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    Posted on 10 October 2011
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    Sai Manish

    The Deadly Microsoft Embrace

    The Tamil Nadu government is adding costly MS software to laptops meant for poor students. It could cost Rs 10,200 Crore and hamper student growth

    Sai Manish
    New Delhi

    Illustration:Vikram Nongmaithem


    TAMIL NADU Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s battery of freebie pronouncements has spawned a mini freebie industry in the state with corporations, big and small, rushing in to bag a slice of the scrumptious business on offer. But the newest dole by the AIADMK government in the form of free laptops may become a millstone around the necks of lakhs of students.

    The Jaya government’s IT arm – the Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (ELCOT) – has taken out a tender for the supply of 9,12,000 laptops to be delivered this year. Over the next five years, close to 7 million laptops produced at a cost of over Rs 10,200 crore would be distributed. Jayalalithaa has sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking for central funds to implement this scheme.

    With so much at stake, the IT intelligentsia in India is accusing Microsoft of using a mixture of American diplomatic offensive and its ‘embrace, extend and extinguish’ strategy to make 7 million poor students of Tamil Nadu dependent on its products with their free laptops.

    ELCOT’s repeated changes in the tender have forced out free software and pushed in Microsoft products, a move that in the words of former ELCOT MD C Umashankar could ‘end up putting unproductive laptops with Windows in the hands of poor students’. This would entrap them in Microsoft’s proprietary web of licences, renewals, updates and upgrades.

    There are allegations against ELCOT that it deliberately issued a second tender favouring Microsoft by eliminating open source software from its list of specifications and removing academically useful hardware from the laptop in a bid to balance out the increased cost of using the Windows Operating system and the licensed MS Office.

    ELCOT advertised the first tender for the free distribution of over 9,12,000 laptops on June 4, 2011, after Jayalalithaa decided to implement another of her election promises. ELCOT was working on keeping the base price of the laptop at Rs 15,000 and, given the sheer scale of the order, the costs were expected to come down to Rs 10,000 a laptop.

    In June, ELCOT took out a tender with the following specifications: A dual boot system that had free open source Linux with the proprietary Microsoft Windows starter edition with antivirus software valid for a year. In addition, the laptop also had to have 320 GB hard drive, 1.3 megapixel web camera, Wi-Fi adapter and 8X DVD writer among other things.

    At a time when ELCOT was looking to reduce costs, the bundling of Microsoft Windows raised the price by Rs 5,000. Experts also point out that according to Microsoft’s terms of licencing with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), Windows always boots first irrespective of what a user wants when they start a laptop.

    Faced with a situation where it needed to cut costs and not offend one of the world’s most profitable and powerful corporations, ELCOT took out a second tender that stupefied the IT community in Tamil Nadu. In its new tender, ELCOT asked bidders to provide only Microsoft Windows and removed Linux from the list. ELCOT MD Atul Anand denies this though the tender documents clearly show this. “We will retain dual boot laptops to ensure uniformity in the supply of laptops by different vendors,” he said.

    He refused to take more questions on why they needed dual boot software when Kerala had set an example in the use of the free open source software through its 2007 IT policy.

    The Kerala programme, which is being heralded as the future of computing, aims to make the state the leader in e-literacy driven largely by Linux, which promotes the democratisation of it and brings it to every home.

    ELCOT removed the free OS even though Linux’s Ubuntu operating system comes for free and requires no updates, upgrades or expensive antivirus software to keep the laptop in shape.

    Ironically, ELCOT ’s own data centre at Taramani in Chennai uses IBM servers and is powered by the free and open source Linux platform. But when it came to students, it ditched the open source model for Microsoft.

    What is more startling is that in 2007, under the DMK government, ELCOT, then headed by a proactive and well-informed IAS officer C Umashankar, had shut the doors on Microsoft by ordering the migration of all government departments, panchayats and schools to Open Source Software after being convinced about its cost benefits and massive collaborative potential.

