their stuff and we end up getting caught within their business strategy wherein we are not necessarily big stakeholders. As a country India is a poor country. Further down as citizens of a poor country we are the subjects of these big companies. But as a very vibrant civil society we wanted to see what the alternative was, so in sense when some of us software people brought in the concept of free software to Kerala we had a very receptive society, including the media. One of the very first things to do was to educate the media about why open source was a political imperative; forget the technology part, it is not so much about technology as long as it works. In Kerala the civil society and the media would only accept something that made sense in their political matrix. So our experience has been that we have had a very friendly and receptive audience here when we started talking about this because people felt that we should have options. We might choose this or that, but we have to have choices. We can’t be hemmed in because there is only one company and they produce what they want and the rest of us only use their stuff. So this was the aim with ICFOSS.”
2. How does ICFOSS interact with new businesses and how successful are the start up programmes?
“The problem we have with tech start up is that there is a lot of hype and excitement about start-ups, but technology is only one aspect of most the start-ups. The real problem with start-ups is not often the technology but the business idea. In many cases there is a weak business idea that people are trying to disguise as a technology enterprise, which doesn’t work very well. The likes of Hotmail long back are an example of one truly successfully business idea. About 1995/1996 we had hotmail and this was the idea of free email; that was actually a very unique idea. Subsequently was have had several examples and these types of tech start-ups are very hard because that is a core technology and kind of a business model. Currently there are two distinct models of start-ups, one of the ones is open source start up. An open source start up is not like a company, we call it a VME or Virtual Microenterprise. The VME model was started in 2003 because we felt that Kerala had lots of people who are sitting at home for various reasons, especially women. Many of them are educated or technically qualified but out of the mainstream. Secondly there are also men who are not able to cooperate in the IT mainstream and at places like Techno Park. So we need a model that was friendly towards these sections, and we said open source because they can take up work sitting at home.
3. So can this model be used to spread these opportunities outside the city and outside Technopark? Could this model help poorer areas move into the IT mainstream?
Yes this model also helps us to provide services to rural areas as well. The lightweight model of commercial enterprise and business units are not saddled with the overheads of a company and so on. Subsequently, there was not much activity happening because the IT business was booming and everyone was getting jobs and services, and there is a certain tendency in Kerala for people to prefer jobs, they do not want to take the risk the risk of starting an enterprise. So currently what is in the open source model does not have to be a company. Using the open source model we can train them and they can actually learn the skills and operate in different areas, they don’t have to be in Techno Park. Last June we had this company Apache Software Foundation, which is one of the largest open source companies in the world, send people to us. Out of the 50 people we sent about 21 projects were proposed to the Apache community, and 7 were selected. There are also other programmes like Google Summer of Code, which is a project that actually pays.”
4. Is there a particular success story you could share with us?
“The teachers union, which is a left union, came to us and said they would like to explore these opportunities for our students. Teachers came and told us they didn’t want to lock up their students for generations, and they asked if we could help them. The programme is called ‘IT at School’ which has been running for the last 7 years or so, and is 100% free software using Linux. It has about half a million students passing through it every year and they have been able to utilise open source software to its full extent by not just consuming open source, but also creating it.”
5. Is Kerala taking advantage of the recent developing opportunities in the phone application market, particularly Android applications?
“About 3 months back we did a project in Android programming with 60 people in attendance. Android is a very exciting area because we are doing lots of R & D on Android. We are doing this R & D for the Government of India’s Department of Information and Technology jointly with two other organizations. This particular research is on localisation. We are also working on localising software in terms of language. We can read no problem, but composing Malayalam using the interfaces in English is difficult. In Kerala this isn’t a big issue because most know English, but in principle it must be possible to input in our local language. Another research project is within gestures, this is quite popular and has been around for quite some time. However, a phone cannot always interpret movement of the arm. Say, for example, all I can do is move my hand. Basically this is for people with physical discomfort and people who might be missing parts of their hand. We are developing this user interface where the whole interface changes as the phone is moved. Accelerometers sense the phones position within three dimensions and we use some maths to pull out the shapes. These shapes then trigger inputs into the devise.”
6. What other problems do you see in the IT market? Are there any issues you think need to take priority locally, nationally or internationally?
“I have a lot of people coming here saying we want to incubate a company, but I start digging deeper and I find the product concept is very shallow. This is because their overall exposure to the business domain is not huge; they tend to see only the technology side of their idea. There are always generally bigger business problems lurking behind. They think they have learnt something from a course and they can make a company. They then put out feelers for work and they find it’s very hard. It’s not that easy to find work for younger entrepreneur because they need much deeper knowledge. Firms that sell their products on the international market should expect some difficulties. For the first round they should expect disappointment because the start-up revolution has got a lot of hype. However in the longer term I am more optimistic. The first generation always experiences some problems. The second generation will be wiser and will be more realistic about things from a market perspective. I cannot fully predict the future though, but I do know that there will be immediate disappointments.”
7. Where do you see the IT market in India in 2020?
“I do not subscribe to the view that India is an IT superpower, its all rhetoric. The big companies here are at the tail end of the food chain; they are doing the mechanical work. Okay, it needs to be done and there is a profit there, but the future of India, I believe, is tied to how innovative we can become. We are a very innovative people, and even the poorer people are innovative. We have no problems with English or maths and we already have a start in IT, so there is no reason why we cannot make a success of IT. Also, the West, including Europe, is facing many challenges including demographic challenges. They are already showing signs to closing up to immigrants. France is the toughest on immigrants. This will put constraints on your various human resource requirements, which for India is a good thing. For as long as the west needs to out source work from Europe or the U.S, we have the people here to do all the work. So what I am saying is that the challenge that the West is facing actually something very positive for India.”