Open-Source Software Opens New Windows to Third-World
GNU/Linux, and tons of useful software that comes along with it, is clearly attracting interest from a range of quarters. From Pakistan to the UNDP, from Africa to Malaysia, and even in the Philippines or Thailand and Nepal, GNU/Linux is being closely watched, studied and adopted in a range of interesting experiments.
Created and propagated largely by volunteers, most of GNU/Linux's growth simply isn't based on giant billion-dollar spinning corporations that have the resources to promote its cause. So, such success stories from the Third World could largely go unnoticed.
In large parts of the world where the average per capita income is often less than the cost of a computer, the current phenomenal price of software turns millions into "pirates". In these parts of the globe, words such as free or low cost are not necessarily associated with low-quality, but offer to include millions who otherwise would be simply left out in the cold.
Because GNU/Linux is open source, there are no mountains of secrecy blocking replicability. So prices of the same fall to a point which is dramatically low compared to proprietary software and thus affordable to the millions.
For instance, a couple of hundred thousand copies of GNU/Linux have been distributed across India, through local popular computer magazines, at a price of just around $2. That includes both the cost of a slick magazine and CD. This software can, of course, be legally copied across as many computers as needed.
This being the case, is it surprising that there are interesting stories coming from varied corners of the Third World?
Pakistan Ministry of Science and Technology advisor Salman Ansari says that some 50,000 low cost computers are to be installed in schools and colleges all over Pakistan. These will be PII computers, each being sourced for less than $100 a piece, he says.
Proprietary software for these PCs would cost a small fortune. Surely more than what the computers cost. But, using GNU/Linux ensures that the overall prices are kept low. Pakistan is seriously considering the use of StarOffice office as well, saving thousands of rupees over using more expensive and wholly proprietary office software.
"Don't be surprised if we become the first country in the world to say that all (government-run) services are going to be GNU/Linux based," Ansari says enthusiastically.
In Africa too, GNU/Linux is making its impact felt. Dakar (Senegal)-based Pierre Dandjinou is ICT-D Policy Advisor for Africa. Says Dandjinou: "At one point, we got an idea to set up an Open Source Foundation for Africa. We are working on it."
He points to discussion list to discuss open source. South Africa's network is perhaps the most popular among the continent. Dandjinou, as ISOC (Internet Society) chairman for Benin, was able to organise a conference on this subject. UNDP has been experimenting with such technologies since 1994.
"Can African citizens be paying for all the proprietary software stuff?" he asks.
Besides, SNDP, the Sustainable Network Development Programme, which is a network promoted by the UN, itself uses Linux in some 47 countries worldwide.
But Dandjinou says: "I don't feel the cost (alone) is an issue. Of course, if you compare (the price of Open Source or Free Software products) with what we've been paying by using proprietary software packages, we have been paying really a lot of dollars. But more than price, what matters is the application development. The idea of the openness should be kept there. Openness and sharing... these are great values in themselves."
M. Thierry Hyacinthe Amoussougbo, the coordinator for the Cisco regional academy in Benin, says that enthusiasm about GNU/Linux is high, even if there are still practical problems in implementation.
Part of the problem is due to lack of technical skills to spread GNU/Linux sufficiently. Besides, the widespread predominance of pirated versions of proprietary operating systems makes the need for innovation and study of options a low-priority. "Everybody says let's go over to open source. But on the ground, it takes time to get started. It is being used by some, but is yet to be widely used," Amoussougbo admits.
"Linux is used for many servers. We too want to promote it and establish more Linux-based servers. But what moves on the ground level is still Microsoft... maybe without respect to copyright though," says Amoussougbo.
In Malaysia, in end-March, the Kuala Lumpur newspapers reported a verbal spat between the global software giant Microsoft and the fledging-but-influential Open Source movement in that country.
Tabloid daily The Star reported in its issue of March 26 that Microsoft (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd had "fired its first salvo against the Open Source movement in Malaysia" with an article sent out through its electronic newsletter and posted on its web site.
This article, "Not Quite an Open and Shut Case" (www.microsoft.com/malaysia/business/articles/linkpage3866.htm) was signed by Microsoft Malaysia managing director Butt Wai Choon. It argued that open-source software was "a threat to the commercial software industry". The Star, a popular Malaysian daily, noted however that the article "sounded familiar to a speech given by Jim Allchin to US lawmakers in Washington just a bit more than a year ago".
The Star also noted that in the last few months, both the Malaysian National Computer Confederation (MNCC) and the Association of the Computer and Multimedia Industry of Malaysia (Pikom) have formed "special interest groups" devoted to the Open Source movement. MNCC is the national body of computer professionals, while Pikom is the industry trade association.
"Both bodies have announced or are considering initiatives to create greater awareness amongst business and government, of the benefits of using and adopting open-source solutions," reported The Star in an article by A. Asohan.
Unnamed industry sources were also quoted saying that one or two Malaysian government or semi-government bodies are studying the feasibility of developing Linux--the Unix-based operating system that many consider the flagship of the OSS charge--into a "national operating system" like what's being undertaken with China's Red Flag project.
MNCC's member and security consultant Dinesh Nair was quoted saying: "In my opinion it [the article] indicates a growing concern that open source may be a threat to them locally." Nair also leads the technical sub-group of the MNCC's Open Source Special Interest Group.
