Against freedom

Why the AICTE's decision to partner with Microsoft is unimaginative

The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has become Microsoft's biggest customer for cloud services. By June 30, students and teachers at 11,500 technical institutions will be locked down to Microsoft's online productivity applications and storage. Cloud services reduce the cost of computing and increase reliability, so this is a good route to go. But a better fork in the same road could have been taken. What would it have cost to develop a free and open source cloud? Or to catch the interest of free and open source software providers who already offer such services to large populations? Even if big brands are in favour, Microsoft has competition which may have been more open.

Comparisons between proprietary and free and open systems usually focus on the cost advantage free means free to use. It is a compelling argument for poorer countries that face the challenge of educating, skilling and connecting large populations very rapidly. But the real, long-term advantages lie in the alternative meanings of free free to play with, free to change, free to reprogramme, free to apply to unintended purposes. And most importantly, free to learn from and free to share. When the users of a system have technical interests, the potential gains from these flavours of freedom are immense. Instead of being passive users of a locked system, they would be encouraged to be curious, to tinker with the very tools they use and innovate ways to adapt them to their needs or to future needs. The cloud itself could be adapted. And users would have access to at least 40,000 software packages to use, study or get involved in developing.

In the open source ecosystem, it's redundant to ask who the stakeholders and beneficiaries are. Over the long term, everyone owns the ecosystem and benefits from it. Besides, in calculating the benefit to education, a computation of savings should be accompanied by a projection of profits accruing to communities, the nation, the knowledge economy. And to students, who could start developing software professionally even before joining the workforce. In terms of opportunity cost, the AICTE's decision to partner with Microsoft is prudent but unimaginative.

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