Free- and Open-Source Software in Trinidad and Tobago

by Taran Rampersad

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.

It's Not the End of the World

With all of this resistance and without help from anyone from outside of Trinidad and Tobago (aside from the people who wrote the software), the Trinidad and Tobago Linux User Group/Open Source Association of Trinidad and Tobago has not only started but thrived. A small group of Linux enthusiasts founded TTLUG/OSATT in 1999, with the goal of having fun learning and teaching others about open-source software. It seems to be working; the mailing list is up to about 100 people now. BSD people join in the fun as well, adding their experience to the group.

The Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society distributes the GNU CD (for a little less than $3 US), a suite of free software and open-source applications that allow people who are in violation of proprietary licensing rules to have alternatives.

Signs of interest in free and open-source software can be seen in younger developers. A GPL accounting package for business that would replace poorly adapted proprietary accounting packages is currently under development, and other ideas are coming forth. Local IT schools are now peddling some Linux certifications as well.

To facilitate all of this and to make open-source and free software more known in Trinidad and Tobago, the Centre for Caribbean Monetary Studies at UWI has joined forces with the Trinidad and Tobago Linux Users Group to work on the first Free, Libre and Open Source (FLOS, pronounced Flows) conference in Trinidad and Tobago. They hope to attract more attention to the international juggernaut of FLOS. Volunteers are working long hours, planning this June event. The web site for this event can be found at www.opensource.trinihosting.com.

In the interim, some IT professionals are adopting open-source technologies within their companies. Richard Hamel-Smith of Hand Arnold (Trinidad) Limited is one such example. When asked about how his company had adopted open source, he said:

I managed to create an impact when I replaced the Crystal Reports-driven statements with an awk script. The Crystal Reports program took a solid week to print the statements. The awk script brought this down to a couple days. Management loved it.

Over time, they have begun to view Linux as a possible solution. But the difficulty continues to be support and availability. Commercial Linux support does not exist in Trinidad, as far as I know.

The lack of commercial support for Linux in Trinidad and Tobago has been a point against its adoption. Rumors are now circulating that at least one such company is being formed to meet this demand. Once more, it's a wicked cycle: if there's no market, a company will be hard pressed to exist, and if a company does not exist, it will be hard pressed to create a market. The challenge is there, and local people are rising to meet the challenge. With the upcoming conference, a pivotal point in the local acceptance of free, libre and open-source software is at hand. Will it be a success? Nobody can be sure, but the fact that free, libre and open-source software has made it to the point of having a local conference is a great indicator.

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