What is Public Software?
Public Software is free software that is required by all, to participate in the digital society. Public Software needs to be seen as an entitlement, in the nature of public education or public health. As in the case of public education or public health, public institutions are responsible to ensure universal access to public software as well as support public participation in its creation, sharing, modification and improvement. Thus public software is free software, but it is more than that, it is also a public good.
Public software would cover operating system, basic text, number, image, audio and video editors, web browser, mail, screen readers etc. These applications are essential for universal access and participation in the digital society.
Why Public Software (Sarvajanika Software)?
The concept of Public Software has been evolved to reflect the role of the 'public' as full participants in building the free software ecosystem - as collaborative producers and as users.
Free software aims to provide all of us four freedoms so that we all can use, modify, study and share it without restrictions. Public software is free software and goes one step ahead. The idea is that basic software that all of us need (which would include all software required to be studied as part of our education) should not only be freely available, but also society must ensure its availability to all - here society includes the free software community but also the government / public institutions which are made responsible for ensuring its availability.
As an analogy, school education always had the 'free' element, thanks to the government or public school system (Government has setup schools which provide admission to all without any restrictions including economic/social etc making it 'free'). However now with the RTE, the government MUST make available schooling to all. It is now, additionally, an entitlement of each child. Not only children can get admission without restriction, in addition, a school must be accessible to them. In the human rights discourse - free software is a negative right (your right/freedom should NOT be restricted) to a positive right (you must get access to it). see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_right
While all public software must be free (to enable sharing etc), all free software need not be public software - software used by commercial enterprises, need not be public (availabilty ensured by society to all) though one can argue they should be free.
The aim of the concept of public software is to support thinking that just as public education is necesary to ensure access to all and hence needs public investnent and policy support to ensure such access, public software (with similar public funding/government support through policy and funding) is essential to make it available to all - only the voluntary efforts of free software community, though necessary and very important, would not be sufficient - they need the full backing of society/govt/NGOs/all public instittutions as in the case of other entitlements such as education, health etc. The backing is not only financial but also policy - for eg we think Govt must mandate use of free software wherever it is available for education (and fund applications where not available). Once Govt mandates as policy, free software in public instittuions, it would have a significant impact on societal adoption as well. Today governments think they should be 'neutral' - the idea of 'publicness' is to move them from this wrong neutrality. In the efforts to counter large proprietary vendors, we need to take support of public sector/govt along with the FOSS community. The term 'public' includes but is not restricted to governments, it covers all institutions working for the public interest such as NGOs, CBOs, academic institutions etc. All public institutions need to understand, adopt and promote public software, as this is essential for promoting public interest.
Thus public software conceptually supports the cause of free software, in addition it seeks to promote the idea that we MUST ensure it is available to all (with public funding and policy support).
Achieving freedom through “Swatantra” software
Though India is an important software centre, it has largely been a low-value software producer. We have call centers, Business Process Outsourcing etc. However high value software is largely produced in the US, Europe and other developed countries, not in India. One reason for this is that Indians have learnt to be 'end users' of software and not 'producers'.
Likewise, with proprietary software, students can learn only to be mere surface-level users of software. This is because, proprietary software hides the source code that explains and controls what the program does. With free software, our students can learn not only how to use software, but also how to understand it and change it. This is why free software is also called Swatantra or Mukt software.
Free software puts knowledge in our hands, while in the case of proprietary software, this knowledge is hidden by the vendor .
“Samudaya” software – the social argument for public software
- Free software is created and modified by communities of students, volunteers, employees and entrepreneurs working together in a spirit of collaboration, while proprietary software is produced by business organisations only.
- Most of the free software has been produced in this collaborative manner by people acting in a spirit of contribution and collaboration across the world. Hence free software can also be called “Samudaya software”. Thus the use of free software is completely in line with the emphasis on development in public sector.
Promoting the local development through “Swadeshi” software
Free software has other important economic benefits: Development and Independence. When governments buy a software license, the license fees directly benefit multinationals based in foreign countries. However if free software is used, it can be further developed and customized by local software engineers, and local software enterprises and entrepreneurs can also provide support, consultancy, training, services etc. This means that money paid for such services remains in the local economy and also local IT capabilities are developed. This is a very critical consideration in the context of reducing imbalances in economic growth and livelihood opportunities.
Software as a public good
- Since Governments function on the same principles of free software - transparency/openness, putting public and community interest over private interest, public software should be actively promoted within the public (Government) system and specially the education system.
- Proprietary software functions on principles of competition, non-transparency / closed nature and 'for-profit' and these are more aligned to the business world than to the Government sector.
- Since Public Software is 'software by the people, of the people and for the people' , it represents democratic values. Hence Governments have special responsibility to both adopt and promote Public Software.
- Government efforts are necessary and even sufficient to build the Public Software eco-system that can lead to the thriving and universal adoption of Public Software as a principle of software.
- Realising this, many Governments have adopted policies that clearly promote Public Software, both within Government as well as in public institutions.
