Conectiva Linux 4.0

Over 500 million people speak Spanish or Portuguese as a first language. Conectiva brings Linux to them.

Over 500 million people speak Spanish or Portuguese as a first language. Conectiva brings Linux to them.

At the last COMDEX, I had the pleasure of chatting with the Conectiva folks who flew all the way up to Las Vegas from Brazil for the Linux Business Expo. LJ was very enthusiastic when we heard some time ago that Conectiva was translating every man page, system message and other documentation into Spanish and Portuguese, thus making Linux much more accessible to an enormous user base. It has been wonderful to see how far Conectiva has come in its endeavor to bring Linux to Latin America. Already there are several software packages, as well as an exciting new Brazilian magazine Revista do Linux.

Circumstances of continental drift have brought North, Central and South America fairly close together, and we have a lot of shared history, although not all of it is particularly positive. Nevertheless, one must put a regional perspective on the whole affair to appreciate the enthusiasm many of us have had for this project. Indeed, as Europeans often learn English in school, English-speaking Americans are often taught Spanish. Public telephones, ATMs, advertisements and more than a few signs are often bilingual (although this might be largely a West Coast and Southwest thing), so one cannot help but feel a kind of victory to see Linux become translated into not just Spanish but also Portuguese (which has typically been overshadowed by its more widely spoken relatives). In fact, Conectiva is actually Brazilian, so the Spanish translation was a secondary but much appreciated endeavor.

Latin America is a bit behind the U.S. in terms of keeping up with the latest in hardware, so on average, there are slower processors, less RAM and smaller hard drives, making it difficult and painful (if not impossible) to run the latest bloated proprietary wares. Additionally, most people do not have the money to waste on proprietary software, let alone expensive development kits and the requisite fancy computers. When you look at the situation in businesses which require several or even dozens of computers, and especially the typically less-than-well-financed universities, the price of licensing software is too high. Out of necessity, this has led to the choice between having enough computers and paying licensing fees for the software. When you would be paying licensing fees to multi-billion-dollar corporations in some foreign nation, the choice is fairly obvious. Even without these considerations, the choice is obvious—you don't pay the fees.

Unfortunately, every time money is involved with something, people start pointing guns at each other. The Conectiva folks told me stories of corporations being raided and executives leaving in handcuffs, as well as universities being harassed and intimidated. Apparently, it's a common occurrence (and we thought the “hang your boss” campaign was going way too far). Alas, the zealous persecution of software users in Brazil is driving businesses and universities away from proprietary software and toward Linux.

GNU/Linux is the ideal operating system for Latin America because it provides everything universities, home users and businesses need, all free of charge; it runs extremely well on minimal hardware; and, of course, all the source code is available and often well-annotated. A free C compiler alone is worth a fortune. One need merely peruse the directories at Metalab to see the wealth of free software (remember your first visit to sunsite or the GNU archives?). Higher quality, completely for free, and most relieving of all, no more living in fear of the police. You can buy one copy of Linux and install it on every computer in your lab. And you don't need anything more than a 486/33 (though the new release will be Pentium optimized), so you can dig up any old PC you've got lying around and have one more for your lab.

Networking is a breeze; that's probably what Linux does best, and the free support from the community is priceless. Linux users have typically been most fond not as much of the free price but of the free source. Sometimes we forget that Linux also wins economically.

Conectiva estimated at least 500,000 users in Brazil alone (as of last November), with an expectation of one million in Latin America by early 2000; that's a lot of users! Just think of what one million more users will mean, in all areas from coding to kernel hacking, debugging to support, evangelizing and even just adding to that “network externality” effect. With Portuguese and Spanish as the first languages of over 500 million people, one million users is just the beginning.

Conectiva's translations have been thorough, compared to typical commercial software which is only half-heartedly translated (witness, for example, the Microsoft attempts at invading Asia; in particular, the Korea fiasco). In the past, typical translations from proprietary houses have had buggy character sets and ended up with a weird mix of English and whichever language. You'd pop up a menu, and some of the entries would be translated, but some not; every time something unexpected happened, the machine would lapse back into English. With Conectiva, you don't have these problems. Pop up any weird man page, contrive your machine to spit out error messages, and you'll get them in Portuguese. Together with the translation efforts of the KDE and GNOME projects, you've got double coverage. And should something untranslated come up, I'm sure the “open-source” approach to software building also works just fine for translation.