Dec 24

Best open education tools and tales in 2014


A great Bengali polymath and noble prize winner in literature, Rabindranath Tagore, once said: “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time”. With changing times, the systems and customs that govern our society should also change. Human beings are intrinsically curious. To quote Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, “Curiosity is the lust of the mind”. However, there also seems to be another aspect of our human nature that sees systems and customs in a preordained manner. This aspect stifles disruptive innovation, restricts growth in a vertical direction, and fortifies the stubborn staying power of our fixations with these systems and customs.

Our contemporary system of education is the first thought that comes to my mind when I think of an example of such kind of a system. The education system, as it exists in most parts of our world today, is not aligned to our changing times and needs a major overhaul. The old methods and practices are embedded deep inside this system and that calls for fundamental changes in which teaching and learning happens in our society.

Sir Ken Robinson, one of the pioneers in the educational revolution, puts things in perfect perspective in a TED talk when he draws parallels between the contemporary schools and the factory lines during the industrial revolution. Students of same age group are put into batches and assumptions are made about the pace of their leaning and their overall learning behavior. This one-size-fits-all model which defines much of our schooling system today does not fit anymore.

Due to the significance of the education system in our society and the role it plays in defining the future and character of our progeny, it has become a matter of exigent concern for the public sector and a playground for big organizations, startups, and individuals who want to make a difference in this field to conduct their experiments. In many of these experiments, technology in general and open source in particular plays a central role in bringing about the change.

At, our focus on open source and openness in education has been a force in bringing forward the stories of these dynamic individuals and organizations who are using open source technology and methodology to change the landscape of education for the good. And considering the scenario in today’s world where the expected solution has to be robust in quality, low in cost, and should provide a mechanism to include all sections of the society, the open source way makes perfect sense. Through these stories, essays, and articles, we provide two ingredients that are vital for converting any thought into action: 1. Motivation 2. Ignition of curiosity.

We strive to share cutting edge innovations and information that exist in the intersection of open source and education, and we’ve done that this year in 2014, from article to article. Among these reflective articles are: Luis Ibanez’s review of the Raspberry Pi A+ open hardware board, Phil Shiparo’s insights on digital libraries of tomorrow, Nicole Engard’s interview with Charlie Resinger about the tale of Penn Manor’s student-Linux experiments to help them become better problem solvers, Jen Wike Huger’s interview with Ned Batchelder on how Open edX is empowering educators, and Scott Nesbitt’s interview with staff and faculty at the Center of Development of Open Technology (CDOT). In my own fruitful association with this year, my regular readings and ruminations of the articles on the channel inspired me to conduct my own short experiments and share them with the community. Two of these were teaching Linux to my niece in Four Linux distros for kids, and tinkering with open data in Why open data matters in education.

In addition to these stories, check out…

The 5 most read open education stories in 2014

1. Four Linux distros for kids by Aseem Sharma

2. How to teach hacking in school and open up education by Pete Herzog

3. Introduction to Linux course now free, open to all by Amanda McPherson

4. 5 key insights on the transition from Windows to Linux by Robin Isard

5. Raspberry Pi and Coder by Google for beginners and kids by Luis Ibanez

All-time favorite: Three open source school management software programs for teachers and students

This article is written for as part of their annual review process and is published here.

Aug 05

Does having open source experience on your resume really matter?

“Code is the next resume.” These words by Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation tell profoundly about how our technology industry, and the many businesses that depend on it, are transforming. The unprecedented success of open source development methodology in the recent past raises some fundamental questions about the way the businesses are designed, the structure of the teams, and the nature of work in itself.

The hacker culture, which was labelled as rebellious, to the point that it faced public dismissal, disapproval, and indifference a couple of decades ago, has come out from the fringes of society and is now mainstream. Today, open source software owes much to the great minds that constituted that tribe of hacker culture and has become prominent and permeated every aspect of our society. It has, in the contemporary world, become subversive and brought about a radical change in the way software is developed globally, and consequently how businesses are run. From commercial enterprises to non-profit organization and to the public sector, every social structure has reaped the benefit of open source to stay ahead of competition and fuel the engine of innovation.

Software plays a very critical role in today’s economy and the strategic calculations of enterprises. In my last six years of working with open source products at both professional and personal levels, I have observed the reliance of teams, both technical and management, on open source infrastructure. It is clearly discernible in today’s technology teams that doing things the open source way, and the software built from open source methodologies, has a significant footprint.

Asking someone, “Do you have a GitHub profile?” is not an uncommon question that an interviewer may ask a prospective candidate for a development or a technical position. A resume showcasing a candidate’s active engagement in open source projects adds a punch to his profile and provides a lucid picture of her or his skill sets.


In a rapidly changing business environment and job market, why is it important for a person to learn about open source software and get involved in one of its million projects? Why are a lot of businesses emphasizing the benefits of open source software and embedding it as part of their strategy? Why should a job aspirant or an engineer care?

Open source for commercial giants

There was a time when technology giants like IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle were most cautious and to a point, feared the rise of open source. For more than a decade, Microsoft considered the Linux operating system a threat to its share of the market. Today, Microsoft has a portfolio of open source projects and actively participates in the standard setting process in the industry. It is a contributor to Hadoop project and in a recent development, is open sourcing more of its .Net developer framework and programming languages. Likewise, IBM has played a key role in the Linux operating system and has invested massively in its development. Oracle, among its other contributions, today owns MySQL, the second most widely used relational database management system in the world. Not many could believe that an organization built on open source could cross 1 billion in revenue, but Red Hat has proved all the disbelievers wrong.

