Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobago

A look at the IT industry in the host country of the Free, Libre and Open Source Software conference.

To many throughout the world, Trinidad and Tobago are unknown spots on the globe, somewhere near Venezuela, and the southernmost islands of the Caribbean. When one speaks of the Caribbean, people think of beaches and little drinks with umbrellas. They think of the cruise ships that take them from one adventure to another, Robinson Crusoe-style. Carnival, beaches and alcohol. What more could one ask for?

This is not an article about that picture.

The reality of the sound of rain on galvanized steel roofs speaks of what you won't find in a brochure. The smell of rain on hot pitch permeates the air where tourists seldom venture. There are businesses here other than tourism; there are people with jobs outside the tourism trade, and they do not always smile at cameras. There are people within the private sector that strive to increase the quality of life in Trinidad and Tobago for the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

With the main exports being oil and sugar, Trinidad and Tobago are not poor, though a drive through the country may indicate otherwise. Air conditioning is still a novelty to some, and computers have only recently become something considered as a household fixture. The Internet, therefore, is relatively new and remains largely untapped. As such, free software and open-source software are largely unknown.

To write about free and open-source software in Trinidad and Tobago, however, some background is necessary.

Where Trinidad and Tobago Are in IT

Proprietary software is used most in Trinidad and Tobago, and as such, Microsoft and its many applications have a strong grip on the IT market. This is further evident within the IT training arena, where local loans from banks on the order of $20,000 TT (roughly $3,300 US) are given to individuals so they can attempt to obtain MCSE certifications.

Broken Microsoft licenses abound. To compete with foreign computer manufacturers (notably Dell, which offers only Microsoft operating systems for home systems), local computer assemblers install Microsoft operating systems without the legal and financial permission of Microsoft. They reduce their costs and give the consumers what they want. Subsequently, Microsoft is even more firmly entrenched, though not to Microsoft's immediate benefit. People use what they know, and they know what they use.

In the professional arena, the Information Technology Professional Society tried to create an umbrella organization for all of the IT organizations in Trinidad and Tobago back in 2002. The Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society maintains its notes on this group and member concerns here. A further browse of the thorough TTCS meeting archives illustrates many of the issues associated with computing in Trinidad and Tobago.

When contacted, the ITPS gave no response about their stance on open-source and free software. Of course, as the President of the ITPS, George Gobin, and the Vice President of Technology for ITPS, Ansar Mohammed, are both Microsoft employees, there is room for speculation.

In academia, the University of the West Indies (UWI; St. Augustine Campus) is also predominantly Microsoft, to the point where Microsoft has offered students discounts on MS software. Communication with the Campus IT Services, through Tafiq Khan, WebCT Administrator for UWI, said, "We do use open-source applications on campus, but this usage is limited and reducing as we speak. The reasons for this can be examined at a later date."

Though this is hardly promising, communication with recent UWI graduates indicated that Microsoft has not "overrun the syllabus", as some anonymous staff members had thought. Yet, Microsoft does have an overall effect, as most readers already know. One graduate wrote, "You have to realize [that] at least half of the graduates leave to become programmers who are required to use MS products at the workplace in Trinidad. They just graduated and have to pay off student loans, so they take the first couple of offers they get."

Even the tourist web site www.visittnt.com shows support for Microsoft, if you take the time to view the source. Where do you want to go today? Perhaps Trinidad and Tobago by way of Microsoft Frontpage?

No Linux periodicals appear on magazine racks, including Linux Journal. When bookstores were asked about this, the answer was consistent: "There isn't a demand". And yet Apple related magazines are on the bookshelves as well as Microsoft Visual Studio related magazines. One could argue there aren't enough people interested in Linux, but that could be countered with there aren't enough people interested in Linux because there isn't any literature available.

With unlimited dial-up internet access starting at approximately $50 US dollars per month, even the Internet isn't a viable alternative for the same people who could gain from it. The many open-source and free software applications out there for the download are out of reach for many, but a few make them available. Distribution of free software and open-source applications and operating systems happens at TTLUG and TTCS meetings. No proprietary software is exchanged, for obvious reasons.

Here in Trinidad and Tobago, computing is not presently for the people who do not have money. The good news is this situation is changing, and the rate of change is accelerating. Perhaps one day a cruise ship will dock in Trinidad and Tobago, and we'll get to see some of the people who made it all possible.

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Re: Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobago

GuntherR's picture

Ultra Consulting Network Ltd offers commercial Linux support since 1998 in Trinidad. We installed several Linux Internet gateways for several companies. We are working with Unix of different flavour since 1988 and Linux since 1996. We implemented Open Source solutions using PHP, MySQL and crossplatform database support for companies in T&T.

Tobago vs Trinidad

Anonymous's picture

Can anybody comment on the state of general IT skills and knowledge in Tobago as opposed to Trinidad?

The article paints the picture of cruise ships and drinks with umbrellas, but I was under the impression that Tobago is for the tourists and Trinidad is the business and cultural center.