"Only Mr. Butt can answer for certain [about the article's] timing... but it is true that at this moment in Malaysia, there is substantial interest in open source in both the private and public sectors," another MNCC-OSSIG member Dr Nah Soo Hoe, told the newspaper.
"Open source can be a threat to the commercial software model as practised currently by companies like Microsoft. Obviously, if you cannot charge a lot for your software, or hold users to ransom for upgrades and repeated purchases, you will tend to lose a lot of money if your business model is based on just this," he added.
But he went on to point out that it was possible to have a changed model that does not "rely so much on the actual purchase of software, but rather on the services needed to achieve the functionality the software offers, then whether you charge for the software is "not so important anymore", Dr Nah noted.
He said his fellow MNCC-OSSIG members believe that the open source model can in fact be a critical element towards making projects like Malaysia's ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor a success. The MSC is an ambitious ICT (Information & Communications Technology) initiative planned by the Malaysian government, to attract leading global companies to locate their multimedia industries alongside Kuala Lumpur). This dedicated corridor stretches 15km wide and 50km long, between the giant Petronas Twin Towers and the hi-tech Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Open-source software, they argue, is even more important for a developing country like Malaysia.
"Access to source code will encourage and promote local capacities for software modification and redistribution," Dr. Nah was quoted as telling The Star in its special in.tech supplement (star-techcentral.com).
"It promotes an environment for technical and systems development, as well as the ability to learn, innovate and invent, while stimulating the local software industry. More importantly, it promotes independence from foreign software companies and reduces an outflow of funds from the country," he added.
Speaking to visiting participants of an UNDP/APDIP-organised Africa-Asia Workshop on ICT for Development, Ng Wan Peng a senior manager at the Multimedia Superior Corridor at Cyberjaya, the new township being built alongside Kuala Lumpur, says the Malaysian government is "very open" concerning using open-source software.
"We're considering using open source. What really matters is the total cost of ownership, including the other costs that come along with it. Wherever possible, we would like to use it," says Peng.
In other ways too, Malaysia is giving open-source and free software a close look. Take the case of MIMOS (www.mimos.my), the Malaysian Institute of Micro Electronic Systems, which is intended to grow into a premier R&D powerhouse in this South-East Asian country.
"MIMOS has lots of our programmes running on open source," says Dr Raslan Bin Ahmad of MIMOS Berhad. MIMOS is one of the key pillars in taking this country towards becoming a K-society and K-economy (based on knowledge) and turn into a 'developed country' by the year 2020.
In its e-world section, MIMOS showcases projects like its attempt to build a low-cost PC that is "affordable to everybody". This computer is based on GNU/Linux and and is expected to cost far less than what it costs to buy a PC in the market.
"Infoniti" ("infinite" plus "information") is being built up as a handy web device "that makes accessing the web as easy as using a TV or VCR". Both inexpensive and friendly to use, this device would, hopefully, "cross the digital divide separating computer phobics from computer literates". Its promoters say it aims to help "all Malaysians" improve their quality of life through the "power of information".
Says Emmanuel Lallana of the E-ASEAN Task Force based in Manila: "It makes sense to use open standards and open source. We don't want to get locked into proprietary software. You can use Open Source also because it's cheaper. Why pay for an operating system and office suite, when you have people giving it out for free?"
In Thailand, the ambitious SchoolNet experiment--an initiative that seeks to provide universal access to teachers and students in schools in that East Asian country -- also taps into the power of GNU/Linux.
It has developed a Linux School Internet Server (Linux SIS) to be promoted and distributed to schools "as a cheaper alternative to using an expensive server software".
"Since its introduction, Linux-SIS has been very popular in Thailand due to its excellent documentation in the Thai language, its simple-to-install CD-ROM and web-based server management without the need to know UNIX commands," says Dr Thaweesak 'Hugh' Koanantakool, director of Bangkok's National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (NECTEC).
SIS training courses are always in constant demand from schools looking for a reliable Internet server at the "lowest cost", says he. (More information on the Linux-SIS is available at www.nectec.or.th/linux-sis/ ) Some of the pages are in the Thai language.
News reports have recently focused on GNU/Linux initiatives in classrooms from different corners of the globe.
Of particular interest are those coming up from the Third World. Including Ganesha's Project in Nepal, a plan using donated machines and open-source software like Linux, in a move to cut the costs of acquiring software licenses for "an already impoverished school system".
In Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of India, after struggling for years to get discounts from Microsoft software for use in their schools, the Goa Schools Computers Project (GSCP) got a windfall. Red Hat offered not just a chance to reproduce their software over any number of computers, but also some training for school-teachers on the basics of GNU/Linux. Goa's unit of the India Linux Users' Group has also volunteered to support this project. (See the group overcoming their teething trouble at www.groups.yahoo.com/group/gscp or visit the background details of the project.)
Goa is one of India's smallest states (population 1.35 million; area 3700 sq.km). But this small experience showing what can be done inspired other GNU/Linux networks in other parts of India, where some groups are rather active, particularly in the bigger cities.
These are all significant ventures. Some are small; others are more ambitious. But there are lessons for everyone who can emulate and adapt some of these interesting ventures from all across the Third World.