The implication here is that many of these major players have realized the positive impact that open source projects have on the information technology industry as a whole. They understand that open source has the capability to push forward the horizons of technology. For any job applicant who has committed code to an open source project, it is not only a welcoming news but it opens new doors of opportunities.

Open source on your resume

The job market is not always kind to people looking to start a new chapter in their professional life, whether it is looking for employment right out of school or changing a job, or rejoining the business world. Drawing from my own experience of going through one such phase, I can say that getting actively involved in an open source project improved my chances of finding a job in the technology sector. Open source projects offer an amazing platform where candidates with the right skills can offer their services. They can build on this experience, stay up to the mark on the latest technology trends, and even build an open source consulting brand. The open source software methodology has provided incredible avenues where people can transform themselves from an inactive, unemployed state to a state where they are active contributors. I strongly believe that there is no other methodology that provides better resources than open source to become a successful freelancer.

Open source for good

History tells us that the big picture has always mattered in open source. Linux, a revolutionary operating system, was built and developed by enthusiast hackers sharing their work and collaborating over the Internet. Today, Linux is ubiquitous and used by NASA, major banks, and projects like One Laptop per child. Additionally, OpenStack is disrupting the cloud computing market and has industry leaders like Red Hat, IBM, and Rackspace as its top contributors. Likewise, there are a significant number of open source projects that are transforming our society and business world for the good. The best thing about these massive projects is that they welcome anyone with the skills and will to become part of the community.

This article of mine is also published here on, a publication by Red Hat Inc. and was listed on OSFA.

Apr 04

School of open: making world a more creative and educated place

Every generation since the beginning of human existence has passed its value system, principles, methodologies, and skill sets on to the next generation. This passing on of information and culture has been followed by the development of a systematic approach to learning techniques. Formal structures were created throughout the world to learn and apply these skill sets. During the middle ages, the monasteries of the church became the nucleus of education and literacy. Ireland, during those times, was known as a country of saints and scholars. During the Islamic Golden age, in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was established and became the intellectual hub. Similar institutions of great nature and vision were established in other parts of the globe as well.

In India, the establishment of universities like Nalanda, Ujjain, and Vikramshila have played a significant role in development of higher education. One type of school that laid the backbone of Indian education structure and still rules the psych of an Indian student was “Gurukula,” which is a word formed from the Sanskrit words “Guru” meaning master and “Kula” meaning extended family. In this case, education was imparted for free and students paid the teacher back in some form after the studies were completed.

Though these great institutions added immense value in the evolution of modern societies, education was still restricted to the elite class in most cases. Universal access to knowledge is a historical problem and inclusion has enormous relevance in today’s world. An old adage says that a developed society is the one where the highest level of technology touches the lowest level of society. An organization who is putting this vital imperative into action is the School of Open, an initiative by P2PU and Creative Commons that is making world more creative, open and educated.

The benefits of open

The School of Open is a learning environment that focuses on increasing our understanding of openness and how it fosters creativity and education in our digital age. The School of Open leverages the strengths of community and open source software to increase awareness about an “open” world and the benefits it brings.

This volunteer run global community develops and runs online courses, offline workshops, and training programs in topics such as creative commons, open research, sharing creative works, and more. The school offers a wide range of courses created by experts and users that cover everything from foundations to advanced topics in open models. The courses can be taken on your own or facilitated by an instructor, and they run for a set length of time (weeks). Some of the courses in the facilitated category include Copyright for Educators, Creative Commons for K-12 Educators, An Introductory Course on Open Science, and (my favorite) Writing Wikipedia Articles: The Basics and Beyond. I signed up for it and was glad the materials were comprehensive. The course covers the values of Wikipedia, wiki markup code, how to evaluate the quality of Wikipedia articles, and the art of creating an article on the site.

I strongly believe that in today’s world, creativity gets a boost through participation. The School of Open gives us an opportunity to learn about a topic with other users who share similar interests. A case in context is the course titled “Teach someone something with open content”. The course helps one to learn how to find and recognize open content, that is Creative commons licensed video’s, images, articles, etc, in one’s area of interest and start discussions revolving around the topics. People with an expertise in an area can collect resources and assist participants who have questions in the same area. People who are interested in a field can also chose topics in the field and trigger discussions around the same. The topics can be be anything ranging from history of tanks to intricacies of Linux kernel. At the end of the day, it is education made more open, interesting and participatory.

In his provocative book, Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, Lawrence Lessig, one of the most influential thinkers in the Internet era, provides a strong argument as to how free culture supports and protects innovators. He states that free culture is not a culture without property, just as the free market is not a market in which everything is free. Free culture, like the one exemplified by the School of Open, ensures that innovators and their creative community remains free from what is called as a “permission culture” and maintains a process of creating more innovators, helping people to be more creative, producing better research and giving back.

Inclusion is a key focus of universal access to education, and I strongly believe that creativity and learning are the fundamental rights of every human being. Every human, irrespective of her/his economical status or level of intellect should be given an opportunity to grow. The School of Open is one such organization that helps promote that ideal.

