Bill Gates in India

Bill Gates visited India last week, gave USD 100 million to fight AIDS and announced an investment of USD 400 million for various Microsoft initiatives – in education, setting up Academies, doing .Net projects, and growing its Hyderabad centre. [Business Week story: Bill Gates’s Indian Coronation]

What is not clear is how much of the USD 400 million is in cash and how much is in the form of Microsoft products.

The by-products of the visit:
– Indians see Bill Gates as a messiah for all the problems facing us
– No one in a position of power or influence wants to talk Linux and open-source, because their eyes are on the USD 400 million
– Indians feel greatly obliged to Gates for his contribution to the IT sector, and are therefore trying to fall over backwards to see how they can help him
– Few, if any, bothered to listen to Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation [more]

We are so short-sighted. We confuse Bill Gates’ USD 100 million AIDS philanthropy (which is very good) and his USD 400 million plan to conquer the Indian software market (which we think is also philanthropy). Microsoft is making the investment to control three key sectors in India: education, government and banking. They are among the most critical – the first for its influence in creating the next set of programmers (who Microsoft wants to raise on Windows) and the other two for their spending power.

India had a great opportunity to show the world its mettle: it should have rejected Gates’ largesse for education, and made a forthright announcement on using Linux and open-source in its schools. That would have set an example of leadership worldwide among emerging markets. But for some little near-term gains (which may or may not materialise), we are mortgaging the future. The education sector is critical – what Microsoft wants to do is to hardwire Windows and Office in the curriculum. A few years ago, with the alternatives not being good enough, one could have understood that. But now, there is no excuse.

Use Microsoft products for the international market when we do services, but when it comes to domestic decisions where cost is a very important consideration, India must go the open-source way. We need cost-effective computing solutions to make computing available to all – in the words of Bill Gates, “have a computer on every desk and in every home”. India’s strong stance on open-source would have forced Microsoft’s hand, and perhaps, made it reduce pricing on products for India and other emerging markets. Instead, we are only strengthening its hand, and jeopordising the very base that India needs to be more competitive in the future.

Full credit to Microsoft and Bill Gates: they’ve mastered the art of selling and “crossing the last mile”. I can think of no other industry where the buyers travel from all over and go to the seller from all over the country with blank cheques in return for a photo-op or a handshake or a sales pitch!

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.