The recent Finnish study on the significance of FLOSS (free/libre and open-source software) in developing countries labels itself version 1.0 and ushers in a new concept--not free as in beer or speech, but free as in education. This report, the latest in a series of studies on the impact of free and open-source software worldwide, focuses on the third world. It has been sponsored by Finland, home of the Linux kernel. "This is the beginning. We will put out our findings on the Net and hope to get ideas on improvements (to the study)", says lead researcher Niranjan Rajani, originally from Pakistan and currently based in Helsinki. "This has become a project that most probably will not have an end. You could consider this report [to be] version 1.0...this is just a starting point", stressed Juha Rekola of KEPA, a Finnish network of non-governmental and campaign organisations involved in the study.
Rajani, a philosopher who took to computing to earn a living, looks at the impact of FLOSS in specific countries, and he also views the implications of what it means for a cash-strapped economy. He has few doubts about the usefulness of FLOSS, which he believes would be "extremely relevant" in any of the poorer parts of the globe. He says, "Take the example of education. In terms of computer education, FLOSS has no match. Nothing else provides [as] much value to learners as FLOSS does. You're free to tinker with the code. Not only that, you can get in touch with the people who wrote the code and ask why this or that was done in a particular piece of code.
"[FLOSS] offers low entry barriers. That's how it should be described. It reduces the barriers for anyone wanting to enter this field by making everything open. So much so, that many people fail to appreciate that fact. Besides, there's the element of cost. Most of the studies show that, in terms of cost, free and open-source software is unmatched. Some studies have been made which tend to show that, in certain cases, FLOSS may have more immediate costs. But I doubt the seriousness and validity of these studies on the ground that these studies do not take into account what would be happening if there was no FLOSS. Where would the cost structure of the current software be?"
Recently, while unveiling the report in downtown Helsinki, Rajani agreed that "there is no magic bullet or magic wand, and neither FLOSS nor computers (by themselves) can provide a great leap into development". Development, he argued, comes about by humans determined to make changes in the direction they are moving. "But FLOSS can do wonders in terms of savings (on software), educating and building a solid base needed for going ahead", said the 45-year-old Karachi and philosopher-techie.
Rajani argues the ideas of free software are spreading to other fields, as seen in terms of open law, open-source biology, MIT's opencourseware, e-books put on-line through volunteers under Project Gutenberg, free dictionaries, the open music movement and the like. Rajani contends the freedom offered by FLOSS is of "paramount importance in more than one way" in the third world. Yet, he says, the price aspect is also "very important, without which developing nations would not be able to significantly meet the challenges of the computing age". So, rather than arguing whether free and open-source software is free beer or free speech, it ought to be thought of as "free education...in terms of both freedom [and] price."
Taking a broad overview, the study suggests "the situation in Asia and even Africa can be contrasted to Latin America, where the contribution of code to FLOSS started much earlier and is duly noticed and recognised". But Niranjan goes along with the view that the output of free software and open-source code from Asia "in coming years (could see) more contributions, and some will excel so much that they will get attention".
"Going through the 20+ countries mentioned in the Asia report, the highest overall FLOSS-related activity seems to be taking place in countries like India, China and Taiwan (excluding Japan, which is not the subject of this study) followed by South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, etc.", summarises Rajani. In Latin America, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina top the FLOSS-related activity scores, both in terms of usage and code-contribution. They're followed by Colombia, Venezuela and Peru.
"Latin American programmers have made significant contributions to the overall FLOSS projects around the globe", Rajani confirms. For instance, this Finnish study notes that GNOME, one of the two competing GUIs available for Linux, was started by the Mexican developer Miguel de Icaza while he was working at the Institute of Nuclear Sciences (UNAM-Universidad Autonoma de Mexico).
Latin America also can boast of projects such as Brazil's CodigoLivre at UNIVATES and the Rede Escolar Livre RS, plus UTUTU, BioLinux and Via Libre Foundation in Argentina, PHP-Nuke from Venezuela and INFOMED from Cuba, among others.
In Africa, the spotlight turns to the Translate.org initiative of South Africa, a translation effort to make Linux available in South Africa's 11 official languages; OpenLab, in South Africa and Nigeria; SchoolTool; and LinuxLab, among others. There's also the radio e-mail project in Guinea and the use of Linux wireless routers to bring in subscribers for an ISP in Ghana. In February 2003, the Free and Open Source Software Foundation Africa was launched in Geneva.
Interestingly, Rajani points to a recent trend that has seen South Asians at the helm of a number of important studies on free software and open source. First it was Rishab Aiyer-Ghosh, in the Netherlands, who undertook the prestigious study on free/libre and open-source software for the European Union. In addition, Seema Arora at Stanford is part of the team looking at what makes programmers gift their critical code without hoping to earn millions in return. Now comes Rajani's work.
This latest report was funded by Finland's Ministry for Foreign Affairs and undertaken by OneWorld Finland and KEPA. The latter two are organisations working in development, a field in which software--particularly free software--is being looked at as a tool with considerable promise. Also of note, Peruvian Congressman Dr. Edgar Villanueva Nunez, well known for his stand on free software and his legislative initiatives there, was present at the unveiling of the report.
Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist living in Goa, India.