From: Eugene Leitl (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Tue Feb 01 2000 - 21:26:12 PST
Why Linux Makes Sense for India
Falling costs have made computers more affordable to a larger section
of India's population. At the same time, the Internet has made the PC
a compelling proposition for fulfilling communications, education,
entertainment and information needs. Based on these two trends, the
market for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is likely
to take off significantly in India.
Yet, India faces a peculiar problem in that almost all popular
operating systems and applications packages are available only in
English, a language which is spoken by a mere ten percent of the
population. The lack of "Indianized" software is therefore an issue
that seriously hampers the growth of the Indian computer industry. For
almost 915 million Indians, the lack of Indian language interfaces is
one among many issues that hamper their ability to reap the benefits
of information technology. This is creating a new class of people who
live in what can be called as "Information Poverty" even as technology
becomes cheaper and cheaper.
At the infrastructure level, the barriers to information access are
dropping dramatically with new ISPs coming into India and several
players jockeying to provide bandwidth and other back-end services.
However, without operating systems, applications and Internet content
in Indian languages, key benefits of the digital
revolution-e-commerce, low cost communication through e-mail, access
to information databases, telemedicine services etc are denied to the
Indian masses. Giving Internet access to an Indian who does not know a
shred of English is like giving someone the keys to a car when there
are no roads to drive on!
One development that can help India out of this deadlock is a
national-level, collaborative effort to localise Linux to Indian
Linux is a free operating system that has gained phenomenal popularity
in recent times because it allows users to modify it to suit their own
needs. Linux is a collaborative effort of thousands of programmers
interacting over the Internet and is therefore not owned or controlled
by any one company. In this article, we outline the economic and
cultural imperatives for the localisation of Linux.
Free operating systems have several advantages for developing
countries because most software packages today are developed in the
west and then sold in developing countries where the parameters of
affordability are completely different. The Bangladeshi activist
Shahidul Alam expresses these differences poetically when he says, "A
modem costs more than a cow." The benefits of free software multiply
exponentially when we look at large-scale implementations. The
Government of Mexico is estimated to have saved close to $125 million
that would otherwise have been spent on proprietary systems when it
signed up Red Hat to implement Linux in more than 140,000 schools and
colleges across Mexico. In India too, large operators like World-Tel
(which plans to have a thousand Internet Centres in Tamil Nadu, with
each of them having between two to 20 PCs each) have expressed their
intention to go the free software way. The company is negotiating
similar deals with several other state governments. Organizations like
World-Tel, Internet centres, schools and homes etc. can be expected to
be significant users of Indian language operating systems.
The growth of content in platform-independent file formats (HTML, MP3
etc) has also reduced the dependence on a specific operating system,
making Linux a viable option.
Apart from these, there are cultural reasons that make Linux
attractive. The existing user interface paradigm of files and folders
evolved because computers were essentially designed for a western
audience familiar with real-life files and folders. There is no reason
to assume why the same paradigm should apply to a trader in Tamil Nadu
or a farmer in Madhya Pradesh.
The openness of Linux (and other free operating systems like Free BSD)
allows local linguistic groups to customise user interfaces in ways
that are far more culturally sensitive than any centrally controlled
approach. Linguistic groups that may be considered too small a market
by vendors can also take their destiny in their own hands by
customising the Linux interface to their own needs.
It is therefore clear that Linux is a very attractive long-term
solution to India's computing needs.
Localising the user interface of Linux to all the 18 official Indian
languages will involve changing the menus and help-text to Indian
languages and creating a whole stack of applications and tools (word
processors, browsers, spell-checkers etc.) to enable computing in
This is a task that involves both technical and linguistic challenges.
For example, should "File" simple be called "File" but written in
Indian scripts because it is now a part of popular usage? Or should we
find Indian language equivalents? In some cases it makes little sense.
For example, how many people know that the Hindi word for computer is
"sanghanak"? Or what is the Hindi equivalent for "Internet"? A very
sensitive balance has to be struck between practicality and preserving
Indian languages. However, Indian linguistic groups will have to wake
up to the fact that their languages will become outdated if they do
not become a part of the digital age. In fact, the Internet can be one
of the finest means of recording, archiving and propagating Indian
culture. Since culture is embedded in language to a significant
degree, the ability to compute in one's native language can give
Indian culture a significant boost.
However, one of the greatest roadblocks to computing in Indian
languages has been the lack of widely accepted standards. If millions
of people are able to freely e-mail each other, it is because of a
widely accepted standard called ASCII (American Standard Code for
Information Interchange). It is sad that in spite of claims that India
is a software superpower, we cannot harness IT for the benefit our own
nation's citizens and the greatest stumbling block is a lack of
agreement on standards. Check out ten different Hindi newspapers on
the Web to see for yourself. You'll end up downloading and installing
ten different fonts that (in most cases) can be used for browsing that
one site and nothing else. It is because of this reason that Hindi,
despite being one of the largest spoken languages in the world, has a
negligible presence on the Web. Informed sources feel that the Unicode
standard (which Microsoft has adopted for the upcoming Windows 2000
operating system) will soon become the de-facto standard settling the
language standards issue once and for all. If this prediction comes to
pass, it will significantly increase the domestic market for hardware,
software and services, which is restricted only to a small fraction of
India's population that understands English.
There are several initiatives that are underway in order to make this
possible. The National Centre for Software Technology has submitted a
proposal to the Technology Development in Indian Languages of the
Government of India. TheIndian Institute of Technology, Madras has
already started work on localising Linux to Malayalam and Tamil. My
own institute, the Indian Institute of Information Technology,
Bangalore has committed resources to this the "IndLinux" project and
started a collaborative effort to realise this goal. IndLinux has
attracted the interest of organizations like FreeOS.com and many
individuals located around the world.
In conclusion, it has to be said that the Indianisation of Linux is
probably one of the most practical ways of making information
technology available to millions and millions of Indians. It is now
upto linguistic and technical groups to collaborate and make things
Prof. Venkatesh Hariharan is with the Indian Institute of Information
Technology, Bangalore. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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