“It wasn’t love at first sight with FOSS, but the idea was most appealing”

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Frederick Noronha (54) is a journalist and alternative book publisher. He has also been an early supporter of FOSS in India, since the late 1990s. When the country was building a network of ILUGs (India Linux User Groups) and FSUGs (Free Software User Groups), Noronha’s information-sharing activities were visible on many mailing lists across the country. Here are a few edited excerpts of his exclusive chat with Rahul Chopra, editorial director, EFY Group.

Q Can you recollect and share your first encounter with FOSS (or open source)?

Yes, I saw a rather bad looking desktop with Linux (which I now prefer to call GNU/Linux or FOSS) sometime in the mid or late 1980s. That was at the Centre for Education and Documentation (CED), in Colaba, Bombay, as it was still known.

Q What were your initial thoughts when you came across this technology?

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The CED was a lovely centre that collated and shared information, and journalists like me found it very useful. But it definitely wasn’t love at first sight with FOSS; it seemed too geeky for me, and while the idea (of sharing) was great, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Put simply, I was too technically illiterate to experiment with it.

More than the technology, I then gradually got impressed by the ideology of sharing knowledge (technology, in this case) generously and freely. As a journalist, it didn’t take me long to appreciate what benefits this could bring in. Sharing has its own power – not only in the case of code, but also sharing information, knowledge and so many other things. So, I sub-consciously made up my mind to get into it somehow. But that took some years to happen.

Q At that time, what had you foreseen as the future of FOSS?

We all expected FOSS to take over the desktop. We were wrong. Clearly wrong. But we were more than right in that FOSS took over the server space, influenced smartphones, and also so many other fields. You can check out a study, which I contributed to, way back in 2004 (headed by Niranjan Rajani of Finland), which looks at the impact of the FOSS way of thinking on different spheres of our world. It’s at http://www.itu.int/net/wsis/docs/background/themes/access/free_as_in_education_niranjan.pdf.

And, by the way, I’ve just set up a free and open library for my village in Goa.

Q Any individuals or platforms that played a significant role in strengthening your belief and connect with FOSS?

Very many… We managed to invite Richard Stallman over to Goa. At the international level, I managed to meet up with the Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, on a moonlit African night on the banks of Lake Victoria, over dinner. The UNDP-APDIP got convinced about the need to promote FOSS as a tool for development in the ‘developing’ countries.

There were so many others who contributed immensely. In India, there was Dr G. Nagarjuna of TIFR-Mumbai, whose dedication inspired me. Atul Chitnis of Bengaluru was a great organiser (even if a bit difficult to get along with at times), who unfortunately passed away very early. There are so many unknown developers, Indian too, who have contributed a lot. It was inspiring to meet these young people and learn from them.

It is essential to sustain the ‘movement’ that let FOSS come about in the first place, help it grow, and reach new areas.

Q Has FOSS affected your professional life in any way? Do share the details.

Yes, very much. But not in the technical ways you might think of. Rather, in very non-technical ways.

It spilled over into my media work, and the FOSS way of thinking allowed me to work for many happy and meaningful years as an ‘open source journalist’ and ‘crowd-sourced alternative publisher’.

It also deepened my interest in technology. With a team of up to 15 volunteers from six different South Asian countries, we could run BytesForAll for nearly a decade, without a paisa in funding. (BytesForAll was a site that promoted ideas on how IT and the Internet could help in social development. Its archives are still online at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers).

FOSS encouraged me to take my information-sharing to new levels. For instance, I have 62,000+ photographs shared on Flickr. It pushed me to get involved with Wikipedia, since way back in 2004. It enabled me to learn from bright 19 year olds, which, among other things enabled me to get a two-letter Twitter username (@fn). If it wasn’t for rubbing shoulders with them, I would have never got to know what Twitter was, so early on. It also helped me meet so many interesting people, write so many (hopefully, some interesting) stories, and take up new challenges. It helped me write on topics which few journos in India do, and also visit some charming parts of the globe – mainly in Asia and Africa, which I really loved.

As a by-product, since nearly two decades, I’ve been using some FOSS distro or the other (Red Hat, Ubuntu, Mint, Debian, etc) without losing a byte of data.

