The Origins of FSF India
C V Radhakrishnan started a one-man unit for typesetting documents,
and grew it into a company that now employs 150 people and is today
rated No.1 by Elsevier Science for typesetting their journals.
Radhakrishnan also played an important role in establishing FSF India,
and his firm, River Valley Technologies, uses only Free Software. V.
Sasi Kumar of the Centre for Earth Science Studies talked to him about
the journey with Free Software this far.
LFY: We understand that your company River Valley Technologies is
doing business using TeX. How did you happen to become acquainted with
I started learning TeX to escape from the hardships of a motor neuron
disease that afflicted me when I was 25. I was working at the
Kariyavattom campus of the University of Kerala. In the evenings,
students used to come to me for help in preparing documents including
papers, theses and reports. It was at that time that Professor K.S.S.
Nambooripad of the Department of Mathematics came back from the United
States with a set of floppy disks containing TeX/LaTeX, which he
encouraged his students to learn about TeX. Prof Nambooripad also
encouraged me to learn the TeX language since it would fit well into
my scheme of things. A detailed account of this is provided at
LFY: When was this?
This was in the late eighties.
LFY: How did you happen to start River Valley Technologies?
TeX interested me. Since I had abundant free time, I learnt this
classic text-processing language, and also started exploring the
possibilities of making a living out of it. Surprisingly, I had a very
large quantum of text-processing work from the university, which I
couldn't handle single-handed. On the other hand, I was not organised
enough to run a full-fledged company on a commercial scale, nor had
the entrepreneurial skills to do so. However, when the pressure of
work and the demand for services escalated, I decided to open up a
company along with my two younger brothers (Rajendran and Rajagopal).
Thus River Valley Technologies came into existence on the premises of
the Software Technology Part (STP) in Trivandrum on the New Year of
LFY: Were you using Free Software at that time?
No, I did not know about Free Software at that time. We had a few
computers that ran on DOS, and were networked with Novell Netware. We
knew about UNIX, which was a much more powerful operating system, but
we didn't have the resources to buy UNIX.
LFY: Then how did you come to use Free Software?
That was a sheer accident. A young man who used to supply our
hardware, once told me that there was something called Linux, which
was very similar to UNIX, but was equally good. He also gave me a CD
with Linux. We experimented with it. Those were the formative days of
Linux and it was very difficult to even install the system. But we
eventually did succeed, and replaced DOS and Novell Netware with
Linux. From that time onwards, we have never looked back, nor have we
used a proprietary operating system.
LFY: Do you remember which distribution it was? Was it the one
distributed by 'PC QUEST'?
The first distribution I tried was provided by my 'hardware friend' --
it was Slackware. Our company's complete switch-over to Linux took
place with the release of Red Hat Linux 4.0.
LFT: At that time did you know about the philosophy of Free Software,
or were you just using it as another kind of UNIX?
I did not know about the philosophy of Free Software at that time. The
only Free Software I knew was TeX. The term 'free' meant only 'gratis'
to me in those days. It was much later that we learned about freedom
LFY: Then how did you come to learn about the philosophy of Free Software?
There were two factors that familiarised us with the freedom aspect of
Free Software. The first one was the inauguration of the Indian TeX
User Group at Trivandrum in 1998, which brought us closer to many Free
Software communities in other parts of the globe. Our acquaintance
with several activists like Karl Berry of the TeX Users Group and
Sebastian Rahtz of the UK TeX users Group was instrumental in getting
familiarised with the Free Software philosophy.
Second, during the incorporation of FreeDevelopers.Net, a commercial
company based in Washington with proposed branches all over the world,
there was a very serious discussion about the Free Software philosophy
and its fitness for commercial activities. Rajagopal (River Valley),
Anil and Rajkumar (Linuxense), Arun (Space-Kerala) and I -- who were
instrumental in the formation of the Trivandrum GNU/Linux Users Group
-- were also very active in the FreeDevelopers.Net, of which Richard
Stallman was the chief ethical officer. Needless to say, we gathered
enough and more information about all the aspects of Free Software,
including its ethical stance.