Feb 08

Three key events that scaled up Linux for large enterprises

Friday evening can be a very busy time in Citibank’s Changi Business  Park, Singapore office. Hundreds of mission critical applications hit  the production servers, security patches are applied to servers, hundreds of professionals including developers,  systems engineers, Linux guru’s and management professionals spend the  whole night on the conference calls ensuring the smooth functioning of  servers at this financial giant. The applications that get life over the weekend have monitory value and therefore require robust servers to  host them. These servers need to maximize the utilization of the  applications and should have the stability to run for a longer period of  time without a reboot. These servers should also have the capability to  be scaled up as the infrastructure grows. Bottom line, these enterprise  level boxes need to be tough.

Thanks to people like Richard Stallman, Bob Young and Linux Travolds,  companies like Red Hat and Canonical and foundations like The Linux  foundation for creating and supporting the Linux operating system. The  muscle that today’s data centers have is built over Linux. The operating  has taken the whole computing world by storm. I would actually go a bit  further and say that (and it could be statistically and logically proved as well)  that the rate at which the information is growing, enterprises would not  have survived without the power of Linux. Microsoft windows server cannot support large scale enterprises with  the same efficiency, accuracy and reliability relative to the Linux based servers.

What made Linux the backbone of data centers? What increased its  adoption among enterprises? What made an operating system that was “made  by engineers for the engineers” incredibly powerful that it is now used  from desktops to data centers and everything in between? I have an  active interest in business and technology history and drawing from this  interest, I deduce three vital events that played an important role  in scaling up Linux and that can answer the aforementioned questions:

Helsinki, Boston, Internet and the year 1991: Linux, as an operating system evolved from a Kernel created by Linus  Travold, a student at that time at University of Helsinki. Linus was  using an operating system called Minix and suggested changes to Andrew  Tanenbaum, the creater of Minix. Andrew rejected the suggestions and as a  result, Linus created his own Kernel. The take here was that Linus took  into account the suggestions of users for improvement of the Kernel.  Years before, the idea of involving users to improve the software was  being pioneered by Richard stallman, one of the top software  philosophers in the world. Stallman left MIT, Boston where he was  working at that time and founded GNU with a goal of producing free  software. Free, here was in terms of freedom and not zero cost. In the  year 1991, the conducive conditions existed that would create Linux and  start its spread. Linus in Helsinki had the Kernel but no shell,  Libraries, compiler. Stallman, in Boston had necessary programs that  could be wrapped around an operating system. With the distance involved,  the only way to get the Linus program together with the GNU programs  was internet. The growth of internet from that point played a major role  in adoption of Linux. In the words of Richard Stallman: “The Internet  would also be crucial in Linux’s subsequent development as the means of  coordinating the work of all the developers that have made Linux into  what it is today.”

IBM and Linux become friends in 1998: When Linux was still within hacker fringes of the Internet, IBM had no  interest in investing in a new operating system. Although it was a risky  proposition for the king of proprietary software offerings, Linux had  one attraction. It could prove competitive for Microsoft. Around  1998, IBM started researching Linux and got involved with the open  source community. A successful stint with Apache project was encouraging enough for the company to put their dollars in Linux. The big blue knew that Linux was getting popularity  not only among the computer science students but also for a lot of  businesses. From getting involved in the community to helping improve  the operating system security through code testing, defect management  and even open sourcing some of its own code, the software giant today  spends more than $100 million annually on Linux development. This  adoption and involvement of IBM in Linux encouraged a lot of big  businesses to formulate their Linux strategies.

Red Hat disrupts technology industry in 2001: Red Hat Linux, at one point, was just a desktop application until Red  Hat forked into RHEL and Fedora. Paul Cormier, in 2001, re-examined the  business model to pitch Red Hat Linux to big businesses. The task at  hand was to adhere to the open source principles and at the same time  scale up to compete with Microsoft’s and Oracle’s of the world. The  solution was keep the source code free but compile the bits and bytes to  enterprise class. The result was Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat’s enterprise offerings now have diversified which includes Red Hat Satellite that have  added immense value to large enterprises in terms of speed, reliability  and scalability.

This article of mine is also published here on and was listed on Hacker News, a social media news website by Ycombinator.

Jan 12

Four Linux Distros for Kids

I can see the brightness of curiosity in my 6 years old niece Shuchi’s eyes when she explores a mobile phone or manipulates the idiot box with its remote control or becomes creatively destructive with any other electronic device. She, like a lot of kids her age, love experimenting.

This curiosity reaches its peak when she sits in front of my laptop or her father’s laptop. A lot of times, however, I observe that she is lost in complicated applications that are suitable only to adults. An operating system that an adult uses and the system running it can look like a beast to a lot of kids. These  applications are beyond the comprehension of very young kids and do not provide an ideal (and playful) introduction to computers. Futher, adults’ laptops and tablets do not serve as a good learning environment for any kid (younger or older) who is just onboarding into the world of computing. Besides, letting a kid run wild on a computer with an online connection can be daunting for the parents.

As a big kid myself, and an open source software enthusiast for over 4 years now, I like exploring and experimenting with different software solutions. Pertaining to the problem of finding and setting up an ideal system for my young niece, I found that the open source Linux community has created specialized operating systems and environments for kids. Plus, setting up these systems is a breeze.