- Secondly, Government cannot purchase software whose source code is not provided to it. This has security implications.
- The vendor can insert code that can monitor the activities of the Government staff using the software and this can be a security threat to the Government. For this reason, the defence department of the US and many countries will not purchase private software and insist on open source.
- Government need to clearly adopt and promote Public Software. As a first step, Government should launch a publicity campaign creating awareness of Public Software and its advantages to society and the economy.
- Government should encourage and support the creation of a thriving eco-system for Public Software by
- mandating that all Government software should be Public Software. Proprietary software should be prohibited. In case of popular software on the desktop/client side, this is easily met by opting for robust and superior quality Public Software applications already available. In case of server side products too Public Software software options are available and popular.
- encourage government training institutes to offer Public Software on the curriculum.
- mandating that Public Software should form part of the curriculum of colleges, as a part of ICT curriculum. This will create a body of people familiar with Public Software production.
- encourage college students to have localization projects. Support collaboration between colleges/universities and companies that work on Public Software platforms.
- prohibiting the use of proprietary software on all websites of the Government. All websites should be operable without issues using Public Software web browsers such as Firefox. Having a website or a download on the website which forces the user to purchase proprietary software is wrong. For e.g. if a web page can only be opened in Internet Explorer, it forces the user to purchase windows. Whereas if the site can open in Firefox or a similar Public Software browser, the user is not forced to purchase software.
- To reflect the spirit of the NCF, our schools should provide learners with the opportunity to create and modify software. This is possible only through the use of free software and not through proprietary software.
- Secondly if our students learn only proprietary software, they will become dependant on it and also purchase proprietary software for their own individual or household use – this is largely the situation in India, where most households use proprietary software, since they have not even heard of free software.
- Thirdly, digital learning material created by the teachers and students (which the NCF regards as an important part of the learning process), created using proprietary software, will get locked into the proprietary formats of these applications and will require one to continue paying money even to open them and read them.
- Multiple freely shareable software resources provides a diversity of learning experiences which is valuable. It also moves focus from product to concept.
- Education should not allow lock-in into proprietary products, that is detrimental to education.
- Education should allow for constructivist approaches, where teachers and learners can extend available knowledge.
- Public software allows for constructivist possibilities.
Apart from pedagogical benefits, public software has technological, economic and social benefits as well:
- Software that is essential for the participation of all in the digital society needs to be seen as an entitlement of all, just as public education or public health. Public Software is Free Software, allowing the freedom to use, study, modify and distribute the software. It would include operating systems, text/ number/ image/ audio/ video editors, web browsers etc.
- A recent study says that in 2000, 75% of stored information was in an analogue format such as video cassettes, but that by 2007, 94% of it was digital, such human societies' transition to a digital age creating an "information revolution" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12419672) Back to Top
Hence while Proprietary software has an important role in the business world, the public sector should prefer and promote public software.
Why Public Institutions should use only Public Software
Government offices must specifically ask for and insist on Free software when procuring computers. Most hardware vendors tend to promote private software since they have business benefits from this and do not even offer a choice to the buyer to opt for free software. This is also required from a 'least cost' (L0) principle of procurement, since free software will save a significant part of the total purchase costs. In fact, the price of private software (operating system and Office) can amount to even about 20-40% of total cost of computers purchased, and this can be saved with Free software options.
The Pedagogical Argument for Free Software
“Constructivist approach to learning”
The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005, produced by NCERT emphasizes that learning happens when the learner actively participates in the process of learning and not when the learner is a passive recipient of knowledge as a finished product. This is applicable to computer related learning as well. Software can be really learnt only when the learner actually is able to modify the code, write software, and develop applications.
Open standards and software exist precisely so that this is prevented. One needs to point out that proprietary locking, while free alternatives exist, is a ploy to continue milking the user for profits far into the future. We already have this unfortunate situation where teachers have made hundreds of presentations using proprietary software, to read which, each user needs to procure a copy of the software, thus making user pay for learning material created by the public school system.
Promoting Local Language Resources through Local Language Software
English in software only indicates that there have been lesser efforts to extend software applications to other languages. We want to put in maximum effort to protect, grow and develop local languages in India.
This is especially important in Information Technology, so that its benefits are available to the entire community and not limited to English speaking citizens.
For example, in Japan, France, Germany, China, Russia; Internet and other software applications as well as digital information have been developed in local languages. This form of local language software and applications development can be best done by local software engineers working with free software.
In contrast, when proprietary software is used, changes can be done only by the vendor, and this means fewer people can be involved in this effort.
Hence the public sector needs to lead the efforts in developing software and digital information in local language, and this can be done very well through the education system - in our network of schools, colleges and teacher education and support institutions. The countries mentioned above and Kerala have succeeded in creating their local Eco-System for local language software and digital information.
There are very significant pedagogical benefits from using publicly owned software tools. Learning is about concepts and processes, not products.Using proprietary tools keeps focus on specific product and product features rather than on concepts.