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In conversation with Abhas Abhinav, a Free Software activist


 · 18 min read

In this interview, Abhas walked us through the hacker culture before and after the internet in India, he shared what fascinated him about Free Software, his views on why academia and the public sector have not be able to adopt FOSS properly, he talked about career options in Free Software, he talked about why young students and developers should care about Free Software ideology, he mentioned why startups should realease their work under open-source license, his views on open-source programs by giants like Google and Facebook.

Abhas Abhinav

Abhas Abhinav is a hacker, entrepreneur and free software activist. He is the founder of Deeproot Linux, a twenty-year-old Free Software Business that provides support, services and solutions for Free Software deployments based in Bangalore. He also runs Mostly Harmless, a one-person company, where he experiments with Free/Libre Hardware. He hosts Free Talk Show which aims to create an enriching and long term conversation with people who care about software freedom.



Abhas, tell me about your works - DeepRoot Linux, Mostly harmless and liberated computer.


At DeepRoot, as a company, what we focus on is helping organisational customers build their computing infrastructure using free software. Our primary pitch - as we've refined it over the years - has been that of employing free software for "self-hosting" all aspects of an organisation's infrastructure using free software and GNU+Linux.

While no customer uses free software purely (there are always significant aspects of proprietary software), there are several who use our solutions for the great part of their work.

Our business is built around charging customers for services and support. This includes the service of installing, customising, integrating and configuring software, offering migration from other software / services as well as supporting them subsequently by maintaining the software, handling updates and offering help for any user or software issues that might come up during the use of the software.

I think our customers understand very well that 100% of the software that we are employing is free software and what they are paying for is the service. Somehow, one question that has not come up much in the past 20 years of doing business like this is "why should I pay you for the service if the software is (available) free (of charge)". It looks like our customers understand, implicitly, that there is a distinction between charging for software (by restricting access to it) and charging for service (while converting the software into a commodity).

Something else we've done a few times is charging for custom software development (mainly web applications) for non-profits and other interesting problems that we thought we could employ free software to solve.

The reason I usually write the company's name as only DeepRoot or fully as DeepRoot GNU/Linux is for two reasons:

- as a personal mark of respect for Dr. Richard Stallman - over
  multiple meeting he would remark in his indomitable manner that it
  should be GNU/Linux and I would defend it saying that it costs too
  much to go and change the name of the company and that we use
  GNU/Linux everywhere else anyways...

- I feel that many more people should get an opportunity to
  understand the GNU philosophy and if using GNU publicly in our
  company name will help people get curious about it, then that's a
  step in the right direction.

  (However, no one has asked that question yet!)

Some more of such history is related on the website.

Mostly Harmless

After experimenting with hardware at a personal level for many years, I decided that maybe it would make sense to try building a business to help others get access to the necessary hardware powered by free software.

I also began to realise that building one's own hardware and demonstrating to others that it's a worthwhile endeavour was a good way to encourage greater free software adoption.

My original name for the company was "SEP Works" (Somebody Else's Problem, Works.) But, somehow, the Registrar of Companies did not allow that name and hence, "Mostly Harmless" looked like a good second choice - which also served as a good adjective.

At Mostly Harmless, my work involves three things broadly:

  1. Figuring out new hardware to experiment with and build that might add value to our lives and which can further eliminate the need to purchase hardware that was not hackable, that was powered by non-free software and which was not designed to be repairable or extendable and so on.

  2. Selling hardware that users can use right away to solve a problem (eg. keyboards, computer, home automation and entertainment solutions etc.)

  3. Offering services and advice to companies that need help with custom hardware development, quick hacks and combination of sysadmin + hardware development skills.

Building Liberated Computers is a subset of what I am trying to do. It is still tough to get our hands on a computer that can run 100% free software without any binary blobs or proprietary firmware or drivers. Hence, reliable refurbished computers that can fulfill this need can be of great value to those who care about this sort of thing.