Why should kids learn Linux

I have reached a conclusive opinion at this point in my life that children should be exposed to the power of Linux early on. Two of the reasons are…

For the future of computing

I recently read the article, A year of Linux desktop at Westcliff High School, which is an excellent piece by Stu Jarvis in which Malcolm Moore replies to a question by stating, “Here is a survey that reports in 2000, 97% of computing devices had Windows installed, but now with tablets and phones, etc., Windows is only on 20% of computing devices, and in the world of big iron, Linux reigns supreme. We specialize in science and engineering and want our students to go on to do great things like start the next Google or collapse the universe at CERN. In those environments, they will certainly need to know Linux.”

Linux runs some of the most complex infrastructures in the world. For anyone even remotely interested in a career in technology, learning Linux will be a definite asset. Besides that, the adoption of Linux is massive and ubiquitous. Consider this:

  • Linux powers international space stations
  • Linux powers the technology in new cars like Tesla and Cadillac
  • Linux powers air traffic control systems
  • Google, Facebook, Twitter, all use Linux
  • 9 out of 10 supercomputers in the world run on Linux

There is a rational reason that initiatives like One Laptop per Child, which in my opinion is one of the most powerful programs today that is working to bridge the digital divide, use Linux based systems.

For customization and variety

Learning at an early age can be best enhanced in an environment that encourages exploration. There is no other operating system that offers such variety and autonomy to customize the system based on specific needs like Linux. Like toys and clothes for kids, the Linux community has developed specific operating systems that can offer them a fun learning environment. I believe that to boost curiosity in kids, it is important to create a set up that gives them a feeling of wonder.

Programs to teach kids Linux

There are many different varieties of environments that the Linux community has designed for the children, and I haven’t yet explored them all, but of the ones I did, you should be able to find a great solution for teaching a kid you know about Linux and computing.


Qimo for kids is a Ubuntu-based distribution designed specifically for children. The operating system comes pre-installed with a lot of educational applications for children ages 3 years and older. It comes with GCompris, a perfect suite for children aged 3 to 10 years. It consists of over 100 educational games that teaches basic computer use, reading, art history, telling time, and drawing pictures, as well as Childs Play, a collection of memory-building games.

One of the things I like best about this distribution is that it uses XFCE desktop , which is a lightweight desktop that can be installed on older machines. The hardware requirements are low and it is absurdly easy to repurpose an old laptop or a desktop system. We had an old PC at home, and Qimo resurrected it. This operating system was my choice for my niece because of its simple child friendly cartoon desktop and assortment of educational applications.


Sugar was designed for the One Laptop per Child program. It is an easy to use and kid-friendly operating system. Children who love exploring will figure out things quickly in this environment, even if they cannot read or write yet.

From Sugar Labs:

Information is about nouns; learning is about verbs. The Sugar interface, in its departure from the desktop metaphor for computing, is the first serious attempt to create a user interface that is based on both cognitive and social constructivism: learners should engage in authentic exploration and collaboration. It is based on three very simple principles about what makes us human.


From Ubermix founder, Jim Klein, in an interview:

Ubermix comes pre-loaded with a number of applications for education, productivity, design, programming, Internet, and multimedia construction. Education oriented applications like Celestia, Stellarium, Scratch, VirtualLab Microscope, Geogebra, iGNUit, and Klavaro, as well as educational games like TuxMath, TuxTyping, gMult, and Numpty Physics all bring with them plenty of opportunities to learn.

Internet applications we all know and love, like Firefox, Thunderbird, Chrome, Google Earth, and Skype are all there. Common productivity apps like LibreOffice, NitroTasks, Planner Project Management, VYM (View Your Mind), and Zim Desktop Wiki are too. Kids interested in design will find the GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus, Dia, Agave, and even TuxPaint for the younger ones. And apps like Audacity, Openshot, Pencil, and ffDiaporama help round out the media offerings. These, and many more, make Ubermix a powerful launchpad for student creativity and learning.


Formally the Ubuntu Education Edition, Edubuntu was developed in collaboration with educators and teachers. It embeds a variety of educational programs and a suitable learning environment. An advantage to it is access to the Ubuntu software repository. The education community has extensively used this operating system in schools and organizations to provide an enriched learning environment for their students. It’s a great operating system to teach older children about Linux; it can have a steeper learning curve in comparison to Qimo and Sugar.

This article of mine was originally published here on

Jan 02

Open Source as an alternative to proprietary for small businesses

Is it safe to use? What alternatives do I have? Is it easy to install? These were some of the questions that Amandeep, a New Delhi based owner of a small scale clothing company threw on me when I pitched a few open source solutions that could make his day to day operations efficient. As someone without any I.T knowledge and exposure (but a sharp business sense), these were brilliant and relevant questions. These questions are not restricted to Amandeep but transcend beyond that and reflects apprehensions of a significant number of small scale business owners, especially in India. My interactions, however, shows that a lot of these businesses are constantly looking to grow, enhance their productivity and most importantly save costs.

