Pakistan Government Looks to the Linux Users Group

by Frederick Noronha

It must be quite flattering when a government sits up, takes note of the potential of a Linux-users group, and prominently features it in advertisements noticed nationwide.

This happened recently in Pakistan, where a small but growing band of GNU/Linux enthusiasts--and some senior policy planners working at another level--have understood the impact that this alternative computing operating system could have on their plans.

Sometime in June, the English-language newspaper The Dawn published from the port city of Karachi, announced: "The Government of Pakistan is committing itself to the reduction of piracy and the protection of intellectual property. Linux and open source technologies are the corner stone of this initiative."

Deploying GNU/Linux to avoid piracy might be unexpected logic. But in the subcontinent of South Asia--covering the populous regions of India, Pakistan and smaller neighbours--per capita income hovers around $300 US a year.

Affordability of software prices is a key issue, and faced by repeated charges of "piracy" of costly proprietary software, some are beginning to see GNU/Linux as an option.

(This is perhaps one reason why the many forms of "freedom" offered by GNU/Linux are also sometimes interpreted in terms of the "price freedom" and affordability it offers users here, though this may not be seen as too important an issue in the more-affluent world.)

Pakistan's Technology Resource Mobilization Unit has been established by the Government of Pakistan to enable groups of professionals to exchange views and coordinate activities in their sectors. One is to focus on GNU/Linux.

"These physical and virtual groups involve volunteers in Pakistan and abroad, who contribute to policy making by the Government of Pakistan. Each group has national and regional coordinators. Meetings, seminars and conferences are held to debate, crystallize and propagate relevant ideas, concepts and policy directions," the Pakistani government announced recently.

On the GNU/Linux front the Pakistani press announced, "the task force is expected to include committed professionals (e.g. PLUC), academics and practicing software developers to set the future direction for Pakistan". PLUC is the Pakistan Linux Users' Club.

Plans are to have "Linux force"--as it has been described--to hold meetings, seminars and conferences to educate the user community.

"They will also come with proposals to the government [for] funding such as the creation of user-friendly client/server software, training strategies, local language software development, the induction of LINUX into [the] basic syllabi, etc." says the government in an advert published in The Dawn.

TReMU, Pakistan's Technology Resource Mobilization Unit, has plans to set up secure network and e-commerce task forces too, in addition to the GNU/Linux task force.

"The main qualifications to participate are a commitment to volunteer your time and intellectual inputs, to work in a team, and to have a desire for the betterment of the country", says TReMU, making an appeal to the patriotism of the GNU/Linux techies.

It anticipates that these groups will "enable a sharing of resources and ideas". Besides, TReMU hopes that several of the ideas could germinate into development projects and thus "translate the brainstorming, discussion and planning sessions into practical realities".

Those interested in participating have been asked to fill out the relevant forms on the TReMU web site.

It's clear that some influential decision-makers and policy advisors are keen to push toward a GNU/Linux direction.

At worst, this would help third world countries like Pakistan to battle frequent charges of having "pirated" proprietary software--most of which is atrociously priced from a developing-country perspective.

At best, this could help Pakistan, which like neighbouring India has a long reputation for its software skills, to encourage young programmers to understand better and go further, given the transparent and collaborative nature of the GNU/Linux software.

Ovais Khan wrote in to PLUC recently: "There was an ad on page 21 of The Dawn about the creation of a task force for Linux, secure networks and e-commerce. The interesting thing is that the name of PLUC is in the ad. Congrats [PLUC's key driving force Abdul] Basit and all the others."

But some felt differently.

Fawad Halim commented, "I'm very skeptical about anything (good) coming from the Government, but let's see what comes out of this."

Bilal Muddassir shot back, "I think the only organization that can mobilize immense amounts of resources (of course if it wants to) for a particular purpose currently in Pakistan is a government organization. Being skeptical is okay..."

Pakistan Ministry of Science and Technology advisor Salman Ansari recently told this correspondent that he sees other uses for GNU/Linux deployment.

For instance, 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 as the OS would ensure that the overall price is kept low. Pakistan is seriously considering the use of StarOffice, an open-source productivity tool that does the same work as proprietary software that costs thousands of rupees.

"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", says an enthusiastic Ansari. It's to be seen if these dreams can be accomplished.

"I've set up several networks. When I started setting them up six years ago, the only thing I could run them with, without breaking the law, was Linux. At that time, Windows NT was very flaky. So I've developed a very healthy respect for Linux and open source", says Ansari.

Half-sarcastically, he adds with a smile, "Though I'm a typical Pakistani, I still feel a bit uncomfortable in buying pirated software and paying 90 cents for a software priced $500 US."

Ansari says Pakistan has been speaking to some big vendors about proprietary prices. "We told them we would like to do business with them, but that the pricing would have to be realistic first", he says.

If current software prices are taken into account, to go "legal" Pakistan would have to pay something like $400 US for converting each of its PCs to proprietary software.

"The Business Software Alliance [the network promoting and protecting the interests of proprietary software] has been going all out for it. But they have to come in at a price that equates to the economics of the country", argues Ansari.

