December 24, 2002

Advocating Linux and Open Source in Amman, Jordan

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
On December 15 and 16, 2002, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan held an Open Source Software Workshop, sponsored in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development and hosted by the Information Technology Association of Jordan. I was one of the speakers. Two gentlemen from Microsoft also spoke. I was in favor of Linux and Open Source. They weren't.

The workshop's organizers had asked me to bear in mind, when preparing my presentation, that Linux and Open Source were almost unknown in Jordan. I told them this was not so; that the only two major countries in the world from which I had not gotten email from Linux users were North Korea and Afghanistan, and that there was a small but rapidly growing group of Linux and Open Source devotees in Amman, the Jordanian capital city where the conference was held.

Indeed, before departing the U.S. for Amman on December 12 I was already in contact with several Linux users there who were in the process of organizing a local LUG (Linux User Group) and hoped to meet informally during the workshop and plan future LUG activities.

Linux use is not always visible to officialdom

Even though the Jordanian government's Ministry of Information and Communications Technology was not officially aware of the amount of Linux and Open Source use in the country, over half of the workshop attendees who responded to a "knowledge of Open Source" survey included in their workshop registration packets noted that they or their companies were familiar with and, in many cases, already using Linux, Mozilla, Sendmail, Apache, OpenOffice or other popular Open Source packages.

I was not surprised by this. I knew that, if nothing else, IBM, through its local sales partner, UBM, has been pushing Linux and Open Source as heavily in Jordan as everywhere else. Indeed, IBM used the OSS Workshop to announce the opening of a new Linux lab -- under their corporate sponsorship -- at the University of Jordan. So even if the top ranks in Jordan's industry and government were not yet Linux and Open Source-aware, the academic computing and hands-on techie crowds in Amman were already as fascinated with Open Source as their counterparts in the rest of the world.

How Open Source can help Jordan become a software exporter

This was the topic I talked about most heavily. Jordan is an Arab country that has no oil reserves and is, therefore, comparatively poor even though it has a bright and -- by the region's standards -- well-educated population. King Abdullah II has said he'd like to see Jordan become the world's leading producer of Arabic-language software. Obviously, software that can be developed strictly in Jordan from an Open Source base is better for the Jordanian economy than working with foreign proprietary software companies that demand an endless stream of royalties. Not only that, the licensing complexities that surround the use of proprietary code these days can lead to more employment for lawyers than programmers, and Jordan is interested in exporting software, not legal paperwork.

The other obvious advantage of using Open Source programming tools is their low cost -- usually zero or so, whether you are counting in Jordanian Dinars or U.S. dollars -- that allow non-rich Jordanians (a designation that includes, conservatively, 95% of the country's population) a fair chance to learn to program competently and create useful software.

Jordan is one of the many countries where the cost of proprietary software is simply out of reach for most local entrepreneurs and even most government agencies. Sysadmins and programmers here typically earn between $300 and $600 per month, so if it takes a few weeks -- or even a few months -- longer for an admin to learn how to set up Apache than a proprietary server product, the license cost saving for one server, once, makes the extra effort more than worthwhile. And, of course, once that knowledge is gained it carries on to the next project, and so on.

In the past, Jordanians have simply used illegal copies of whatever proprietary software they needed, but the BSA is now stepping up its anti-piracy efforts in the Middle East, so commercial and government software users in the region are no longer able to safely follow this pattern even though knockoffs of Windows and other proprietary programs are still visibly for sale in local computer stores for personal use.

Indeed, casual conversations I had with several workshop participants lead me to believe that the BSA is one of the greatest forces behind the spread of Open Source Software in the Middle East. The group's representatives in this part of the world may not consider increasing Open Source popularity a primary part of their mission, but it is one of the most visible results of their activities.

So here's Jordan, trying to build not only a domestic software and IT industry, but trying to become a net software exporter and -- just possibly -- the dominant "software power" in the Arabic world. This is not an industry that can be built on illegal software. At the same time, paying licensing fees or royalties to U.S. and European proprietary software companies cuts into the profits Jordanian software developers hope to earn either by creating original Arabic-native software or Arabizing existing software. In Jordan's case, Open Source is the obvious way to go. And I said so, several times, over the course of two days, to an extremely receptive audience.

