Try the new FT.com

March 28, 2006 4:59 pm

The powerful appeal of something for nothing

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments

In places where a Windows software licence costs more than the average monthly wage, the appeal of free software becomes extremely powerful.

So it is hardly surprising that open source software – free to use, adapt and distribute – is hugely popular throughout the developing world, for desktops, servers and everything in between.

China and India are significant users, and Latin America has established a tradition of developing and using open source software (OSS). Its popularity also extends from eastern Europe to the poorest nations of Africa.

One example, the Gnome project, is one of the most widely used open source projects and was originated by Mexican developers at the UNAM university in Mexico City. Running on millions of PCs, it reproduces for Linux the windows, icons and menus that make Windows and Apple machines easy to use.

Brazil has even produced its own version of Linux, Conectiva. It recently merged with MandrakeSoft of France to become Mandriva, and now claims 6m users across the world.

Exact numbers of OSS users are hard to come by, as free software distribution produces no sales figures. But Linux distributor Red Hat estimates that users of “Fedora” its free version of Linux, are in the hundreds of millions, many of them in the developing world.

Of course, the main appeal of Linux and other OSS is the cost. As Wire James, managing director of Uganda’s Linux Solutions, explains: “A company can have an OSS mail server set up for them for under $200 with unlimited users, yet the same [Microsoft] Exchange Server will not cost you less than $2,000.”

His company has installed OSS systems for private and public sector clients in Uganda, including Uganda Telecom and Kampala's Makerere University.

In many cases, OSS applications are available in languages not available in proprietary equivalents, especially those of poor countries which end up at the bottom of a software company’s priority list.

The open source software model allows anyone to adapt or change code, making it possible for speakers of any unsupported language to translate software themselves.

For example, Mr Wire and his colleagues have translated the Mozilla internet browser into Uganda’s most widely spoken language, Luganda, and are hoping to start translating other software packages.

It’s a slow, expensive process, and potentially never ending, as software becomes outdated rapidly, but Linux distributors are working on new tools to make translation easier. The Ubuntu desktop Linux project has developed a system whereby even people with limited technical skills can contribute to the translation effort.

Many governments across the developing world have put considerable political support behind open source. For example, Venezuela's left-wing president Hugo Chavez has mandated that public sector bodies all use OSS, finding that an anti-Microsoft technology policy fits well with his general anti-American stance.

Though the rhetoric may not always be backed up with hard cash, government support in developing countries has certainly boosted OSS within public sectors and education, as well as private companies, many of which do extensive business with the state.

While developing countries are happy to use open source, it’s harder for professional programmers to get involved in writing it. Most open source projects rely heavily on volunteer labour, from students and hobbyists; even paid open source developers are usually recruited from the ranks of established volunteers.

In the developing world, graduates with programming skills may have an extended family network depending on them as the breadwinner – so spending time debugging open source code for no payment will be especially hard to justify.

“The ability to become an active contributor to free software is at the moment limited to fairly wealthy countries and communities,” says Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth.

Given these factors, it is impressive how much the developing world has contributed to open source. At least the internet-based nature of OSS development means a remote location is no barrier to participation.

At the same time, the open source movement is keen to expand into the developing world. For example, Red Hat is providing software for the “hundred dollar laptop” project, which aims to make millions of low-cost computers available to schools across the developing world. Tom Rabon, Red Hat’s executive vice-president, believes it will help to make OSS the de facto choice for computing in those countries.

“We believe this is a huge opportunity to seed the marketplace for Linux and open source,” says Mr Rabon. “We are really talking about the next generation here. When they grow up, open source will be the normal thing.”

For many in the OSS community, the developing world is their natural territory – a place where proprietary alternatives such as Microsoft have not yet established a grip, and where people are hungry to experience computers, but have little money to pay for them.

Of course, languages and licence fees are not the only obstacle developing world computer users face. In many countries, reliable power and telecommunications are scarce at best. Open source is not the answer to all their problems, but it can make the power of computing cheaper and more accessible to some of the world’s poorest people.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments
SHARE THIS QUOTE