Approximately 7500 miles away from Amandeep in New Delhi lives Nabeel Hussain. Nabeel is a new product development and digital marketing specialist actively engaged in Waterloo, one of the top entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world. As an entrepreneur, he is always faced with the challenge of managing limited resources while building traction. He has a plethora of technology solutions at his disposal and the technical know how to utilize these solutions. Additionally, whenever required, he has a robust support system to advise and guide him to the best available solution that fits his needs. For Nabeel, open source solutions provide an inexpensive alternative for crafting early stage prototypes for his ideas and validating them with customers. From using WordPress and its library of plugins, to venturing into openshift origin, and Joomla, he has the knowledge to make use of top notch technology to reduce risk, manager resources, and build traction for his venture.

These two different scenarios indicate a categorical gap in the knowledge of entrepreneurs when it comes to adopting open source solutions. Although there is some geographic gap between the entrepreneurs in the developed and the developing world, as well as a gap that spawns from business exposure/experience, the problem is wider than that. There is a difference in productivity and efficiency between entrepreneurs who utilize open source solutions and those who do not. The situation becomes clear when we look at those small scale business owners who are technology pros versus those who are not.

A significant number of businesses, in India in particular and in the developing world in general, are of a mom-and-pop business nature. Based on my recent interactions with these small scale business owners, I see widespread misconceptions pertaining to open source software. The questions that Amandeep from New Delhi asked me are critical in nature. In order for small scale businesses to adopt open source solutions, it is vital to address these misconceptions.

Is open source software really safe?

The question arises from the basic process that is followed to write code using open source way. If any hacker can read your code, then why can’t they use the knowledge to their personal benefit? Most of those sorts of malicious attempts fail because there are a lot of committed people looking over the source code, finding problems, and fixing them. More eyes tame bugs quickly. And security by obscurity is no security at all. What strikes me at this point of time are the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, “Public security is always more secure than proprietary security…For us, open source isn’t just a business model; it’s smart engineering practice.”

Developing code in an open source fashion is an expression of a technique. Software, in our world, should be treated as a service which can be customized based on the specific needs of a user, rather than merely as a product.

I know a lot of people involved at different levels of open source projects. All of them are driven by their commitment to reach technical and professional excellence, and to add to the existing body of technology knowledge. The entire ecosystem of open source is built on that commitment. The Linux operating system, for example, with its proven track record of stability and security, forms the backbone of complex infrastructures and data centers world over. The same benefits that help Linux and other open source tools succeed at the enterprise level can be reaped by small businesses, too.

A couple of months back, I read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. An otherwise helpful and insightful book, the author seems to host a thought process that open source is contrary to the developers’ right to make a profit. A lot of people who think that way do not see the forest for the trees. They see free software, they see Linux, but they miss the multi-billion dollar ecosystem that surrounds open source. Its true that Brian Behlendorf, the person who orchestrated Apache web server, did not make a dime off it, but the immense value that this server has added to the economy and the legions of small to medium size businesses that use this infrastructure is an important contribution. Free software developed by a community is not tantamount to insecurity.

Are there quality alternatives available?

Gone are the days when open source was produced only by the engineers, for the engineers. From word processing to calendar applications to servers and to setting up telephone communication networks, small businesses can benefit hugely from open source solutions. Let us take the example of word processing, an activity that almost all small businesses, irrespective of their field, carry out.

Microsoft Word is the premium software in the area but it is cluttered with features that a lot of small businesses won’t ever use. The bloating of Microsoft Word has cost its simplicity. There are easy to use, simple, free, and open source word processors available out their. A few of these that I have been using (and suggesting to small businesses) as an alternative to Microsoft Word are:

  1. Apache Open Office: This software primarily consists of six tools for managing office tasks, namely: Writer as a word processor, Calc as a spreadsheet tool, Impress for multimedia presentations, Draw for diagrams and 3D applications, Base as a database tool, and Math for creating mathematical equations.
  2. AbiWord: Developed in 1998 with the help of gtkmm, this open source word processor includes both simple word processing features to sophisticated features like multiple views, page columns, and grammar checking.
  3. LibreOffice:This is my favorite and always at the top of my recommendation list for anyone looking for a free and efficient word processing suite. Although the features are similiar to those of ApacheOpen Office, LibreOffice is better when it comes to community support.

There are dozens of other excellent alternative solutions to proprietary software and thousands of open source projects that can serve small businesses. It can sometimes be difficult to select the software which best matches specific needs, but there are plenty of people globally willing to help you make those decisions and help take small businesses down the path to an open and productive future.

This article of mine was originally published here on

Sep 08

Open source to bridge the digital divide

I vividly remember my first experience using the Internet in 2000. The amount of information I was hit with by typing my first search term, university, was far beyond my wildest imaginations. This plethora of knowledge filled my mind with wonder, excitement, and enlightenment. I suddenly had the power to read, analyze, and learn about anything and anyone. The knowledge created by some of the greatest minds in the history of mankind was at my disposal, free of cost and just one single click away. I felt empowered.

Fast forward to June 2012. I met a village boy, Rajan, at a local orphanage in my hometown of Amritsar, Punjab. Rajan was dynamic in his conversations and I am sure that given the right facilities, had the potential to live a far better life than he was living. I am not naturally more talented than Rajan, but I had all of the resources available to raise my standard of living that my friend did not. I was born in an economically well off and highly educated Indian family. Is success then only a matter of fate? Is it only dependent on which family a person is born into? Isn’t the world losing talent and passion of those millions who, if given the gift of knowledge can make a positive impact in our world?

