The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Red ring for software Goliath & David

New Delhi, Nov. 19: The red bastion of Bengal has turned into the latest battlefield for the long running war between Bill Gates’ multi-billion dollar Microsoft empire and its David-like challenger, Linux.

The state has already decided that its school computer literacy programme, which will cover some 5 lakh students, will teach both Linux and Windows MS, Microsoft’s patented software.

“We don't know which will work in the future...Our boys should have the option,” said infotech minister Manabendra Mukherjee.

But while this might be just another disconcerting news for Gates’ lieutenants in India, they are more concerned at the state’s decision that some of its departments will switch to Linux for computing. “The state pollution control board will be using Linux for its IT work,” Mukherjee said.

If Bengal turns to Linux in a big way, it could mean trouble for Microsoft. Latest figures compiled by CMIE and other independent research bodies indicate the state accounts for a tenth of the country’s total consumer market and is one of the fastest growing infotech services markets.

The government has already drawn up plans with an aim to contribute some 20 per cent of the nation’s total IT earnings by 2010, with a total income of $70 billion.

Mukherjee is now busy wooing IT and IT-enabled services providers to open shop in the state. Among the many who have queued up, attracted by Calcutta’s low-cost, educated workforce, is Wipro, which has already decided to set up an ITES centre at Salt Lake. The project will eventually employ 2,500 IT professionals.

What makes things look more bleak for Microsoft is that the Marxist government had recently cold shouldered Gates by refusing to send chief minister Budhadeb Bhattacharjee to a conclave he had called in Delhi of some 10 chief ministers. Most of the rest came scurrying to meet him.

The government, however, had sent a secretary-level officer to meet Gates. “As a matter of policy, we don’t send chief ministers flying to meet businessmen unless those businessmen are willing to invest big dollars in Bengal,” said a top state government official with a grin.

Jyoti Basu, too, had turned down an earlier invite to meet the Microsoft chief when he had first come to India.

Apparently, other states, too, are not exactly happy with Microsoft or Gates’ high profile meetings that yield little or no return. Madhya Pradesh has also announced that it is opening up to Linux by converting to the freeware for several of its e-governance initiatives.

What the industry fear is that other state governments and even the Centre may switch from patented Microsoft software to the free Linux download, which some argue is equally, if not more, versatile.

The battle between the two softwares has already been settled in favour of Linux in such industrial giants as Germany and Brazil, much to the consternation of the US firm.

Officials said the reason why they had chosen to cross over to Linux was partly because the state wanted a cheaper alternative from the proprietary software and partly because it wanted to play safe and have some of its systems in the software that may well overtake Microsoft worldwide.


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