Open-source groups back India’s free software program

Open-source groups in India are assisting the Indian government’s program to distribute productivity software for free in the country, even though the software being distributed includes some proprietary software.

“We decided we could not allow the CDs with the software to go without free software, because then it would give proprietary software a clear advantage,” Kiran Chandra, convenor of the Andhra Pradesh state chapter of the Free Software Foundation of India (FSF India), said Friday. “This was also an opportunity for us to proliferate free software,” he added. FSF India is an affiliate of the Free Software Foundation Inc. in Boston.

The CDs are being distributed to Indian citizens by the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), an Indian government research and development (R&D) organization based in Pune, as part of a government initiative to facilitate computing in local Indian languages.

The CD contains productivity software such as a Web browser, e-mail client and word processor, as well as tools such as a spell checker and optical character recognition software, according to R.K.V.S. Raman, staff scientist in C-DAC’s National Center for Software Technology wing. The software can also be downloaded at

While the browser, e-mail client and word processor are open-source applications and run on both Linux and Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, some of the utilities on the CD like the spell-checker and the optical character recognition software are closed-source and run only on Windows, Raman said.

The Andhra Pradesh chapter of FSF India assisted in developing a version of the OpenOffice productivity suite and other open-source software in the local Telugu language, while another open-source software group, Punlinux in Punjab state of India, has worked on a Punjabi language version of the open-source software on the CD.

Punlinux will continue to help in the localization of the open-source software included in the CD, Amanpreet Singh, team leader of Punlinux said Friday. “We have no problems participating in this project, even though it has proprietary software on it, because we are not distributing the CD,” said Singh. Punlinux’s target however is to make all the software on the CD open source, Singh added.

C-DAC is meanwhile working on a second release of the productivity software which is likely to be available by April next year, Raman said. The new release will have the applications better integrated with each other, and may also have some of the proprietary software replaced by open-source software, Raman added.

Working with open-source software groups has helped C-DAC’s efforts to get local-language versions of the productivity software out faster, as C-DAC does not have the expertise in these languages, Raman said. “We did the back-end integration of the software for the Punjabi and Telugu versions of the software,” he added. C-DAC has already identified open-source software groups to help bring out versions of the software in other Indian languages.

Five language versions of the productivity software have been completed, and three have been released since the program was launched earlier this year. The objective is to extend this program to all 22 languages in India, though to start with the focus is on 12 languages that are used very extensively in computing, Raman said.

Although it is under considerable pressure from organizations supporting open-source software, the Indian federal government as well as state governments have declined to take a decision favoring either open-source or proprietary software in education and electronic governance projects.

Microsoft announced in September a number of programs to support the Indian government’s efforts to bridge the digital divide in the country. These include support for nine Indian languages in Windows XP Starter Edition, the low-cost, stripped-down version of the Windows XP OS that the Redmond, Washington, company is shipping in some emerging economies.

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