This case of massive disparity transcends Rajan and engulfs millions all across the developing countries. According to Linux4Africa, an initiative to bridge the digital divide, in Germany, there are 600 computers per 1000 persons. In Mozambique, Southeast Africa there are 6. I strongly believe that human progress is not possible without access to and use of information. Inclusion and collaboration are not abstract concepts in business and society. No individual can create a meaningful life without having an exposure to the digital world. The situation reminds me of a famous adage that a society becomes developed when the highest level of technology touches the lowest section of society.

Establishing cost effective infrastructure, primarily providing access to the Internet is part of the solution to bridge what experts call the digital divide. The digital divide is undoubtedly a monstrous problem that humanity faces today and it becomes critical to find mechanisms that provide cost effective solutions to this gigantic issue. There have been laudable initiatives and experiments in this direction, some of the most notable being the establishment of the The World Summit on the Information Society and the recently launched campaign by Mark Zuckerberg,

How the digital world works

Connecting the world is the first quintessential step towards digital literacy for everyone, however, the solution does not stop there. Filling the digital divide gives birth to the problem of the knowledge divide. Giving a child access to Facebook or Twitter is useless until the child knows how the digital world actually works. Until someone knows how to use information wisely to her benefit and the benefit of those around her, the initiatives and efforts to just provide Internet access are futile. Providing Internet access and filling in the knowledge gap have to go hand in hand to alleviate the standards of living of millions of people who need it the most.

The open source methodology of executing projects offers a potential solution to the aforementioned problems. There have been a few great experiments and initiatives that have seen success in providing cutting edge infrastructure and knowledge in rural areas at a cost effective manner. A few pioneering initiatives are:

  • The School Sector Reform Plan
  • Open Learning Exchange (OLE) in Nepal
  • One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)
  • Implementation of Ubuntu to provide a solid solution to the problem of connectivity in rural India by the social enterprise Airjaldi

Both the digital divide and the knowledge divide can be resolved by imbibing the aspects of open source. The foundations on which open source software works can be implemented to permeate the digitization to the lowest parts of the society. Three of my thoughts on how the efforts to address these problems can be made more effective and why open source matters to that end are:

The challenge grant model

I recently finished a great book by John Wood, the founder of Room to Read, in which he discusses his innovative method of involving communities to create libraries. The same approach can be experimented to fix the digital divide problem. The idea is to see which communities are motivated enough to bring knowledge to their doorsteps. Once these communities are detected, local leaders can be involved in taking the ownership. This community based approach creates stronger partnerships between social enterprises, public sector, and most importantly the beneficiaries of the solution. Involving the local people of a city to help create an infrastructure makes those people stakeholders in the entire solution.


Participation is the spinal cord of open source software. The usage of open source software in bridging the digital divide will remove the barriers to participation. To understand how the technology works, it is vital to have access to it and the freedom to explore it. Using free operating systems, like Ubuntu and Fedora, and open software, like XJounal and Kojo, can empower people without restrictions.


The successful use of the Ubuntu on workstations by Airjaldi exemplifies the importance of using open source software. Airjaldi is able to provide superior network solutions to rural parts of India in very cost effective manner. At places where establishing infrastructure is an issue and affordability is low, open source software becomes the only solution to connect the people.

To put the power of information in the hands of those who need it the most requires low cost yet sophisticated solutions. It requires the support of new approaches, like open source.


This article of mine is also published here at

Jul 05

Book Review: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft


Here is the story of a man who has one of the most unusual business careers in the last century. Software, music, space,  sports or the complex (and exciting) world of human brain, Paul Allen has made a mark and a lasting contribution in each of these fields. Idea man is a point-blank memoir of terrifying lows and triumphant highs of one of the most influential person in the world who has helped transform the way we live. In his well written and polished book,  Paul gives a detailed account of his successes and failures (and the lessons learned along the way) that resulted from a life full of passion and curiosity. Here are my two cents on the same:

Winning Points:

Microsoft, Bill gates and the business of software: The first part of the book covers details about Paul Allen’s intricate relationship with Bill Gates and the early days of Microsoft. It is a gripping account of two high school friends who went on to become billionaire founders of one of the powerhouses of the corporate world. Their early days at Lakeside, their restlessness to hunt new ideas, their love for computers , their struggle to come up with  BASIC programming language interpreter for Altair 8800, the fascinating story of scaling up Microsoft from a fledgling start-up to a software behemoth, their disagreements on various issues pertinent to their partnership , all of it is extremely engaging and can keep you awake until 3 AM (I suggest picking up the book on a weekend).  With Paul Allen with his industry changing ideas and visions and Bill gates with his business acumen and his “pitiless” execution abilities,  it was among the strongest and the most formidable business partnerships of all times.  Contrary to many media reports, the book takes a neutral stand on Bill Gates and discusses his relationship with both Gates and Microsoft objectively. The section of the book dedicated to the challenges Microsoft was engulfed with for more than a decade from the lawsuits to the brutal competition it faced in the internet and social space from Google, Apple and Facebook forms an interesting read. Allen further provides insights of how these challenges led to the breathtaking fall of the Goliath from grace.

