30 January 2021

The "Atmanirbharta" of open source software

In the Indian startup circles, Atmanirbhar (self-reliance) is the word of the year. Technology startups of all shapes and sizes, “unicorns” and non-unicorns have incorporated the tri colour and the Made in India label into their brand messaging and advertising campaigns—marketing prowess and valuations built on top of rapid innovation enabled by Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) created all over the world by countless programmers volunteering their time and effort writing code for everyone to solve problems and build enterprises. Linux, the quintessential example of FOSS, if quantified, would turn out to have created trillions of dollars in value for humanity.

And yet, in India, where we have been riding a wave of digitisation, technological innovation, and entrepreneurship built on FOSS consumed freely from all over the world, there seems to be barely a whisper of it, let alone acknowledgement, amidst the growing cacophony of funding and valuation news and the constant streams of startup and product wisdom from entrepreneur turned gurus on social media. The triumphant stories of “unicorn” technology companies are entirely devoid of even passing mentions of FOSS on top of which the enterprises are built. Given this, there is little surprise in the unfortunate fact that despite having one of the largest developer pools in the world, one that represents a significant percentage of active traffic on global developer portals such as GitHub and StackOverflow, one would be hard pressed to name even a handful of significant FOSS projects that have originated in India. We seem to have fostered a culture of consuming FOSS technology and turning it into numerical valuations instead of creating sustainable value for society. That is, not giving back as much as we take, marring the spirit of the FOSS philosophy.

FOSS, what started out as a small movement four decades ago, is now pretty much a de facto model of software development and technological innovation. Its core tenet is the idea of four freedoms—the freedom to run software as one wishes, the freedom to study and modify its source code, the freedom to distribute copies, and the freedom to distribute modifications, thereby affording everyone the same freedoms. Mega corporations that derided the model in the early days now not only openly embrace it, but have turned into the biggest contributors and funders. The immense growth of the internet and technology in general over the last two decades can be attributed significantly to FOSS.

Thus, FOSS affords the ultimate framework for technological self-reliance. The freedom to truly own a piece of technology and build on it without having to worry about the plug being pulled by external actors. The freedom to build an enterprise without being at the mercy of unsustainable rent seeking behaviour. The freedom to quickly import the best technology from anywhere in the world and to adapt it for local empowerment and to build local capacity. To give back these freedoms and the source code, as they have been given to us. While it may not be practical to open source everything in all environments as originally envisioned thanks to how the socioeconomic, industry, regulatory, and internet service frameworks have come to be structured, there exists pragmatic paths, as evidenced by the fact that pretty much every piece of technology today is likely to built on top of FOSS components. Interestingly, the self-reliance FOSS affords makes even better sense for governments—the ability to develop and maintain technology locally, save humongous amounts of taxpayers’ money, and most importantly, to build internal capacity while involving local technological talent, creating not only true self-reliance, but skilled jobs.

Throughout the 2000s, India had several volunteer run FOSS movements and groups that gained momentum, spreading technological education and awareness—a period when the startup ecosystem had not yet fruitioned. The large IT service companies had already established massive silos that at least visibly, had little involvement in FOSS. They were economic powerhouses that created jobs at a large scale, albeit in the form of services rather than accessible, reusable technology for the broader society. Why they did not use their resources to spin off innovative FOSS enterprises that could have shaped the Indian technology landscape, at this point, is a futile question. Then, the rapid advent of the technology startup ecosystem in the 2010s coincided with the fizzling out of active volunteer groups, while ironically, the consumption of FOSS exploded exponentially, creating a vibrant exposition of services, apps, and innovation. The unlimited amounts of venture capital that followed has flowed into, as mentioned earlier, cliques that neither acknowledge nor produce FOSS proportionate to their levels of consumption and growth, a situation greatly exacerbated by the media frenzy for market valuations and unicorn rearing. The avant garde disruptors collectively erred here worse than the old guard whose foundations were at least laid in a different era.

If we genuinely want to see a technologically Atmanirbhar India with abundant local expertise, capacity, and innovation, a society that not just consumes, but produces high quality technology for itself and the world, as an industry, we ought to begin by publicly acknowledging the importance of FOSS in our enterprises, followed by investing time, effort, and resources into it, at least a fraction of what is being spent on projecting claims of self-reliance in slick tri colour marketing campaigns expounding innovation and growth. That is, actually make and give in India rather than just talk in India.

Originally published in the Economic Times