Thirty slides and one hour into the ‘utter meaninglessness of life without Oracle’ presentation I began to wonder if I had been suckered into paying to hear sales pitches that I did not understand or care for. This was just the first presentation of the first morning of LINUX Asia (February 8 to 10, 2006, New Delhi); the prospect of enduring such an onslaught for three more days was daunting to say the least.

I stayed on. And learned a few things, including the fact that the three odd thousand rupees I paid for the seminar would barely cover the cost of coffee, food and parking. I’d guess that sponsors would have paid for the rest, in exchange for some face time with a captive audience. Oracle, Red Hat, HP, Intel, Google were some of the big brand sponsors for the LINUX Asia 2006. A good cause for which they were entitled to claim their pound of flesh – a couple of hours of our attention – fortunately, distributed across three days.

The other insight has more to do with the nature of the beast itself — open source. But first, for the benefit of non-geeky readers, I should explain LINUX from a non-geek’s perspective. LINUX to me is the poster child of a non-corporate, community-based approach to creating software (perhaps knowledge) generally referred to as Open Source development. According to wikipedia, itself an open source encyclopedia, “unlike proprietary operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS, all of its (LINUX’s) underlying source code is available to the public for anyone to freely use, modify, improve, and redistribute”. It continues to explain open source as a model that “…allows for the concurrent use of different agendas and approaches…”

And that is exactly what the seminar offered. It accommodated the snake oil sellers as well as the anti-patent, knowledge-democratization banner wielders. And you as a guest had to tell the difference between them; just as you as a user of computers have to make a choice of software – tell the good software from bad and tell the good guys from the bad. It takes time and energy to make informed choices. But would you rather not have a choice?

That to me is the central question is absence of choice versus spoilt for choice. Almost every moment of every day, the modern urban consumer is spoilt for choice – be it cornflakes, moisturizers, mobile phones, holiday destinations or luxury cars. Sometimes the cost of experimenting and making a considered choice is high, sometimes it is relatively insignificant, but usually it is limited to the cost of purchase. Often consumers just stay with a previously made choice or a known brand unless there is a pressing need for change. I am happy with Kellogg and Vaseline so I stay with those choices already made, but I need to graduate to an SUV so I must make a choice…

In almost all categories, the consumer has a choice to either express or not express the multiple choices available. Very rarely is the consumer locked into a choice, very rarely dose the consumer pay more for changing. Imagine if you were forced to change your milk supplier, your fridge, and your cutlery if you decided to change the brand of your cornflakes. Sure, the cornflakes manufacturers would love to lock you down like that; they’d love to make a consortium with the milk suppliers, the fridge and cutlery manufacturers and lock you down for ever. Would you as a consumer like it? Would you rather have the choice to decide, and retain the option of changing your mind? Would you be willing to pay extra for that choice?

Software business is somewhat like that. For instance, the cost of changing operating systems (OS) or software far exceeds the cost of the software itself. If you change your OS you are forced to change most, if not all, of your application software and port all of your data to the new application. What does that mean? If I were to change my OS from MS Windows to LINUX, I will have to change my word processor too. And then I will have to convert all my word files into something else. Now imagine a large organization, all the users will not only convert their word files but also the organization’s payroll applications, financial data, their inventory and so on. The challenge and the cost associated with it can be and is daunting for those who do switch.

It is not my intention to scare you away from LINUX. Actually, I have decided to attempt a switch to LINUX at home – will keep you updated on how it goes at my blog I believe, that being locked into a vendor/supplier is never a good thing – people, organizations, even countries find it difficult to handle that sort of power, even when they are otherwise benign. I have suffered, as I am sure almost any consumer would have. Let me take a specific instance. I am currently locked into an O2 PDA and they have a non-standard power supply and headphone jack. Will they be fair to me when I need a replacement? Of course not. They will charge me many times more for each of those items, and I will have to buy. If I can control it, I’d rather not give anybody the power to rip me off like that.

But, what do you do about inertia. Will you be surprised to know that most presentations I attended were made from laptops running some version of Microsoft Windows. Most people are not willing to invest the time and effort required to make a considered choice but they wish to retain the right to complain about not having the choice. There is always safety in numbers; most people like to stay with the established leader. There is a saying in the business world that nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM. Incidentally, I learnt at the seminar that IBM appears to be backing LINUX in a big way.

Perhaps the most important take away I had from three days at LINUX Asia 2006 had to do with patents and intellectual property in general. I wonder if the first people who discovered fire or invented the wheel or created paper had gone and patented those things how would it have impacted human progress. Life on the planet would have been less bloody, more isolated, less polluted and more agrarian. May not have been so bad, eh!

– Ajay Jaiman

First published on February 21, 2006