Open Source Vs Proprietary Software Battle

by Sonal Desai and Muntazir Abbas    Jul 10, 2009

A new front has opened in the war between Open Source and Proprietary software proponents. And it’s being fought on the e-governance turf.

Sparks have started flying between the proponents of open source and the supporters of proprietary system. This is because software body Nasscom, and MAIT submitted a last minute request to the department of information technology to review its stance on open source standards for awarding e-governance projects.

And at stake are various e-governance projects (valued approximately at Rs 20,000 crore) which are either on the verge of being implemented or where a request for proposal has to be floated. The policy aims to adopt a single and royalty-free standard for awarding e-governance projects, including the national ID project.
The draft was first circulated about two years back, and has seen many revisions over the period, would have converted into a mandate had not Nasscom and MAIT sought permission to consult industry experts and bodies on the same.
Nassom and MAIT have submitted a memo which urges the government bodies to consider total costs of ownerships of using the software products. Some of the committees in the department of Ministry of Information technology and others had started issuing policy recommendations on the use of open source for health, rural department and other progammes without actually considering the total programme management cost.
Naturally, the proposal has miffed open source proponents. In a letter to Som Mittal, president Nasscom, Venkatesh Hariharan, corporate affairs director at RedHat said, "We have been informed that Nasscom’s submission supports the inclusion of standards under Reasonable and Non Discriminatory (RAND) terms and also the usage of multiple standards in the same domain.

RedHat has been actively involved in the standards issue and we would like to place on record that we have not been consulted by Nasscom before this submission was made. We do not support the above recommendations."
Sources allege that the last minute submission is an impact of the network effect.’ Why is IT industry so special that we charge for standards? It is the network effect, once somebody uses a technology, everybody else follows. People allow the technology to become popular, file patents around it and charge royalty.
The sources found the argument on multiple standards na ve. "For an organisation of Nasscom’s stature, their latest argument completely detracts from their earlier point. It is the body representing IT industry in India, and they should have considered this," the sources said.
At present, 70 e-governance projects run on open source. Some very serious projects such as the national e-government service delivery gateway are on open source. Sources said contrary to common understanding, many people in the government have a sophisticated understanding of the concept. Besides, both Nasscom and MAIT are also a part of the apex body that has been debating and discussing the issue. "Where was the duo for the last two years?"
At their end, Nasscom, MAIT and Microsoft are opposing the policy as it may hurt business interests of some companies.
"Ways can be worked out commercially to make a large e-governance project viable. Making everything patent-free may not be a commercial proposition as there might not be good standards available. On the other hand, adopting a single standard may constrict the country to adopt an old standard, if a new and better standard emerges in future. We support multiple standards which ensure interoperability at zero cost," said Rajdeep Sehrawat, vice president, Nasscom has been quoted across the print medium.
Vinnie Mehta, executive director MAIT told CXOtoday that they are yet to formulate a consolidated stand on open standards from the industry. "We are in the process, and waiting for a collective decision, which is to be forwarded to DIT. It may take another 2-3 days."
 Jaijit Bhattacharya, country director (government strategy) at Sun Microsystems said, "I don’t know why Nasscom is opposing, and it’s a clear violation of its own set of rules. It facilitates e-governance initiatives and the government’s draft policy is one of the finest in the world. No country has taken such a comprehensive IT strategy that takes country to the growth track. Anyways, multiple standards is ridiculous, and it’s all up to government to decide." 
All said and done, the draft policy will guide the multi-billion dollar procurement of IT software and hardware across departments to ensure interoperability among disparate IT systems. The policy will ensure that India does not suffer a technology denial or lock-in of data (like electoral rolls or citizen data), in case of sanctions on India, like in case of a nuclear test.
"It should also be considered that in some of the projects the productivity and system management benefits of proprietary outweighed open source technologies, but because the expert committees constituted by the concerned department had mentioned OS, the user departments were asked to go in for expensive solutions. Also, from a commercial angle, Redhat server products almost cost the same as proprietary products. So, what these bodies are asking for is an unbiased and mutli-vendor option," said T.R. Madan Mohan, managing partner for Browne and Mohan. "These tactics are common practice in IT markets."