LFY: Your group decided to start an Indian Free Software Foundation.
How did this happen?
That was primarily because of the apparent success of
FreeDevelopers.Net in the initial phase and the proximity of Richard
Stallman to clear any theoretical doubts. The Indian branch of
FreeDevelopers.Net was registered as a commercial company in India
under the Companies Act, and indeed, it was successful in winning a
few projects from organisations that favoured Free Software. While we
enjoyed the backing of these organisations in the form of projects, we
thought it would promote the cause of Free Software if we had an
Indian chapter of the Free Software Foundation. The idea was
deliberated at length with the board of FreeDevelopers.Net and as you
can imagine, it gained immediate acceptance.
LFY: How did you happen to invite RMS to inaugurate FSF India?
That was the organic and natural sequel of the events described in my
answer to the previous question.
LFY: Are you still involved in propagating Free Software? Do you still
have links with FSFI?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we do fund and maintain
http://sarovar.org, an Indian portal for hosting Free Software
projects. We also fund several other projects of the TeX User Group
like LuaTeX, which is the newest incarnation of Knuth's TeX that is
going to replace the default TeX compiler very soon; the TeX Gyre
project, which is an ambitious font project of the Polish TeX Users
Group, which has contributed fourteen LaTeX packages to the
Comprehensive TeX Archive Network and still maintain those packages,
However, I am not as active as I was a few years ago. The very reason
that brought me into TeX and the Free Software world -- perennial
muscular dystrophy -- has started pulling me back from active life. My
mobility is extremely limited; I spent most of my time at home. Of
course, the Internet comes to my rescue.
LFY: As a person using Free Software for a decade, do you see any
future for it in business?
Yes, indeed! I think people can hardly avoid free Software, whether it
is in business or personal computing. In this context, it is worth
mentioning a recent development in the text-processing world. As you
may be aware, most text processing companies use 3B2, a proprietary
typesetting for academic journal typesetting. A company named
Arbortext recently acquired Advent (which owned 3B2). People were a
bit scared, but Arbortext reassured users saying that they would
support and continue 3B2. But within six months, Arbortext was
acquired by another CAD/CAM company. The new owners were silent about
the continuance of the 3B2 system. People are really scared now, and
the belief that proprietary systems are more reliable than Free/open
stuff has vapourised. Some companies have already started development
centres for TeX in India, which is good news for TeXies and some have
repented for not using free alternatives. I have had a few requests
for consulting too, but declined owning to my own tight schedules.
This incident has opened the eyes of many to the hazards of depending
on proprietary software in business.
LFY: Can you tell us something about your company? how many people
work there? Are you getting sufficient work?
River Valley Technologies is one of the nine suppliers to Elsevier
Science, the world's largest academic journal publishers. We have been
recently adjudged the No 1 supplier by Elsevier -- for quality,
technology and meeting schedules. It is a credit to free software and
a fitting answer to people who claim that only proprietary software
can bring success to companies engaged in commercial-grade production.
The Institute of Physics Publishing, Cambridge University Press, and
Nature Publishing Group are some other clients, listed in the
decreasing order of the size of their accounts with us. We are
reasonably popular in the text-processing industry, where TeX is used.
And therefore, we do not have any dearth of work. We have a team of
over 150 people now and plan to expand our operations to Vietnam with
the help of Han The Thanh, who is the primary author of pdfTeX and
part of our company ###
-- Copyright 2007 V Sasi Kumar. This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution, No-derivative 3.0 License. To view a
copy of this license, visit
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/ V Sasi Kumar is a
scientist at the Centre for Earth Science Studies, and is also a
member of the Free Software Foundation, India.
LINUX FOR YOU, www.linuxforu.com DECEMBER 2007 issue, pp 34-35.
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