Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Battle for Bangalore

India is turning into a battleground for the hearts and minds of software developers. On one side are the forces of opensourcing, ranged against them is Bill Gates's Microsoft. It is a battle neither can afford to lose, writes Gervase Markham

A nasty catfight has been going on in Washington and the American press. The essence of the battle calls into question the patriotism of CEOs who would sell out their countrymen for a quick buck by taking advantage of offshoring - a word guaranteed to cause an American software engineer to choke on his high-caffeine Jolt.

American companies, being squeezed by low-cost, high-work-ethic competition from Asia, are looking to cut overheads by outsourcing their IT jobs. The destination of much of this exodus is the booming tech sector of India, as the world's second most populous country leverages the widespread knowledge of English, a legacy of its colonial past. The nexus of this growth is Bangalore, which boasts more than 200 technology companies and the highest number of engineering colleges of any city in the world.

And now a different fight has begun in earnest. In terms of the global IT landscape, it is perhaps more significant. It is the battle for the hearts and minds of those tens of thousands of Indian software developers.

On one side is Microsoft, hoping to tempt them with visions of a smoothly-integrated development system from a single vendor. On the other side is the free software movement, talking about the importance of liberty, unrestrictive licensing and control of your own computing environment. At stake is the ability to harness the brainpower of an entire subcontinent of hackers.

In the most recent exchange of fire, Microsoft's shot made the loudest bang. Buoyed by a no doubt sincere but also profile-raising series of visits by Bill Gates to Delhi slums and AIDS counselling centres, there was extensive international coverage of Microsoft's "Ready Launch 2005" event at the Bangalore Palace. There, Gates announced a $1.7 billion investment in India over the next four years, split between "donations" of software to schools, job creation and building, and developer evangelism.

However, reading the reports, one can't help but see a slightly patronising tone in their approach. One announcement which typified this was "Code4Bill" - a recruiting exercise dressed up as a competition, involving a series of online tests and real-world interviews. These whittle down the entrants to a final 20 who win internships at Microsoft India, and maybe even (gasp!) a job. The lucky grand prize winner gets to work in the "Bill Gates Technical Assistants Team" in Redmond for a year.

By contrast, the FOSS.IN (FOSS stands for "free and open source software; .IN is the country code for India) conference, a week beforehand in the very same venue, received comparatively little publicity. There were 2,700 attendees gathered to hear big names in the Linux world such as Alan Cox, the impressively-bearded Welsh kernel hacker, who gave "brutally technical" programming talks. The event's sponsor list reads like a roll call in the ABM ("Anyone But Microsoft") army - Intel, Google, Sun, HP.

At first glance, despite the Microsoft marketing muscle and donated dollars, free software should be a shoo-in. In a country which wants to encourage entrepreneurship and expand its economy, why pay more for less control? However, the free software community has its own, rather unexpected hurdle to overcome - a cultural one. Despite India being "the world's largest consumer of free software", not much code is making its way back to the major projects. It seems that Indian developers often have a difficult time engaging with the community.

There have been several reasons suggested for this. One is that the Indian university system is more oriented to creating large numbers of employable graduates who pass tests, assembly-line style, than encouraging creativity and risk-taking. In a country where an engineering degree is the ticket to a reasonably comfortable life, no one wants to rock the boat. Another factor is that Indian developers are often most comfortable with a structured work plan and clearly-defined boundaries. This style of working is not a good fit for the self-motivated, somewhat chaotic style of the free software bazaar.

So at the moment, the scales are evenly balanced. India is there for the taking. In five years' time, will India be Coding 4 Bill, or Coding 2 Share?

Gervase Markham works for the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting choice and innovation on the internet. His blog is Hacking for Christ



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