Mostly Harmless

The mhx230 Laptop. Source: Liberated Computer Website


How were the hacker culture during the late 1990s and 2000s in India?


Let me start with the early 90s instead of the last 90s... since I first participated in and got a glimpse of the hacker culture at that time. It's only much later on that I realised how honest and cohesive the community was at that time. In a way, it was the starting point of everything I learnt and tried to experiment with later on.

Before we had Internet in India (launched on 15th August, 1995), there were a culture of BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) and computer clubs. I was personally a part of the LiveWire! BBS (LWBBS) and the Micro-Computer Users' Club (MUC) - the Ahmedabad chapters.

The BBS community in India covered the entire span of the country with BBS nodes in Delhi (multiple), Bangalore, Mumbai (one of the first ones), Pune, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and Pune. A BBS allowed one to dial-in to a computer to exchange messages with others - on the same BBS node as well as on nodes in other cities (and countries). The BBS also offered an email interface which would allow one to send and receive email to/from anyone.

The BBSes in India were at the forefront of technology discussion and discourse. One could ask questions, get help and discuss just about anything (there were separate message boards for different topics). Most people who operated BBS nodes in those days then went to lead and make significant contributions to the growth of the free software communities in India.

Similarly, the MUC was a "club" where computer enthusiasts would up over weekends to share knowledge, swap software, hold training sessions, discussions and exchange tips. It would enable geeks of any age or vocation to connect over a common love for computing. I remember that in our MUC chapter there were people who were doctors, programmers, hardware developers, students, scientists and so much more. MUC was a much older organisation that preceded the BBSes and the Internet. There were other MUC chapters in other cities and once a year, they would all assemble together for a day or two of conferencing and networking.

The advent of BBSes only helped people from multiple cities to connect and network with each other. And I feel that the informality and the welcoming nature of these communities make it possible for everyone to feel safe in exchanging ideas and participating in discussing and helping each other in general.

Once there was dial-up Internet (and then mailing lists and websites and so on), BBSes slowly died out as did the MUC. But as a young student in school I made my first friends in these forums and some of these collaborations went on to mature later in many ways

(eg. I met Mayank Tandon over LiveWire BBS when he was a hacker/programmer and subsequently worked with him to learn to build and manage Linux servers for web and email hosting in the mid-nineties. I also started to work on DeepRoot with Mayank's help and patronage before moving to Bangalore.)

Like the Linux-India and FSF-India mailing lists later on, the BBSes and computer clubs of the early 90s were extremely instrumental in creating a culture of unfettered knowledge sharing, collaboration and camaraderie.

Subsequently, the Linux-India and FSF-India mailing lists, the ILUG-* chapters in most cities and subsequently, FSUGs and GLUGs in colleges etc came up to catalyse the growth of the free software community in India.

These groups were driven by three broad goals:

  • promote free software and gnu/linux and increase adoption + convince more people to get involved

  • provide forums for advocacy, discussion, technical help and collaboration

  • build a strong community that might sustain the movement

In a way, the fact that it was still "difficult" to install and use a GNU/Linux OS on a desktop (or laptop) computer in the early-2000s meant that people needed to help each other. This "common pain" was a very important binding force. People were interested in helping each other out and that make these forums, groups and communities almost self-sustaining.

The scope and need for localising various free software programs in Indian languages and scripts - also made possible by the extensive support for Unicode - further got people from disparate walks of life to work together and create fonts, translations, tutorials and documentation to make computing accessible and available to users in all Indian languages.

A key hallmark of the "hacker ethic" is "caring about access to & freedom of information, and improvement to quality of life." In that sense, over 15 years from the early 90s to mid 2000s - right from MUC chapters, the BBS nodes, the mailing lists, ILUG-* chapters and GLUGs and FSUGs - all these milestones that have played a critical role in where "FOSS" being where it is today.


What fascinated you about the Free Software and made you started DeepRoot Linux?


