October 7, 2003

Building an open source-based business in Jordan

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

I met Kefah Issa last December while speaking at an event in Amman, Jordan. At the time, he and his friend Khamis Siksek were just getting ready to start their own business. Now freesoft is a going concern, earning a living for its founders and growing steadily -- and even has its own, customized (Arabic-enabled) GNU/Linux desktop. What follows is the lightly edited transcript of an email exchange between Kefah and myself.


You have been using Linux/Open Source for how long?

Personally, I have been using Linux for five years now.

I started my career, and still am, as software engineer. Looking around
for new technologies and assessing them was part of my professional
growth strategy.

Linux came on my radar screen in 1997 as Slackware. The complexity of
installation and the fear it would break the installed Windows OS
precluded me from trying the system out. In 1998 I came across Redhat
Linux 6.0.

Immediately after the successful installation, and being a core C/C++
developer on Windows platform, I started building the comparison table:
writing applications, the build system, the threading model, network
programming, graphical user interface, etc. As I ventured those
different areas and compared them to Windows equivalent I realized the
power and potential of the Linux platform.

In 1998 I wrote a driver for my TV card (ProVision 251) on Linux. This
effort represented a wide-door entrance into Linux. I got tremendous
help when I started writing the driver as I got the opportunity to look
at others code.

The most challenging part was not the technology, but the concept of
Free (or Open Source) software. It took me sometime until I got it
right. Now, I am helping many people understanding the beauty and power
the GPL (and open source) license and the power of the development
model in no time.

Estarta -- you and Khamis used to work there. Now you list them as a client. I see that Estarta boasts heavily about their "gold" relationship with Microsoft. How would you best describe your relationship with Estarta? How does their management feel about you competing with them?

Actually Microsoft partially owns estarta.

I worked with estarta for five years (since inception). Khamis joined a
year or two later. Khamis and I helped in delivering numerous
successful and profitable projects both on Windows and Linux/Unix. So
they are confident with our skill-set.

On the other hand, the demand in the market is giving Linux/Unix/Java a
great portion. Estarta as a solutions provider could not ignore that.
They are getting more and more Linux and Java-based work. I am
confident that sooner or later Microsoft itself will get into Linux in
a way or another. They can't keep ignoring it for long.

As for competition, I do not see us competing. Estarta and freesoft are
more complementary to each other than competitor. We seek two
different client spaces in the market. Estarta focuses more on the high-end large enterprise solutions, we focus on small to intermediate
enterprises and on providing direct Linux engineering expertise.

Do you find yourself having to "sell" Linux, or do clients come to you looking for Linux expertise?

Both. Around 25% of the people come to us asking for Linux
specifically. The rest care more about having the solution and getting the job done with the maximum value possible: Feature and quality vs. cost.

For some, the decision to move to Linux is hard. They get into the
counter-argument that Microsoft's software is easier and better. Our
usual answer is that we do not underestimate the quality of Microsoft
software, on the contrary we think it is excellent. But what car do you
own? And why wasn't it a Ferrari or Porsche? If you like Toyota, own
one, and believe that it just does the job, then Linux is surely good for you. The difference in price per features does not justify paying a lot of money for licensing fees.

Your desktop looks slick. Is it Arabic-only, or something I should look at/test/review in English? (It looks a lot like Lycoris. Or is that just the background image and icons?) And are many individual or corporate customers using it yet?

It is not Arabic only, but it targets the Arab corporate users
specifically. freeDESKTOP introduces Arabic enhancements (fonts, Arabic-supporting software, and several fixes).

The look and feel is important to minimize the learning curve. We also
have plans to certify freeDESKTOP against ICDL (International Computer
Driver's License), a common education certification in Jordan.

Other additions include rich multimedia support, carefully tuned kernel
to give best desktop response, and a carefully selected set of
productivity and creativity desktop applications.

We are finalizing several deals with educational and technology organizations to deliver them freeDESKTOP. We for one have been using it intensively at freesoft.

Has participation in open source projects -- notably Khamis' work on Linimons -- helped impress potential clients?

Our accumulative background and contributions in Linux are impressing
our clients. All in all it shows when they start dealing with us. This is
where we really make our value. Our main focus is to provide in-depth
Linux experience with high quality. We take this success out for
potential clients (see "A word from our clients" in our first news
bulletin
).

Are you getting business only in Jordan, or from other countries as well?

So far we are getting work from Jordan only. We are working on several
deals with companies in the gulf.

Are you making a living yet? If not, when do you expect to become profitable?

Thank god, yes we do. It is the strategy of freesoft to make money from
day one and to operationally break even for the first period of time. We are directing our profit into growing the company. So we are not burning more than what we earn.

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