    Over 30,000 government and schoolteachers were to be trained in Linux. Umashankar recounted how he was approached a couple of times by Microsoft staffers who offered to sell the Windows OS for Rs 7,000 a computer. Umashankar quoted a price of Rs 500 saying that for a mere Rs 300 he could not only get an Operating System better than Windows but could also incorporate features like DVD drives, webcams, multimedia editing software, vector map drawing applications and hundreds of other academically helpful software.

    "India will be able to survive without Microsoft. But Microsoft will not be able to survive without India."

    Umashankar said Rs 300 was just the media cost and he would not need to pay it if the package was downloaded. Umashankar contended that MS Office did not allow saving files in open format but it was always possible to open MS Office files on an open source. This made the Windows OS and MS Office not only more expensive but also inferior. Umashankar’s proposals massively upgraded the systems and saved the Tamil Nadu government close to Rs 400 crore every year.

    “India will be able to survive without Microsoft. But Microsoft will not be able to survive without India. There is gross misconception among government officials that if we shift to open source platform, then Microsoft would get angry and the software industry would come to a halt”, Umashankar said, “This is a completely misplaced fear.”

    Even the special adviser to the Prime Minister, Sam Pitroda, believes that in a scheme like this there is no scope for burdening students with stifling software that would eventually become a liability for students. “I would strongly recommend going in for open source software since it gives students the capability to innovate, improvise and be creative. There is no difference between using expensive proprietary software and open source platforms and students who fear that their job prospects might be hurt because of using free software are completely misplaced in their fears,” Pitroda told TEHELKA.

    Umashankar’s words turned out to be prophetic when ELCOT took out a second tender on August 20, 2011. Not only had ELCOT booted out open source by only allowing Microsoft Windows OS on the systems, but it also removed vital hardware to accommodate the high cost of the Windows OS . The new tender removed the webcam and Wi-Fi adapter from the system while reducing the hard disk capacity to half (160 GB as opposed to 320 GB in the June tender). So ELCOT which wanted to reduce costs by about Rs 3000 on the base price of Rs 15,000 chose to dispose of hardware, which would benefit the students instead of shaving off the costs by including free software with extra hardware. Considering the growing penetration and relevance of internet in today's times, without the Wi-Fi adapter, how beneficial is a laptop (defined as a personal computer for mobile use) to students?

    SO WHAT changed between June 4 and August 20 that led to Microsoft’s OS being bundled into the laptop even though it meant higher costs and removing hardware from the system, which is helpful to students?

    Not only had ELCOT allowed only Microsoft Windows OS on the systems, but it also removed vital hardware to accommodate the high cost of the Windows OS

    Diplomatic observers point out to the stopover of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Chennai on July 20-21 when she met Jayalalithaa before flying out to Indonesia on a state visit. “The proximity of the Clintons and the Gates is well known to the world and needs no explanation. Hillary Clinton has often endorsed Microsoft’s views on piracy and curtailing open source software to protect Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Microsoft employees alone contributed close to $1,30,000 to Hillary’s presidential campaign while giving just half that amount to Obama’s campaign. And the revelations of WikiLeaks only show how the US has been forcing governments across the world to buy expensive Microsoft licences,” says Peter Gabriel, an online free software activist.

    Two cables, one originating in the embassy at Hanoi and the other at the embassy in Tunis, throw enough light on the scale and nature of the government-corporation nexus in the United States and its influence on world governments.

    According to one of the cables, the US government ‘intervened’ to force Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dzung to sign an agreement with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer that would require Hanoi to pay Microsoft $20 million for 3 lakh licences. This even though the Vietnamese PM wanted to hold the Microsoft deal as a deliverable till he met the US president later that year.

    Now put that deal in an Indian context where 68 lakh licences would be required under Jayalalithaa’s ambitious free laptop scheme and the business of diplomacy becomes clear. The Microsoft deal of 3 lakh licences was dubbed in the cable as ‘the most significant agreement Vietnam has ever signed with a US business’.