Q Has FOSS also affected any aspect of your personal life?

At one stage, my friends were surprised to see my wife use command line GNU/Linux to type and submit her articles (she is also a journalist). My son, aged 15, saved thousands of dollars using FOSS to create the electronic music he loves. My daughter, too, contributed to creating kids tutorials for TuxMaths, etc, when she was young.

FOSS helped me understand technology – to network with real people, make a lot of friends and to visit countries like Uganda, Cambodia, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand and more. It gave me a chance to write on what was happening in these parts of the world. And I loved the work I was doing as a result.

Q How do you see the current status of FOSS? Has it met the early expectations?

Yes and no. We have a lot to do to build the movement. We need to build skills. Some techies who have been in the movement for a long time tend to believe that not much needs to be done to promote it now, since it has got momentum of its own. But this is obviously wrong. There are new people entering every day, and they need to be treated with kindness and encouraged to take up this path seriously. The rate of acceptance could be speeded up vastly. A country like India has a huge stake in promoting this kind of sharable, easy-to-study-and-master technology.

Q How do you see the future of FOSS from here?

Getting accepted in the industry is only part of the story. It is essential to sustain the ‘movement’ that let FOSS come about in the first place, help it grow, and reach new areas. Let’s face it — the FOSS movement could have grown much faster. In fact, without as much emphasis on ‘building the movement’ as there once was, there is less ‘evangelisation’ taking place now. No movement can grow on auto pilot, without trouble being taken to make it grow.

Q How do you see the role of India (and Indians) with respect to FOSS?

First, much of it is unrecognised. This is where magazines like OSFY have a big role to play; our expectations are great. Second, the Indian techie needs to communicate better – in writing and orally – with counterparts across the globe. Third, we should not be shy to donate – code, documentation, whatever. Indians can make or break FOSS at the global level; if only we believe in ourselves.

Q Do you see India gaining more importance in the global FOSS ecosystem?

Most definitely, yes, but only if it knows how to package its talent, get noticed for it, and links up with the best in the world, to collaborate and co-code with them.

Q Your favourite authors or books related to FOSS?

Richard M. Stallman’s biography, a video series from Ubuntu on FOSS developments worldwide (though not a book), and a report from Finland, which I contributed a chapter to and mentioned earlier, are all favourites.

Q If you were fresh out of college today, would you do anything different from what you did with your team (with respect to FOSS) all those years ago?

No. Except not take such a long break from writing about it (because I wanted to do some locally-relevant work in book publishing in Goa). But then, one can’t do everything.

Q Earlier, many firms and luminaries dismissed FOSS as a fad. Now, almost all greet it with open arms. What’s your take on this?

Of course, it takes time for something really good to get noticed. By contrast, gimmicky computer products can become bestsellers in no time. This is why one feels that the early adopters sometimes pay a price (they put in the hard work, and don’t get sufficiently recognised, at times).

Q What would be your advice to youngsters who may be considering a career in FOSS-related technology?

This is not just a different technology; it’s an entirely new way of doing things that could indeed change your life. I would tell them to go for it. You have nothing to lose, but a world to gain. It can shape your life – it did that to mine.

Q Any advice for academicians?

I know that FOSS sounds counterintuitive, but do have faith. Try it. It works. You’ll be amazed at how many different spheres of life and work its principles can be applied to.

Q Any advice for the media?

Take FOSS seriously. There are a great many good stories out there just waiting to be reported on. Don’t dismiss everything done by the Indian techie. He (and, increasingly, she) might not be very articulate. But many are very deeply knowledged.

Q Any advice for entrepreneurs who are doing business around FOSS, or would want to?

Go for it. Be innovative. Make sure you get recognised and written about. I’m not saying so just because it’s in my interest, but good work becomes good work only if it gets noticed. FOSS can make a difference to the very real lives of the very real (and neglected) millions. Look at technology as your mission. As I’ve argued in 2003 [https://www.linuxjournal.com/article/6925], I see this as a form of Liberation Technology (with due apologies to those who coined the original term – no disrespect meant).

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