Many speakers, mostly saying the same thing

Although I was listed as keynote speaker, I felt others had more important things to say even though most of us delivered pretty much the same message: "Linux and Open Source are good for Jordan."

There were two other Americans on the dias. Tony Stanco is associate director of George Washington University's Cyberspace Security Policy & Research Institute and organizer of the Washington-based Center for Open Source in Government. Tony primarily discussed Open Source in government, one of his primary areas of expertise. Peter Gallagher is President of devIS, a company that specializes in Open Source-based software and Web development for government and industry in the U.S. and many other countries, including Jordan. Peter spoke primarily about Open Source opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses, an economic sector Jordan's government is working hard to develop.

Khaled Al-Ghonaim, Chairman of the Saudi Computer Society and one of the Middle East's best-known computer security experts, spoke of the security advantages Open Source software enjoys over Closed Source, and discoursed elegantly on the advantages of GPL and other Open Source and Free Software licenses. His formal presentation and informal remarks proved just how international the Open Source mindset can be and just how similar the thought patterns of leading-edge computer scientists all over the world can be; although Khaled was dressed in traditional, flowing white Saudi Arabian robes and headdress, everything he said could just as easily have come from the mouth of a network security expert in New York or Amsterdam. Or China or Australia or India.

Jamel Eddin Sghaler, of Red Hat's affiliate in Tunisia, sounded the same as any Red Hat rep anywhere. The several IBM speakers sounded like IBM people. The person from Sun Microsystems sounded like any other Sun spokesperson, and so on.

Dr. Barbara Held of the German Ministry of the Interior could just as easily have given her talk about how her agency saves money and operates more efficiently with Linux than with Windows in San Francisco as in Amman.

And the Microsoft representatives put out the same FUD in Jordan we've heard in every other country where Microsoft is worrying about the growing popularity of Linux and Open Source.

Microsoft at an Open Source conference?

Yes, Microsoft was not only there, but was a major sponsor. And why not? Microsoft now has booths at LinuxWorld expos, advertises regularly on Linux and Open Source Web sites, and generally has been working for the last year or two to increase its corporate visibility in Linux and Open Source circles, often without directly using words like "cancer" or "evil" when talking about Linux or the GPL.

But in Jordan, Microsoft was not talking politely about interoperability or making a pleasant, "Can't we all just get along?" pitch. Instead, Microsoft representatives Nasser Ghazi and Yasser Zeineldin talked nothing but bad about Open Source, Linux, and Free Software. They even trotted out lines from the legal disclaimer the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requires Red Hat to show potential investors about possible patent lawsuits regarding Linux as "proof" that Linux is not safe for businesses to use, while neglecting to note that Microsoft's own prospectus contains similarly dolorous language about one aspect or another of the company's chances for future growth and prosperity, as do prospectuses and annual reports from all U.S. public companies.

The "many eyes make all bugs shallow" Open Source development creed was refuted with comments (disguised as questions) about how it is better to have professionals with professional-quality debugging tools checking mission-critical code than it is to rely on all those rag-tag Open Source developers. This was during one of my presentations. I noted that the Microsoft person didn't allow for the possibility of Open Source developers using not just eyeballs but sophisticated debugging tools, but did not pursue the issue in depth. It didn't seem worth much of a response.

And never forget: According to the Microsoft people, Jordan and its people are better off relying on Microsoft as a business partner, and if looking at the source code is all that important, we have a Shared Source program that has given glimpses of Microsoft's work to thousands of academic and corporate users.

So there!

We dared not speak its name

In the conference's early hours, speakers were warned not to directly knock Microsoft; that there had been complaints about negativity toward this fine conference sponsor. This led to a lot of rather silly verbal dancing in both Arabic and English -- at least on the part of the Open Source advocates, because the Microsoft people certainly had no problem going on the attack.

I had warned the audience during my introduction that they were going to hear plenty of FUD from proprietary software interests (which I carefully did not name), and this warning proved to be necessary as the workshop's agenda unfolded. But it was good that the Open Source people left most of the attacking to the proprietary people, and only responded when directly provoked.

