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Free Software for India
Jamais Cascio, 30 May 05

cdac.jpgBrazil's position as the leading developing world champion of Free/Open Source Software may soon by challenged by India. The Indian government (working through the Technology Development for Indian Languages Programme and the independent Centre for Development of Advanced Computing) has begun distributing free CDs with localized versions of a variety of F/OSS applications. The first set of CDs contain Tamil-language versions of Firefox, OpenOffice, an email utility and a dictionary, as well as a variety of Tamil fonts (as the links suggest, all of these may also be downloaded directly from the TDIL website). Hindi will be next, with all 22 official languages of India covered eventually.

The CDs don't provide Linux, just applications (which can be installed under either Windows or Linux). The Indian government still has a ways to go before matching the ambition of Brazil's PC Conectado plan. But that doesn't mean that widespread free/open source software won't be useful. While the zero-cost aspect of the software is certainly appealing, the main value of F/OSS for India is the ability to modify it for local use:

[CDAC Researcher R.K.V.S.] Raman believes open-source software has two main advantages for the Indian population--it is relatively inexpensive and it can be modified fairly easily. "We are sometimes not comfortable with Western user interfaces--they don't make sense in our culture, particularly for rural people who haven't had much access to technology. If we want to modify the software we have to have access to the code," he said.

Too many developers of information technology for the developing world ignore issues of interface, assuming that a direct translation of menu items and alert text will suffice, or that developing world users have a less complex set of needs than Western users. The "Windows Starter Edition" rolling out soon from Microsoft is particularly bad in this regard, as not only does it not modify the interface for local cultures, it strips off most Windows features in exchange for a lower price. Windows Starter Edition is due out in India in June; we'll see if there's any market for it, especially once more Indian users get a taste of what Free/Open software can offer.

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