The pursuit of passions: In the first few sections of the book, Paul Allen discuses his wide variety of childhood interests and passions. Paul left Microsoft before it went public and in a short period of time, his stock options turned him into one of the richest persons alive. As was noted by his attorney shortly after the IPO: “This wealth should enable you to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it…”  This wealth enabled Paul to make investments worth billions of dollars in every field he was passionate about. Ho soon bought NBA’s Portland Trailblazers, Seattle Seahawks, got involved with SpaceShipOne project (the first privately funded spacecraft) and invested billions in America online and Ticketmaster. The most notable of all his ventures is the Allen institute of Brain Science. Through its brain Atlas and mapping, the institute has pushed forward humanity by enabling scientists and researchers all over the world in their projects. Much of the data and the research is open to the academic community worldwide. Although this second part of the book is less interesting and engaging than the first, it provides some insights into the world of sports, entertainment and science. Allen has been particularly open minded in accepting his various flaws in these plethora of investments.

Loosing point:

The biggest and the grandest success that Paul Allen had can be categorically attributed to Microsoft, the company he co founded, and his association with Bill Gates.  Albeit he made huge investments and lived a lavish life of a business mogul thereafter, he never had that amount and scale of success. His visions and ideas have transformed industries but majority of those ideas worked and were best realized while he was with Microsoft.  Maybe, execution was never his strength, at least relative to his co-founder at Microsoft.

Final take:

Highly recommended. Not only Paul Allen provides an unclouded description of Microsoft’s early days, this business book is full of forward looking approach and what the technology has in store for our society. One last section is dedicated to the field of Artificial intelligence and the challenges faced in that area.  Anyone interested in history of technology or software will find the book perceptive. For others, there are rich details of many interesting things.


Jan 22

The impact of open source on business and social good

I vividly remember that my early opinions about open source software were built around certain questions that made most natural (and perfect) sense to me at that point of time in my life. The questions like “why would someone sell a software product for free” or “Why should anyone participate in a project that does not reaps any financial rewards” formed the basis of my rationale . That was the time when I had not embarked on my professional journey and as a consequence not experienced organizational life. My myopic view towards the open source methodology of developing projects and the profound impact this methodology has on the business world in general and the organizational structure in particular began to broaden after my first intense exposure to the Linux operating system in Bank of America Merrill Lynch. My understanding about the magnificence of this operating system and the  the process by which it is constantly iterated made a 180 degrees transformation. This  consequently cultivated appreciation for the entire process of peer production and the impact it has on today’s businesses, both big and small.

Today, mass collaboration is changing the foundational structure of businesses and reshaping the way these entities operate in our highly competitive environment. Collaboration, fuelled by open methodologies and peer production is forcing management to rethink their strategies. Organizations that have previously created walled cities are breaking the barriers and creating public spaces where all can grow and contribute to push forward the boundaries of their businesses as well as the boundaries of industries they operate in.

In his excellent article “The nature of the firm” (1937), Ronald Harry Coase, the great British economist made a strong argument that one of the reasons for the structure of vertically integrated organizations is the “cost of transaction”. Perform a transaction inside your firm only if it is cheaper than performing it externally or in the marketplace.  The internet boom and the development of open source software and pooled infrastructure has made it possible for the web based businesses to keep these transaction costs low. Don Tapscot, the author of Wikinomics, dissects by saying “Transaction costs still exists, but now they’re often more onerous in corporations than in the marketplace.”

Despite of all the benefits in terms of quality, speed and wealth that open source and the collaborative mode of undertaking projects have generated, there is still some misunderstanding and gap in the appreciation of these significant changes. Some people and business still restrict their comprehension of open source as free software that sucks up the wealth of a healthy capitalist society. These people and businesses do not see the forest for the trees. They see the free software as a threat to the enterprise but miss the multi billion dollar ecosystem that this free software has created from which businesses of all sizes and types are benefiting.

Following are two cases which reflect the impact of “open source way of doing things” on the businesses:

The rise of collaborative organizations:

The digital revolution, also called the third revolution, has changed the entire landscape of the business world. After the industrial revolution, no other revolution has changed the fabric of the society as the Internet revolution has changed it. It has given rise to organizations that thrive on volunteers, peer production, and collaboration. Wikipedia, the Mozilla Foundation, WordPress, Red Hat, and many more are competing today with some of the best financed and resourceful enterprises across the globe. The parameters of this competition are not only governed by cost but defined by quality as well. In 2005, the British Journal Nature conducted a comparative study and found that Wikipedia is as accurate as Encyclopedia Britanica. A Wikimedia trafic analysis report in 2012 shows that Google Chrome has a larger market than Internet Explorer and my second  favorite brower Mozilla Firefox has a significant market share. Likewise, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is widely implemented in almost all the big financial corporations not only because of the cost but also because of the stability it adds to the complex technology infrastructures in financial companies.

