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    South Asia
     Jan 28, 2005
Bridging India's digital divide with Linux
By Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI - Anyone who doubts the power of Linux needs only to get hold of a nifty, hand-held device that the Indian army plans to give soldiers in its million-strong army. It is unlikely that Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, ever intended this open-source operating system to be put to military use. But it is a mark of the robustness of this revolutionary operating system that the Indian army is adopting it, and has now completed user trials on the device.

Called SATHI (short for situational awareness and tactical hand-held information, and Hindi for buddy), the 875-gram device helps soldiers coordinate with one another on the battlefield. It is one of the many spin-offs of a low-cost computer developed indigenously, the basic version of which is available on the market for about US$200.

"This is the world's first integrated battlefield computer run on Linux," exulted Samyeer Metrani, general manager of Encore Software, a firm run by professors from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. The institute first conceived of what it called the "Simputer", a cheap personal computer for Indian users, three years ago. The irony is that though Indian software companies provide solutions to bigwigs such as Microsoft, most people in this country cannot afford to buy licensed software products. Like several other developing countries, India depends overwhelmingly on a flourishing cottage industry in assembled personal computers and pirated software. Institutional users - including central government departments and several state governments - have thus been steadily turning to open-source Linux for their needs.

The World Social Forum (WSF) opened on Wednesday in Porto Allegre, Brazil, with a focus on open information systems to go hand in hand with open political ethos. All of the 1,000-odd computers at the forum are using free software. The official website has been developed for the first time in "php", an open-source language. One of the aims of the WSF is to give a voice to the world's poor and excluded sectors. The WSF, which ends on Monday, is an annual gathering of civil society representatives, held as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, which brings together the world's political and business elite in the Swiss resort town of Davos every year.

"There are many misconceptions about Linux. It is much easier to install and use than many people realize," said Professor Edwin Wells, an active member of the Delhi Linux Users Group, who participates in programs that help beginners familiarize themselves with the operating system and its applications. "The best introduction to Linux is to use a bootable Linux 'distro' available on a single compact disc, from which Linux can be run directly without a hard disk. There is nothing like that in Windows," said Wells.

Officially, India's strategy is to make Linux the standard for students in all academic institutions while the government trains employees to help them work in a Linux environment with support from IBM. In Bangalore, a global information-technology hub, Linux now runs a Center of Competency (CoC), equipped with IBM hardware, that offers consulting, education and certification and allows users to test and gain insights into how Linux can help them. Jyoti Satyanathan, general manager for Linux-IBM in South and Southeast Asia, believes that the CoC is set to play a "significant role in the worldwide Linux community". Red Hat, a leading purveyor of Linux, now has offices in several Indian cities.

Microsoft has not been taking the steady encroachment of the Linux-IBM combine into its Indian turf lying down. Apart from partnerships with leading Indian software firms and investments in research and development, Microsoft runs a $20 million program to provide information-technology education. It aims to cover 80,000 teachers and 3.5 million students over the next two years.

"Cost is a factor, but Linux actually offers better security as the source code on proprietary software is always secret, making Linux-based solutions ideal for applications like the SATHI," said an official in the Department of Information Technology. One popular version of Simputer is Amida, a cross between a personal digital assistant (PDA) and a hand-held computer. It was built with support from Bharat Electronics Ltd, the public-sector giant that produces electronic devices for the defense industry.

Targeted at Indians who are techno-savvy but on the wrong side of the digital divide because of limited financial resources, Amida does everything that can be done on a standard notebook - web browsing, mailing web pages, and sending voice mail over wireless Internet. The Amida website offers downloadable programs for users of Windows and Macintosh operating systems. "Amida qualifies to be a truly converged device that incorporates the key functions of both PDA and cellular phone, and I find it ideal for use while traveling," said Amit Mittal, an enthusiast.

Because Amida has a slot for reading smart cards, it is also useful in non-urban settings. For instance, it allows a village panchayat (local body) or even a shopkeeper to hire out the device to individuals for specific periods - each user investing only in a smart card with his or her personal profile stored on it. Said Puneet Kumar, a commentator on information technology and an executive with WIPRO, the global software major: "Simputer demonstrates that no country need fear being left out of the computer revolution if they learn to adapt it to local conditions."

Kumar added that an example of India's unique formula of public-sector support for private entrepreneurship in information technology can be seen at the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), based in Pune city in the western state of Maharashtra. C-DAC was created in 1988 soon after the US government refused to sell supercomputers to India on the ground that they could be diverted for the country's missile and atomic energy programs.

Not only did C-DAC come up with a supercomputer within three years using the revolutionary parallel computing method, it also produced a series of ever more powerful machines called Param. Over a span of 15 years, C-DAC has converted the denial of the supercomputer into a challenge. It went on to deliver four generations of supercomputing platforms involving some 50 machines in active use not only in India but also in countries such as Russia, Canada, Germany and Singapore. By April 2003, C-DAC was able to open to the public the Terascale Supercomputing Facility within its Knowledge Park in Bangalore city. There it installed the Param Padma, a teraflop machine (capable of processing data at a trillion floating point operations a second) made by connecting together 248 ordinary computers and with a Linux option.

The Param Padma is now ranked 171 on the list of the world's top 500 supercomputers. C-DAC is also involved in enabling people in India and other countries in South Asia to use computers while working in their own languages. This is done by creating special packages such as the Indian Language Standard Codes, the Language Interface Card, the Indian Language Word Processor and the Indian Language Interface to Mobiles.

In October 2004, C-DAC launched a new project to develop software suites based on the open-source Linux operating system and designed to help community initiatives to produce and disseminate free and open-source software systems to break language barriers and bridge the digital divide.

(Inter Press Service/TerraViva)

HP launches Linux PCs, Asia spurning Microsoft
(Mar 19, '04)

Cheap CPUs may revolutionize China
(Mar 2, '04)

India's digital divide an ever-widening chasm
(May 21, '02)

Microsoft takes on Linux in India
(Nov 16, '02)

'Poor-man's computer' to educate young Indians
(Sep 22, '01)

Developing world leapfrogging the digital divide
(Feb 23, '00)


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