Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Success of Open Source

I finally managed to read the first chapter of Steven Weber's book, "The Success of Open Source." My first reaction on reading it was, "Wow! Somebody really gets it and can also explain it to others in a lucid way." The first chapter is available online and I encourage you to download it and read it without delay.

"The conventional notion of property is the right to exclude. Property in open source is configured fundamentally around the right to distribute, not the right to exclude."

One reason why open source appealed to me from the very beginning was because of the notion that we could grow richer by sharing. When we began localization of Linux to Hindi with in 1999, it was exciting to know that our effort would one day reach millions and millions of people could freely contribute and share this work. And mind you, I knew very little about Free Software or Open Source in 1999.

Call it an epiphany or whatever you will but it just felt so right and so good. Starting was probably one of the best decisions in my life.

In the industrial era, people grew richer by creating private property that excluded others. In the knowledge era, the open source model proves that we can all grow richer by sharing. So, why should we build the foundations of our country on the exclusionary notions of the industrial era?

When we started, there was never any doubt that we should use the GPL license because our intention was that those who spoke Hindi and other Indian languages should be able to use a computer with the same comfort that English language users enjoyed. We did not want our work to be captured by private interests and converted into a monopoly and the GPL with its "share-and-share-alike" model was the perfect vehicle for a developing country like India.

Our vision was the schools and colleges and villages and the poorest of the poor should be able to use computers in their own language. Our concern was that if such a fundamental tool as the computer was denied to our people, it would only accelerate the digital divide. That was not something that our conscience was comfortable with. Our hope was that more and more people would join us, help us with the translations, improve upon the software and share it freely so that the digital divide could be bridged rapidly. Looking back, our biggest self criticism is that we were not more ambitious and more courageous in our goals. The last eight years has only strenthened our convictions that open source is the path ahead for India.

There is still along way to go before we bridge the digital divide but we can We can look back with some satisfaction and see that the movement has grown quite a bit. I am reminded of the lovely lines of the Urdu poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri:

Main akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manzil magar,
Log saath aate gaye aur kaaravaan bantaa gayaa.

This loosely translates as:

We set out alone towards our goal,
but others kept joining us
and our caravan kept growing

And since I am on poetry, let me close with the last four lines from John Lennon's immortal Imagine:

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one.

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