Bill Gates Pumps Money into India, Education, Localization
When Richard M. Stallman's visit to India coincided with Bill Gates' trip here in early November, there naturally were some fireworks. Although the big story was the money Gates pledged to donate to India, ideals from the Free/Libre and open-source software world have had an impact.
During his trip, Stallman maintained a low profile and took a largely volunteer-supported visit of India, even while the ideas he spends a lifetime to uphold kept getting bounced back and forth across this vast country.
Gates, meanwhile, hogged the headlines with his millions of dollars donation to battle AIDS. Mainstream journalists fell over each other to get a wide range of stories from different parts of the country about the doings and sayings of the world's richest man.
Behind the scenes, however, a fascinating debate was underway. It came up mainly on the Internet, via mailing-lists, and from those who disagree strongly with the software path charted by Gates.
Obviously this debate has strong implications for the future of India's software industry. For a country that sees itself as a software-superpower in the making, the question of which path to choose presents a dilemma.
During his trip, Gates downplayed the challenge Microsoft faces from GNU/Linux. But one thing seems clear: the Microsoft emphasis on education and localization is aimed at taking on fields where GNU/Linux campaigners have been working already, areas where they have accumulated appreciable interest.
In India, the Microsoft Corporation chairman outlined a long list of monetary handouts.
$20 million to develop India's Shiksha edtech training programme (which has an ambitious target of training more than 80,000 teachers and 3.5 million students over several years);
$1 million to MIT's Media Lab Asia project;
a $25 million, five-year grant for a children's vaccine programme against Hepatitis B in the southern Andhra Pradesh state; and
$100 million to battle AIDS in India.
When meeting with journalists, Gates was asked whether his philanthropic activities are connected to operations of his company. He denied this connection, arguing that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is "completely independent" from his company.
In New Delhi, however, the Microsoft chief also unveiled an ambitious plan to invest $400 million in India for education, software localization and development. The $400 million donation will be invested over the next three years, Gates announced at a function to launch the Tablet PC.
Contending that it is important to localize software in India, Gates announced plans to market Microsoft XP and Office 11--code name: cash cow--in such Indian languages as Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam. Future plans include extended the localization efforts to nine more Indian languages in 2003. Work on this project is underway at Microsoft's development centre in Hyderabad.
That Gates' approach is clearly linked to the growing GNU/Linux campaigns in India is more than clear. Rajesh Mahapatra, writing for the Associated Press, commented, "Hoping to stave off a rise in the popularity of free, open-source software, Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates has announced a $400-million-US investment in India." He went on to say, "The three-year initiative--part philanthropy, part business boost--seeks to entrench products of the world's dominant software company in schools and among India's multitude of talented programmers."
During his trip, Gates sought to underplay India's increased support for GNU/Linux. He argued that Microsoft's Windows remains far ahead of its competition. But the Associated Press reports otherwise: "Indian software companies are increasingly opting for Linux. Users say they prefer the open-source system because its basic code is non-proprietary, can be freely modified and makes better sense for the developing world than Windows."
In an attempt to blunt criticism about proprietary software over-charging developing countries, Gates has argued that its prices are adjusted to be "appropriate to different segments".
Microsoft--having perhaps belatedly realized the importance of catching students young, after a number of GNU/Linux school projects were reported even in Indian locations like Goa, Delhi and Kerala--now talks about charging "less" or "nothing" for software used in education.
One educator from an engineering college in India confided to this writer that moves were afoot to push Windows harder in education. He commented, on condition of anonymity
We are in the process of acquiring an MSDN Academic Alliance--available for educational institutes only. It costs around 799$ per year and gives full access to [an] OS and programs for entire institute, including an unlimited number of copies. It is useful for students (as the course curriculum involves MS tools) and for the industry too at present. Career-minded [people] still persist with MS.
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