The internet cafes in Tobago all seem to be organised along the lines of a group of PCs sharing a single dial-up connection - this is hardly ideal for anything other than text level services (e.g. Instant Messaging and email).

Would be interesting to find if any of the local Linux User Group are in Tobago.

Re: Tobago vs Trinidad

TaranRampersad's picture

Excellent point, and one I wish I could address better. It does seem strange that Tobago is not mentioned too much, and that is something that we mean to address in the TTLUG, and something I also need to find out more about.

It requires logistics, and funding. Because of Tobago being a separate island, there's a huge logistics issue - you need a boat or a plane ticket to make it to TTLUG meetings, as far as I know. I'd like an excuse to get over to Tobago for a TTLUG meeting.

South Trinidad has the same problem - the TTLUG meetings happen right now only up North, and we're looking at the South location. Again, it's a matter of logistics.

I suspect that the Tobago IT skills are on par with the Trinidad IT skills. Hotel administration, as an example, can require a good - though small - IT department. I also wouldn't want to segregate them - Trinidad and Tobago are one country. Unfortunately, geography is an issue.

This is something I shall dig more on, and I'm glad you brought it up. Thank you for pointing this out.

Re: Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobag

richjob's picture

Well, there have been previous attempts to offer commercial grade Linux support in Trinidad and Tobago.

Success has been variable, but the success or failure of such ventures have not been determined by Linux's unsuitability for the task at hand.

Some of the Internet cafes do run their backend on Open Source, last I heard, and I know of two companies who have been formally involved in FLOS, so far.

The first owners of the ISP http://www.carib-link.net used to run their operation on FLOS software. The new owners are a "solution partner" now, and eat the dog food of proprietary software. Coincidentally (not necessarily causally) service has deteriorated since then

B&A ( http://www.linux.co.tt )used to do it, but their principal Linux consultant fell in love, married and migrated. :0 Not too sure about their status now, but I know that they had offered FLOS (Linux) training services to Guyana Power, among other regional bodies. Did a lot of training locally in Linux too, among some of the solution providers and educational institutions.

Thankfully, they still host the TTLUG ( http://www.ttlug.org )on their server.

Cysco used to do it too, but their FLOS principal ended up getting a better offer (happens far too often in a dveloping country) and doing AI work in Canada.

I hear of new companies springing up too, and I have hope for them staying the course.

Re: Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobag

Bunty's picture

Yes, there is a market in T&T for Commercial Opensource Support.

I must say that training was very viable and I did get to know alot about the use of open source in the IT industry there.

I am always here to support and help the TTLUG and any member group in T&T that needs resources.

The view should be broadened however. Look to Barbados and Guyana for interesting avenues.

Correction to Richob. It was Guyana Telephone and Telegraph that was trained. They already had a dedicated Linux staff to support there systems.

Well. I did migrate, but it doesnt mean all is lost in T&T. I sure my departure made an openning for another enterprising youth. Heheh.

Aha! You're that fellow!

TaranRampersad's picture

Richard had mentioned you before.

Your clients, apparently, miss you. ;)

Re: Aha! You're that fellow!

Bunty's picture

Well. What can I say. I truely wish I could provide services atm. Maybe in the future. :)

Re: Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobag

TaranRampersad's picture

Yes, the new companies are especially of interest.

It is a shame that perfectly good geeks are lost to marriage as well :)

The internet cafes are also of interest, and perhaps I'll do some digging in that regard. I do believe that Browwwsers in San Fernando, Trinidad does use Linux. Maybe I'll go 'lime' for an afternoon :)

Re: Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobag

Anonymous's picture

Yes, he wa strying to run his older machines on Linux for a while. People are too accustomed to the old interfaces and apps to want to change, unfortunately.

:(

Allan is making a go of low-cost Linux routers, though. There's an opportunity there, methinks.

Re: Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobag

TaranRampersad's picture

Hmm. I'll definitely stop by then. Sounds like there's treasure in that there Cafe....

Re: Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobag

Anonymous's picture

Its The Caribbean Center for Monetary Studies (CCMS). The url is www.ccmsuwi.org.

The CCMS is engaged in developing a data warehousing (socio-economic data) and statistical analysis tools using open source tools like PostgreSQL and Zope. We are using Python, TCL/TK and C/C++ as development languages.

For this project we are in the process of setting up a joint venture with other regional research institutions. When these discussions are finalized we will be allowed more to say about this project.

Our backend is all Linux (Red Hat/Debian).

Our economist use Windows PCs but our Primary Domain Controller is a Redhat box running SAMBA.

We are also trying to get the end users to adopt OpenOffice but there are some issues we have to overcome.

CCMS project

TaranRampersad's picture

Yes, this article did neglect some of the things CCMS is doing, and CCMS is doing a LOT. This article was a backgrounder, and as such I didn't get into the details on a few things.

I think the project, once finalized, will be something that will be notable - and so will probably be covered in the near future. :)

Re: Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobag

TaranRampersad's picture

It just came to my attention that Caribbean Monetary Studies should be Caribbean Centre for Monetary Studies

My most humble apologies - somehow that slipped by!

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