Keeping her election promise, the newly elected Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa announced the distribution of 9.12 lakh free laptops to students. The state-run Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (ELCOT) has invited international competitive tenders for this big order.
The picture seems bright and rosy to the common people but those who truly understand the technicalities of the tender, like the members of the ILUGC (Indian Linux Users Group-Chennai) are not happy with the “Technical Specifications” mandated by ELCOT. Page 57 of the tender talks about the operating system. According to the tender, ELCOT is looking for “Preloaded Dual Booting — Windows starter edition with anti-virus for 1 year license and Linux.”
This group of concerned citizens has been discussing the issue online since the tender was floated by ELCOT. T Shrinivasan, coordinator, ILUGC, says, “Assuming that the basic cost for the proprietary OS licence is Rs 1000, the cost of just the licences for the 9.12 lakh laptops will be a whopping amount of Rs 91.2 crore. Incidentally, the anti-virus software is offered as a part of the package for just one year. This implies that the students will have to pay to renew the license every year. The other option is that they opt for a pirated version of it. Given the poor financial situation of a majority of students, especially in the rural parts of the state, it is most likely that they would opt for the latter, which is a highly unethical and unsafe practice.”
In the case where students choose to renew the license and anti-virus software, the chances of them approaching the right people are few. Besides, it is a well known fact that Microsoft provides support for its products only for a stipulated time period. There have been no comments on how the students would get technical assistance once the product is officially withdrawn from the market.
On the other hand, GNU/Linux can perform all the functions of any proprietary OS. Shrinivasan says, “Since the laptops will be used by the students, their usage will be focused mainly to read/edit word documents, browse the Internet, for multimedia purposes, etc. All these functions can be accomplished with ease by the available GNU/Linux distributions. Much more educational software is produced by the FOSS community, which can be more useful than any proprietary product. It is worth mentioning here that there are specific GNU/Linux distributions available for educational purposes with a lot of educational software packages.”
Free and Open Source Software is more beneficial than any proprietary system in many other ways. Being free of cost in nature means less expenditure for the government. Apart from this, no licensing fees are required for the other software like an anti-virus, since applications running in the open source OS are also free. This reduces expenditure for the user as well. The free operating system can be customised to suit the needs of the students, by preloading the OS with educational applications and study materials. For instance, Edubuntu is aimed at students. Apart from that, the user can customise the laptop for future needs such as scientific research, electronics and software development, etc.
These operating systems can be customised to the extent that local languages (like Tamil) can also be incorporated. This can be appealing for the student community. The open source OSs are, by and large, free from viruses, which ensures a more stable system.
These benefits of an open source OS are sufficient reason for the government to make changes in the tender it has floated. It is worth mentioning here that such a system has already been implemented in a number of other Indian states and countries across the globe. The world has witnessed that the implementation of open source technology has proved useful and economical for its users. The neighbouring state of Kerala has successfully implemented open source technology in its schools. Students in Kerala have been using open source OSs since almost five years.
Shrinivasan says, “Apart from being a widely used platform, the proprietary operating system provides no real technical advantage. Hence its usage in these laptops is not an absolute necessity. We are planning to contact the government officials. ILUGC will request the government to re-evaluate its decision of providing dual booting laptops to the students. A single booting Linux-based system can sufficiently address the requirements of any student.”