I would count four things here:

  • In 1995/96, I learnt to use Unix so that I could use lynx as a browser, emacs as an editor and Perl as a programming language. This access to a unix computer was over a very slow dial-up and hence, the next thing I wanted to have a "unix computer" I could use all the time for everything.

  • I was a Windows 95 & NT user in 96/97 and one thing I would always do is search for alternate operating systems that might give me a richer learning opportunity than what I could find with Windows. That landed me to experimenting with OS/2 Warp and then finally Slackware and then Red Hat, in 1998.

  • When I started to use Linux, I came across the GNU Manifesto and other essays on the website. I also discovered tools like Samba, LaTeX, Apache, Perl, Emacs, iptables, pppd and so much more.

  • 1999/2000 was the era of dot-coms and start-ups and Internet was just become more and more useful and mainstream. I thought it would make sense to help bridge the existence of excellent free software and people's desire to use it. The chasm, I figured, could be bridged by someone stepping in to build products and then backing those products up with support and services.

Hence, deeproot became a reality in 2000 after I finished college. The goal was to build free software products powered by linux and that people could use. The idea was to imagine a world where everyone could use free software for everything and all the time. And also solve problem in a creative, sensitive and affordable manner.


I have seen that most of the CS students, who later become software developers, learn software building for the first time when they join college. Today, we see a lots of communities coming to the college campus which locked students into their proprietary software by giving them free credit of their services, goodies and creating shortcuts (which you have also pointed in one of your blogs). So my question is - How do the young developers will be aware of Free software philosophies?


Let me ask a counter question here? Why would a young student or developer want to be aware of free software philosophies? Or any philosophy at all?

To care about (not just become aware of it) an ideology takes a lot of introspection and a perspective much beyond immediate utility or gain. I don't think it's possible to appreciate an ideology, value system or movement right from the onset -- it is something that one grows into.

I can think about multi reasons WHY young developers and students should care about the free software ideology. Here are a few:

  1. Let us assume that a student wants to increase his or her stake in their learning process. Then they can't depend just on what is taught to them as a part of the curriculum. Plus they would need to nurture greater curiosity and a propensity for working hard at learning by doing.

  2. If a student wants to increase their ability, opportunity and means to learn more, then they definitely should not tools, operating systems, services, hardware and software that does not provide them this freedom. Using proprietary software and expecting it to provide the freedom to run, study, modify or share is futile. Such software (and hardware and services) only seeks to make users out of us (or worse still "use" use) and nothing more.

  3. We learn best by doing things with our own hands. The roots of this tenet can be found in the teachings of Maria Montessori too where she says "What that hand does, the mind remembers."

By choosing proprietary software running on somebody else's computer (ie. service as a substitute for software a.k.a. "the cloud"), students eliminate this act of doing things - instead choosing comfort and convenience rather than activity, labour and freedom.

Hence, if our goal is to create the best learning experience for ourselves, to give ourselves the greatest opportunity to develop our skills and competency and to do all this without constraints, the "three-legged stool" that students and developers could choose is that of:

- free software
- self-hosting
- do-it-yourself

The first provides freedom and access, the second the opportunity and the third the means and the tools.

If young students and developers aim to be sustainable learners for life, then choosing a life of free software becomes imperative. While they might start with technology, what might sustain them would be their understanding of the free software ideology. And that's why talking about this "politics of software and technology" is as essential as discussing its practical aspects.

At the same time, one has to understand that there is always a cost for everything. Nothing is gratis. If a student in a college gets access to a resource free-of-charge, often the goal of the provider is to not only lock the student in but also to create influence. (Microsoft's tactics in the 90s where they allowed and ignored "illegal" copying of their OS and software in universities and amongst students and developers is well documented.)

One should always beware of a freebie. The flip side of it might be a lock that binds. Finally, if we are mindful about our goals and our decision making processes in the present, it is easy to remind oneself of the value of choosing free software for our intended goal of creating the best learning experience for ourselves.