    Microsoft harped on IPR and the fact that Vietnam had the highest software piracy rate in Asia. “The cost of running MS Office is extremely prohibitive. That will only encourage students in Tamil Nadu to download pirated versions. Its own policies will encourage piracy,” says Umashankar. Even Microsoft’s corporate affairs director in Thailand had according to one cable ‘expressed concern over the Thailand government’s policy of promoting open source software model over the commercial source model as a means to curb piracy’.

    Another indication of what Microsoft is up to in Tamil Nadu can be understood from what the software giant did in Tunisia where only free software was being used in the government since 2001, which prevented Microsoft from participating in the Tunisian government’s tenders.

    Microsoft, like its various charitable acts in India through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also helped a charity for handicapped people run by the wife of the Tunisian president, Ben Ali. The confidential cable notes, ‘Microsoft has agreed to provide training to handicapped Tunisians to enable them to seek employment. The programme’s affiliation with Leila Ben Ali’s charity is indicative of the backroom manoeuvring sometimes required to finalise a deal. Microsoft’s reticence to fully disclose the details of the agreement shows Tunisia’s emphasis on secrecy over transparency. Ultimately, for Microsoft, the benefits outweigh the costs.’

    Microsoft eventually bagged the contract to supply 12,000 licences to the Tunisian government. It also made the Tunisian government change its tender rules for IT equipment, and every subsequent tender now specifies that equipment must be Microsoft-compatible, which until then had been prohibited by Tunisia’s open software policy.

    A similar scenario is unfolding in Tamil Nadu where despite a major shift to open source software in 2007, the state is moving back to laptops for poor rural students preloaded with Microsoft Windows.

    Microsoft’s profitability from its Windows OS is also facing serious competition from the emergence of smaller and faster devices according to a report by it research firm Gartner Inc. The report says there is an increase in demand for cell phones and tablets in the West as well as India.

    Gartner’s research shows that Microsoft Windows was installed in just 3.8 per cent of smart phones while Windows is not even counted much as an OS in the tablet market. The dominance of Google’s Android with 43 per cent market share in this growing segment has forced Microsoft to consolidate its most profitable Windows OS and Office by continuing to dominate the laptop and desktop market.

    "The cost of running MS Office is extremely prohibitive. That will only encourage students in Tamil Nadu to download pirated versions"

    A Microsoft spokesperson dodged most of the questions posed by TEHELKA to send in the following response. “The tender specifies a “Windows Starter or higher” version, so the implementing partners have the option to propose the most suitable version of Windows 7. Windows 7 Starter itself is specifically designed to cover all student essentials, such as using the internet, sending email, and creating documents whilst harnessing the most successful Operating System ever (today, more than 400 million Win7 licences have been sold worldwide). The implementing partners can also bundle additional software, if required, and the Windows Starter 7 (or higher version) supports standard drivers for webcams and Wi-Fi devices. The Operating System licenses are perpetual. If they want to, the students and educators will also be able to take advantage of more than 3,50,000 open source applications that run on Windows 7, as well as thousands of hardware devices.”

    “I don’t know what is going on through the minds of my fellow officers at ELCOT. I don’t think they have examined the pros and cons of the system they will deliver to the poor student. After one year, the performance of a Windows laptop goes down drastically. Using Windows would greatly hamper the productivity of the student using it and the machine would become useless within two years. This is a step backwards for Tamil Nadu. They thought since it is the tax payer’s money, it doesn’t matter what kind of laptop is given. Would anyone have bought a laptop for their personal use without vital hardware at an enhanced cost?” says Umashankar.

    Bengaluru-based software analyst Niranjan Bhargava says: “An inbuilt webcam would have helped poor students get access to qualitatively superior training from India’s centres of academic excellence, which are primarily concentrated in a few areas. A laptop without wireless capability is outdated. It is going back in time when we should be looking at leapfrogging broadband to improve wifi connectivity.”

    Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
    sai.manish@tehelka.com


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    Posted on 10 October 2011
 

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