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Alas, Poor (Indian) Penguin

[Originally published in the Times of India]

India. Second most populated country in the world. Like Australia, one of those countries so physically big, people often forget it’s actually part of a continent and not one in itself. In the late nineties, it was also one of the silent partners in the dotcom boom, with an estimated 60% of the development work originated in the States being outsourced to firms in the subcontinent. Vast numbers of school-goers there chose (and still choose) to study I.T.-related topics with the lure of America and the West in one eye and a programming manual under the other. With the lack of unions, almost limitless potential staff and cheap labour costs on top of that, several of the big firms - Compaq, Microsoft, Unisys and Bell Labs, to name a few - also set up R&D shops out there.

Naturally, while essentials are fundamentally cheaper to purchase out there, most things electrical are just as costly as they are in the West if not more so. Hardware is shared between families and friends if they can afford even a basic machine and pirate software is rife. Windows 2000 Advanced Server for a couple of pounds anyone? Not good, but not surprising. Enter Linux and the open source software; the ideal solution to an economy based on very little. Linux user groups exist all over India and in Bangalore, the I.T. capital of India, there were as many companies that use Linux as Windows. The biggest tech show in the country, IT.COM, even had its own Linux pavilion and yet by the end of the nineties, there were still no major Indian events with the aim of promoting the development and use of this incredibly potent area of software. March 2000 saw that changed for the better.

Backed by Wrox Press, BangLinux 2000 was held at the Indian Institute of Science and Taj West Hotel, Bangalore to an overflowing community of developers, businessmen and enthusiasts. Such luminaries as Richard Stallman (Free Software Foundation), Nat Friedman (Gnome), Rasmus Lerdorf (PHP), Alan Cox and Jens Axboe (kernel developers) lent their time for free to the proceedings. Even the Indian government lent their support to the project with the Karnatakan state minister for I.T. making an appearance to open the proceedings. Attendees were treated to glimpses of the future of their world by the people creating it.

Attendees and speakers alike felt and appreciated the special atmosphere of this unique event. Organized somewhat at random on a shoestring budget by a couple of people on site and a few more in the UK, it was a massive success in every department save the budget which, because of the low entrance fees, made quite painful reading if you were the one holding it. One thing everyone agreed on though was that they would return to India for BangLinux 2001 if it happened.

And so it did. With a presence established by the conference and a new Indian printing deal to maintain, Wrox opened offices in Bangalore and Bombay in Summer 2000. Those in Bangalore scrapped their original plan of creating a Dr. Dobbs-alike magazine for Indian codeheads in favour of revitalizing BangLinux. Wise move.

Over the course of four months, Wrox devised their most ambitious conference proceedings to date, with almost the whole speaker roster entirely sourced from India itself. Two tracks, three days, and over forty sessions for the masses. With no competition once again, the corporations supported the operation, with the likes of Compaq, SCO and RedHat sponsoring the event and the Free Software Foundation, Gnome, KDE, PHP, Perl, and more all represented by speakers. Old hands like Rasmus Lerdorf and Ganesh Prasad (Java) were joined by new faces like Michael Meeks, Martin Konold, Ramarao Kanneganti, and Damian Conway. Even an earthquake rated at 8.7 on the Richter scale a month earlier did not deter attendees from the conference, leaving their families in Ahmedabad to continue the clean-up operations.

With a precedent set already, a lot more attention was paid the conference, helped by a comprehensive PR campaign in the Times of India and other regional newspapers. In total, six camera crews (including CNN) and two dozen different publications swamped the meet making it challenging to keep things running smoothly, or indeed to find a moment to collect either your thoughts or your lunch.

BangLinux 2001 was a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor, and this time it broke even as well, but while a success in every count, Wrox did not decide to pursue a third run in 2002 having withdrawn from conference organization to concentrate once again on its core book business. With both Linux and Java both now mature products the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the September 11 attacks, it may appear lucky that they did. Still - 2003 maybe?

There were Gods (organizers), Angels (helpers), Prophets (speakers), The Unwashed Masses (the unwashed masses), and Devils (Press). Oh yes, and penguins too. An I.T. minister came to open it whilst CNN watched and 700 people stood over their shoulder waiting for the latest info we could give them on the world of Open Source software. There were laptop problems, power cuts, impromptu sessions, an military-grade airplane simulator, cheers whenever a Windows machine broke down and a bunch of very tired foreigners. We guessed the contents of Linux 2.5 four months before it began, looked at Perl 6 which still doesn’t exist except in the mind of Larry Wall, and India’s answer to computers for the impoverished - the Simputer. We ate curry too.

Posted on April 29, 2002   #India  

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