When companies give freebies and gratis resources to students, that is also another way of saying that it is not necessary to build skills or learn about "how" such resources are created; it is sufficient to just be their user. If a student keeps making such a choice repeatedly, it will only seek to eliminate all activity and enterprise - thereby eliminating failure and hence, learning!!

Mindfulness about whether our choices are consistent with our goals is a simple value to protect oneself.


India, today, is a hub of startups How we can create a culture where they can realize that most of the software that they are consuming are under some FOSS license and it's their responsibility as well to give back to the community, either by funding or releasing few of their internal tools publicly?


There are multiple perspectives here. Permit me to argue for the contrary first:

  1. Just using (ie. "consuming") free software as a part of their tool chain or as the basis for their work does not compel the startup to release their work under a free software license.

  2. The GPL, AGPL as well as the LGPL have sufficient protections to allow developers to not feel compelled to release their work under a free license - copyleft or not.

  3. Mandating that someone release their work publicly under a free license is only going to drive people away from using free software in the first place - the lgpl, as a license, was designed to encourage the users of libraries and compilers to use them to produce all sorts of software - not just free software.

  4. There are sufficient legal caveats in all licenses that don't necessitate releasing a derivative work or dependent work under a free software license.

The reason I listed out these perspectives above is that while there are scores of great reasons why someone should release their work under a free software license, compelling them or guilting them to do so might not be the most constructive one.

This takes us back to a more fundamental question now:

Why should a startup, which has benefitted immensely and in multiple ways by their choice of using free / open source software as a part of their work, release their work publicly - and under a free license?

Let us first example why most startups don't make such a choice by default:

  1. They are very protective of their own creation and this protectiveness is sometimes borne out of fear (how do we remain relevant if we share what we build with everyone - including competitors?)

  2. Those leading the startups don't believe in the free software philosophy and hence, the occasion to consider releasing their work publicly does not even arise.

At the same time, I don't agree that just funding free software development in lieu of releasing their own code is a good enough trade-off. If that were an ethical trade-off to make, then it would be okay for companies which pollute the environment excessively to spend money on "green activities" to create a balance. Or a company that is responsible for the death of many humans to fund human-rights organisations.

No - such a balance makes no sense to me. There are many excellent reasons why releasing software is good but all of these are based on our respect for our users' freedom, to start with.

While saying that "because we consume free software, its our responsibility to release some as well" is not wrong, it takes away the essence of the free software ideology - the respect for users. Remember that free software talks about users' freedom (and hence that of developers and companies as well). If you read the preamble of the GPL you will see a part which sets a broad political long-term agenda in a document that's supposed to provide the legal terms under which software can be used, modified, distributed and run.

Hence - once again - the reason it would make sense for a startup to release source code for the software that powers their hardware or web-service or software distributable is because they recognise that they want to treat their users exactly like how they would want to be treated. When we desire freedom in all the software that serves as inputs to our work, why do we become so hesitant to pass on the same to our subsequent users?

If the startup was building a web-application, releasing the source code for it is just one way of showing how they respect users. There are other ways as well - Choosing to make it librejs compliant, for example and choosing to not track users or give them access to their data in documented and libre file formats etc are other additional ways as well.

Think of another aspect - does releasing the source code damage the business prospects of the startup? (Is the startup cashflow positive and generating revenue in the first place?) Mastodon is a free software tool. So is Nextcloud. And so is Proxmox.

Mastodon is one of the most capable, scalable and complex ActivityPub-enabled micro-blogging and publishing tools. Nextcloud is a hub where one can share and sync files securely - among other things. Proxmox is an enterprise/carrier grade virtualisation environment. All three of these tools are AGPLv3 licensed. At least proxmox and nextcloud are projects actively developed and sustained by companies which offer hosting or support or service or warranty for them - for a fee.