Ansari points to the belief that if professionals want to enter the software development field, they need to get into open source. "You will be then able to create products, and not just projects", he says.

It makes sense in terms of regional language solutions front too. "Urdu [the national language of Pakistan] language software is easier [to use] if it resides at the OS level", he adds.

Ansari says that as chairman of the peer review committee of all IT projects, he has been keen to turn down any project that uses pirated software. "But what this (asking for non-pirated software) ends up doing is bloating the cost of the software", he complains, suggesting that open source could be a way out.

He says:

There are two interesting initiatives now. We're launching a major e-governance programme, and the government must have legal software. We're also planning to put in computers in rural schools. Both are going to be high-profile projects. We want to make sure they don't use pirated software, even while we work on cleaning out other PCs.

Ansari says this has "thrown open the debate" in Pakistan. One instance is that the Technology Resource Mobilization Unit has a task force on Linux. The government has also agreed to put in Rs 200 million to fund R&D and software product development, which the government would then own and distribute for free--cutting into the logic of proprietary software.

On the client-side, efforts are on to build a GUI interface for Linux, by working at the OS level for projects that relate to text-to-speech, language translation and language-related software.

"But at the same time, we're not stopping anyone [in government] from buying branded products. So long as they can justify it and negotiate a good price [the justification for which has to be very valid]", says the US-returned engineer.

"In a government contract, if you're going to bid for computers that have a legal OS and office suite, guess who's going to win", he says.

Three aspects take priority on this front, says Ansari: first, encouraging legal software; second, enabling a "complete industry growth" for product development based on Linux; and third, making people "very, very aware" of this powerful tool.

GNU/Linux is something that "almost everybody has adopted, whether it's Sun, Oracle or IBM". This would reduce the cost of computing for the people, even while we would like to use non-pirated software, says Ansari.

He finds it ludicrous to believe BSA's estimation that India uses 63% pirated software, while Pakistan's figure is something like 83%. "Their current paradigm is simply to count the number of computers shipped, and multiply this by five, on the assumption that each computer needs five pieces of software. This is a ludicrous way of estimating things", he says.

He says: "Sure, piracy is far high. If everybody somehow started using Linux, we'd fall below the US piracy levels and maybe have 2% piracy. We want to be ahead of these guys before they start their next 'war on terrorism' (using the issue of 'intellectual property')."

Ansari also argues that Pakistan wants the likes of Microsoft to come out with prices that are reasonable. "We want companies like those to also come and invest in the country, where software or drivers could be written here," he argues.

Youngsters, smitten by the power of GNU/Linux, sing its praises too.

Zuhair Ali, who works in networking and has done his Masters in Physics and Systems Engineering, says:

I'm interested in Linux because in Linux you know what's going on. Nothing is hidden from you behind nice dialog boxes as in Windows. It's a very good toy for me as I can play and tweak as much as I want, and I have all the necessary help and information from the Net.

Ali informs that earlier this year, he and his friends started a chapter of the PLUC in the national capital of Islamabad. It started small, with just four members.

Twenty-two year old Zeeshan Ashraf of Karachi, CTO at the Pakistan-based Specific Research Laboratories, says that PLUC colleague Basit has developed a distro called "PK-Linux". Ashraf himself is working on developing a distro for the embedded and industrial market "much like what IBM and Cisco did for their forthcoming hardware".

Ashraf is also designing an "industrial PC" and is "in the process of making a distro for real-time Linux that would go with this PC and and would have all the drivers to support the custom hardware that we ship with this PC".

Other Linux enthusiasts, however, drop hints that it won't be easy convincing all the many decision-makers and government officials to go along with a pro-Linux policy.

"The LINUX community is very large, but it needs to be assembled together. PLUC is doing this effort toward bringing all the LINUX user base into a group, so all and everybody can benefit from the experiences of the others, and get their queries answered," says Ashraf.

Meetings are held regularly every month, and now PLUC has now undertaken the initiative of spreading the community further by approaching Universities and delivering seminars or conducting workshops, and educating the students of the endless possibilities of GNU/Linux.

But much needs to be done. For one, the potential of GNU/Linux in countries like Pakistan is not fully appreciated globally. Partly, it's a problem with poor communication.

Ashraf argues, "There's mostly no development being done in Pakistan on the OS level. And, even if there are a few people who are doing this, they [don't publicize it]. So, since the national community does not know of this endeavour, how can we expect the international market to appreciate this?"

He himself has been working to develop a hardware card that will provide the most common network buses for the Industrial developer. Ashraf plans to incorporate all the drivers and APIs for this in the Linux kernel, most probably in the PK-Linux distro too. Zeeshan "Shan" Ashraf is the IT manager of a pharmaceutical company. He says:

Linux has a lot of potential, and features that can be excellent for Third World (developing) countries like Pakistan. It's free (affordable) and has almost the same software and hardware-base as does Windows or any other OS for that matter. Pakistan, especially the government-maintained organisations, schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions can benefit from deploying Linux (as it would provide affordable solutions) and also make it possible to utilise old legacy systems. This would cut costs.

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist living in Goa, India.

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