Even some of the organizations that have a history of opposing and harpooning open source developments are now opening up to collaborations to create win-win situations. Microsoft is the biggest example. Its wholly owned subsidiary, Microsoft open technologies group, follows a community driven approach to create innovative solutions. One of its recent announcement was the launch of VM Depot, a community driven catalog of open source virtual machine images for Windows Azure. IBM, a company that became a giant by selling everything proprietary, is another big example and its engagement with the Apache web server project and Linux are well known. In 1999, IBM announced its support to the Open source Linux project and since then has contributed consederable financial and technical resources to the Linux comunity. It played an instrumental role in establishing the Apache software foundation and the Linux development group. Not only did the “big blue” save millions that would have gone into developing its own operating system, it learned and mastered the workings of a new type of business model that was set to change the software industry forever.

Organizations and institutions across sectors are opening up for new partnerships and utilizing the vast amount of “unique skilled talents” not available within the confines of their companies. Initiatives like InnoCentive, Human Genome project, MIT and Harvard University’s edX, offer platforms and opportunties for world changing innovations.

The big boost to entrepreneurship:

The internet is one of the best things that have ever happened to humanity. Not only it has opened the world to an individual (and vice versa), it has become a nucleus of global economic activity. More and more people today are making their living by selling bits and bytes. The cost of starting a web based business is extremely low relative to starting businesses that relies on physical channels. This low cost of bootstrapping a business combined with the creative nature of the internet has encouraged millions to launch their own ventures. The low cost of starting a web based business has become possible primarily because of the availability open source software and infrastructure. The free LAMP software stack, which constitutes Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, have made it possible for creative and thoughtful people with ideas to start businesses on the internet which are playing a positive role in pushing forward human race.

Open source movement and methodologies have contributed significantly to the business world and created ecosystems that have positively impacted all the industries and billions of people across the globe. This movement has largely been fueled by thousands of volunteers. These volunteers contribute to these projects for a wide range of reasons which include growing their networks, enhancing  their resumes, refining their skills and just for doing social good. In the words of Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, “We are gathering together to build this resource that will be made available to all the people of the world for free. That’s the goal that people can get behind”. What struck me as I finished the last sentence was a quote from the movie Pearl Harbour, “There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer”.

This article of mine is also published here on

Jan 07

Resolutions and 2013 reading list…

Resolutions are here to stay

I have a consistent track record of “not” following all my new year resolutions through to successful completion. Since 2009, when I first initiated this annual review of the elapsed year and setting goals for the year ahead, there has not been a single year when this resolution strategy has worked to my satisfaction. One of the most gratifying feelings of this year came last weekend when a consultant friend of mine in Toronto told me that he shares the same story too and that I am not alone.

In hindsight, I find that despite of these failed attempts, making resolutions and setting targets is an important “starter” for the new year. It increases productivity, boosts morale and most importantly, it structures the thought process. In fact, I am experiencing that year after year, my resolutions are becoming more rational reflecting increased levels of self-awareness. Out of all the stranded resolutions, there have been a few successful ones too. In 2009, back when I was working as an engineer in India, I vividly remember that two of my resolves were to actively look for an international opportunity in software industry and read 15 books by the end of that year. The international opportunity to work in Singapore didn’t come around the time I had planned. But it did come and brought rich professional and personal experiences with it. I did not read 15 books by the end of 2009. In fact, the count was somewhere around 7 or 8. But I wonder if I had been able to read even 5 books had I not set a target for myself.

A few days back, while reading an article authored by Peter Drucker, I came across the idea of feedback analysis. Peter discusses how constructive it can be to write down the goals and evaluate those at the end of the year to see the progress. This kind of an exercise can give a clear picture of what “not” to pursue.

2013 must reads

Like last year, here I am again with my reading goals for 2013. Out of books that I have shortlisted to read by 1st January 2014, here are 7 that are on top of my list and the reasons for picking them:

Wikinomics: I started this book yesterday and it seems to be one of the most persuasive and finest books on collaborative innovation I have ever come across.

The age of unreason: I have always aspired to read this great work by Charles Handy. Charles is rated among the Thinkers50, a list of most influential management thinkers in the world. What attracts me to this masterpiece is that it grew in reputation decades after it was published after the ubiquitous virtual world, internet and outsourcing proved his vision to be provident.

The Essential Drucker: TIME magazine last year wrote that “over a career that spanned 60 years, Peter Drucker single-handedly invented the field of management”. The insights of this “superstar CEO’s go to guru” are generations ahead of their time. The Essential Drucker is one of the finest representation of his works and thoughts.

My years with General Motors: Alfred P. Sloan Jr. has been one of the most inspiring business leaders. The book, as per the reviews and recommendations of friends, is full of shrewd lessons from managing a giant corporation to product development to corporate structure.

Ubuntu unleashed 2013: I love everything open source and everything built around collaboration strategies. Ubuntu is one of the finest operating systems out there and its been some time now since I explored Linux Fedora.

The four steps to epiphany: I have been ardently reading Steve Blank’s blog since the last 6 months now. Steve is one of the most sought after entrepreneur cum thinkers based out of Silicon valley. As an engineer in a graduate level business program, I believe this book will provide an enriching experience.

The Origin of species: This scientific literature by Charles Darwin, is the foundation of evolution. The book is a carry forward from my reading list for 2012.

Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest political leaders in human history, once said that “A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying”. Well, for me and many others like me, becoming a saint is neither possible nor desirable. What we can do is to make an earnest effort to bring down the count of these “sins” every year. Resolutions, irrespective of their success rate, seem to be one of the best tools at disposal.

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