None of these companies or projects feel that releasing the code is a threat to their business. In fact they have a rapid pace of development that might even outrun proprietary software products in the same space. These tools are 100% self-hosting worthy. They don't track or spy on their users. And they don't dilute the business proposition of their developers.

It could be said, then, that the reason these startups built and released such complex software stacks as free software is because they care about respecting their users and they really believe in the free software ideology. They are not compelled to do so. They do so because they feel its the right thing to do.

If you extrapolate from here, it is possible to illustrate that a similar strategy might work for other startups as well. The might drive such decisions is the core principal of a user's rights.


What are the barriers our government and academic institutes face while adopting FOSS in their project?


I feel that the barriers in academia and the public sector (ie. govt or defence organisation) are that of mindset, short-sightedness, short-term thinking and sheer inconsistency between their choices and their intentions.

If an academic institution is supposed to be a seat of knowledge and learning, how is it sensible to be a user of proprietary software products? How does such a decision lead to better competency and greater skill amongst students, researchers and teachers alike?

By choosing proprietary software and services, academic institutions sacrifice their freedom to learn, teach, research and share. It is possible to learn to do everything that needs to be done in an academic institution. It is a sustainable way of doing things. If money is to be spent, it is better spent on building skills, extending / fixing / releasing free software and such than on supporting and funding proprietary software/service commerce.

The same holds true for government, defence and other public sector organisations. It would serve them better to be sovereign by a simple act of choosing free software. Choosing anything else is a lock-in.

Apart from this issue of insufficient assessment of the utility of free software, another major barrier is their procurement systems. The methods that academic and govt organisations adopt to procure software and technology are grossly handicapped. The way to pay for free software is not as an asset (ie capital expenditure that you can depreciate) but by paying for the service of supplying it, installing it, configuring/ customising it and maintaining it.

Unless procurement systems reflect this reality, the role and impact of free software will be severely limited inside such organisations.


What are the career options with Free and Open-Source Software development?


  1. Earn money doing "something else" and participate in free software activity non-commercially

  2. Earn money as a contactor or a freelancer to sustain other free software activities

  3. Work at specialised non-profits such as the Linux Foundation or the CNCF which use corporate funds to support the core developers of large/critical/popular projects

  4. Software development is only half the story -- deploying, managing, scaling up, migrating and maintaining software is an equally monetizable skill.

  5. Seek donations and/or scholarships as a way of sustaining free software development activity

... there are endless ideas about how to make a living with free software. The key and central question is - how much does one care that their work be only based around free software?

If one is ready to build or participate in proprietary software development, that is one way to make a living while also continuing to do free software work. Or if one is more idealistic, then that eliminates some career options whiles opens up many more.

Finally -- it boils down to a person's personal philosophy about how they look at their work and how important a part of their lives free software is. No career choice is bad or wrong -- its just personal.


Today we see Giants like Google and Facebook are having open-source programs like GSoC and these companies are open-sourcing their various internal frameworks like Flutter and ReactJS. Do you think they have other intentions behind these programs and open-sourcing their frameworks or Is it - they really care about hacker/FOSS community?


I don't think they really care about the community or the hacker ethic. Otherwise, how does it explain the lock-in that Google or Facebook create with their products -- all of which are proprietary in nature?

Their funding of free software projects is a good thing on one side. But then that is a very very tiny part of their work. Even as a percentage of how much they spend on free software development is miniscule to what they spend on developing what is primary/core to them.

Is the Chrome/Chromium project charity on behalf of Google? Is ReactJS charity on the part of Facebook? I don't see it that way at all. They have very specific business and strategic reasons for choosing to release or support something. Unless it offered value to them (in the short or long term), I don't think they would do what they do.

Useful Links:

Introdcutin to Free Software by Abhas Abhinav
Abhas's Personal Blog
Deeproot Linux
FreeTalk Show
Mostly Harmless
Liberated Computers

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