When the Microsoft (marketing) people started quoting Red Hat's SEC material, they soon found out that Tony Stanco is not just a smiling, slightly plump academic Open Source advocate but is also a former SEC attorney who knows more about investment disclaimer requirements than they ever will. They also found that there are plenty of Open Source users and advocates in Jordan who are not going to let disinformation pass unchallenged, and that a fair number of the local Open Source people had shown up at this conference.

Suits vs. Techie

Business attire is more common among programmers and sysadmins in Jordan than it is in the U.S., but there was a definite "suits vs. techies" divide (in the symbolic sense) between the two "halves" of the audience at this OSS workshop, and it was a nearly 50/50 split, with Open Source-using tech people on one side and policy people who are still learning about Open Source on the other.

The policy people weren't hostile; they were there to learn. But a lot of what they were hearing was new and strange to them, and it is hard to describe all the differences between Open Source and proprietary software cultures in a few hours to someone not intimately familiar with either one, and many attendees had heard far more misinformation than solid information about Linux and other Open Source software before the conference began.

One brilliant idea -- instigated and implemented by Peter Gallagher -- was the distribution of hundreds of "no installation required" Knoppix Linux demo CDs to attendees. These CDs drew unsolicited rave reviews from more than a few of the non-technical people there who tried them.

(Knoppix is one of the most effective Linux advocacy tools there is these days, whether the advocacy is taking place in Jordan or Germany.)

"I didn't know you could do all that with Linux or that it was so easy to use!" is a common exclamation from people whose first exposure to Linux is through Knoppix. Describing the wonders of Linux and Open Source verbally is one thing, but showing those wonders directly -- and actively encouraging people to copy and share Knoppix CDs -- is better than all the podium-pounding and pro-Linux slide shows in the world, especially with audiences whose members routinely use computers at work but do not necessarily have a deep understanding of what goes on behind the monitor screen.

The most important presentation

My presentation wasn't particularly important, nor were those given by other guests from afar. As far as I was concerned, the single most important speaker was Isam Bayazidi, leader of the Jordan-based Arabeyes Project, a group that provides Arabic support for a growing number of Open Source projects. Isam is your basic Linux user and Open Source project leader, same as others of his ilk all over the world: young, smart, dedicated, and happily building a productive international development team and user base without any help, pay or recognition from government, academia or business.

Isam is also spearheading an effort to form a LUG in Jordan. For him, as well as for other local Linux and Open Source users, this OSS Workshop served as a meeting ground and an opportunity to exchange business cards and contact information.

Wherever you go, people like Isam are the heart of the Open Source movement, willing to organize projects and make them work, often devoting more time and passion to (unpaid) Free Software advocacy and development than many employees of proprietary software companies do to their (paid) jobs. Isam is not alone in Jordan. There are others like him there -- and now the government knows they exist and may actually help them with funding and other resources. And where could a LUG find a better place to meet than the brand-new, IBM-sponsored Linux lab at the University of Jordan that was announced during the workshop?

Open Source in the developing world

I was tempted to tell our hosts that if they talked strongly enough about supporting Linux and Open Source, they might be able to get substantial donations from Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But I held my tongue. There was no need for this kind of vociferosity. The reality -- as mentioned in several articles about this conference in the Jordan Times and in many articles published elsewhere about the spread of Open Source in the developing world -- is that the worldwide IT ecosystem has plenty of room in it for both proprietary and Open Source software.

During my presentation I tried to make it clear that it is both feasible and possible to run commercial software on top of a free operating system like GNU/Linux, and that it is just as feasible to run Open Source software like OpenOffice or Apache on top of a proprietary operating system like Windows. Using software with one type of license does not preclude using software with a different kind of license either in a company's overall operation or on a single computer's hard drive.

Most other workshop speakers also tried to make this point. Common sense dictates that software choices by government, academia, and industry should ideally be made on the basis of which package best suits a particular need, not because one kind of software license claims to be morally superior to another or because a particular software development model best serves an individual software vendor's corporate interests.

Jordan's Ministry of Information and Communications Technology is officially neutral toward Open Source.

But, as one Ministry employee involved in software selection for Jordan's eGovernment initiative pointed out, "Not all software decisions are purely technical, here or anywhere else. There is almost always some political pressure involved."

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