The solemn occasion was the talk show hosted by NDTV 24x7 - a premier cable television news channel in India. And the discussion centered on the topic - "Bridging the digital divide between the urban rich and rural poor in India". The panel composed of distinguished personalities including Steve Ballmer - the CEO of Microsoft, N.R. Narayana Murthy - Chairman of Infosys Technologies, Ashok Jhunjunwala professor of Electrical Engineering from IIT Chennai and Malvinder Mohan Singh - the chief executive and MD of Ranbaxy Laboratories. And the talk was hosted by NDTV's Prannoy Roy. The very first question that was asked off Steve Ballmer was the following: Is Free Software the future of India?
Taking care not to use the word(s) "Free software", Mr Ballmer conceded that a number of revenue streams including those by selling hardware, internet connectivity and software are important. He went on to say, "As rich and good be bridging the digital divide, software companies should look forward to three or four sources of income. Many revenues for software companies will come from not any one thing but will include subscription fees, lower cost hardware, advertising and of course traditional transaction (read proprietary software)". He does agree that "prices must come down" though it was plain to see him take care not to use the word "FREE" in his answer.
Another question that was posed to him was "Is bridging the rural divide all about money ?". Mr Ballmer answered by saying "It is not not about money but also not about short term profits". In short Microsoft is looking for long term profits.
And when asked , "American government spearheads democracy. Are the American businesses in tune with that?". He answered as follows: "Any multi-national should behave appropriately and lawfully in any country in which it does business. But our primary aim is to have a generally more helpful participation in world economy". He went on to say, "You can do three things ... you can stay in and do nothing, stay in and have a point of view or stay out".
Watching the talk show, I could not help thinking that Microsoft is more or less resigned to the fact that Open Source and Free Software is here to stay. And what ever one might do, you cannot easily wish it away. If you can't beat them, join them is the new mantra at Microsoft. The recent news of Microsoft's acquisition (sic) of (Um... partnership with) Novell being a case to the point. But I was left with the feeling that Microsoft needs to be honest and more outright in acknowledging the very important part that Free Software and Linux plays in the over all big picture in IT. Steve Ballmer was on a three day visit to India, his itinerary included calling on the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to discuss Microsoft's future plans for India.