Saturday, April 5, 2014

Conference: Open source for startups

My first self-motivated decision to be a part of the larger software community by attending a software conference today at IIM-B:

It was an interesting conference with a panel discussion : Doing Business With Open Source

Panel members
• Prof. Rahul De – Hewlett-Packard Chair Professor @ IIMB (Moderator)
• Ms. Mishi Choudhary, Legal Director @ New York based Software Freedom Law Center
• Mr. Charudath Doddanakatte, Co-Founder & CTO of MyCloudPortal
• Mr. Abinash Saikia,   Co-Founder, EnCloudEn
• Mr. Abhas Abhinav, Founder & CEO of DeepRoot Linux
• Mr. Rohan Joshi, Founder, WokenSoft

 An intro by prof.De and Ms.Mischi touched upon how the non-proprietary FOSS final product has no price signalling capability in the market (price being an indicator of quality) and how it affects the adoption rates of FOSS. About how to face competition in the market while using FOSS, especially since seeing it as a reusable repository of code isn't reliable because of the general lack of documentation and the high rate of disruption that the IT industry is bringing (books, and the old music industry disappearing at a high rate being one example).

The talk randomly encompassed points like
  • Warranties of performance of FOSS
  • What if the code that you're borrowing goes under
  • When to upstream code to contribute back to the community
  • Which license is best for reuse

Contributing to Open Source
Both Prof. De and the other panelists spoke of how the community benefits and improves, when we give back to it. Many people download free softwares, but rarely contribute back to it. The practice of contributing back has to be encouraged.

Is GPL bad?
Some panelists referred to the GPL with adjectives like 'plague', 'viral' and a 'cancer'. Indicating how whatever the GPL touches, becomes GPL too. Indeed, people seem to take a dislike to being forced to expose their code as open source :-) During the question-answer session that followed, I tried giving it a different perspective, that the GPL was more like the Midas touch, where whatever it touches becomes gold. Free software really could be considered the equivalent of gold. It's the hard-work of a lot of people, intellectual contribution and time that's being put into it.

Malicious code in free software
Ms. Mishi (she gives free legal service to Debian, OpenSSL etc.) tried encouraging people to make their softwares GPL, as you're giving back to the community, saying that you'd be able to use even the competitors code. Mr.Abhas adding to that, saying then, the competition will no longer be about the code, but about the services provided. I asked the panel about the issue of trust in such a scenario, where malicious code could also be part of open source software and there's no real way to verify it even if you have the code with you. Mr. Abhas rightly said it would depend on the reputation of the source of software, and on asking the lawyer among the panelists, Ms.Mishi replied, saying that what a lawyer would ask you in such a situation is, "you got something for free and you got screwed?", well there's nothing you can legally do in such a situation; but apparently banks like Goldman Sachs also use open source software.

Did you know that software which does not having any licensing is implicitly protected by the copyright law? One example being Qmail.

Helping hands
So how do people who write free software make money? Something I was surprised to learn, was that the people at the Apache software foundation made their money via day jobs and by teaching people about the free softwares they created. Apparently, groups like the Open Invention Network and the Software Freedom Law Center etc. provide a helping hand to entrepreneurs for legal issues that arise while using FOSS. They help with knowing which legal notices to ignore and which to escalate, especially because for a startup, it's necessary for them to focus on the product in order to grow and survive in the market, rather than spend time fighting legal battles. We were also introduced to a term called "defensive suspension". The free software people are just as savvy about intellectual property rights as companies creating proprietary software. They have lawyers (paid) to help them. The GPL violation foundation and the Software Freedom Conservancy also come to the help of entrepreneurs.

Patenting software
Long back when a senior person I know was encouraging people to apply for patents. I had done some of my own research to end up find out that India doesn't allow software patents. The same was mentioned in the conference. One person in the audience deferred by saying that patents are allowed for embedded software, to which Ms.Mishi replied that only an embedded device can be patented; the software itself won't be. *sigh* wish India would encourage patenting too. At least the Kerala government had taken a good step forward in wanting to be a nodal agency for FOSS.

The conference was also a nice way of networking with some interesting people who introduced me to sysplay, the computer club, linux trainings, sogo and deeprootlinux. There was also a cryptography wiz enthusiastically taking pics of everyone, for 'documentary evidence' as he called it. Weird.

I'd encourage more people to participate in such conferences and discussions (more than 200 people had been part of this conference). It's a very good way to expand your knowledge and meet enthusiastic people in the field.

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