July 11, 2003

The Caribbean learns about Free and Open Software - Part Two (of Two)

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
This article is long overdue because I've been both overworked and sick since I wrote Part One. But here it is at last: A discussion of why Free/Open Source Software is the most appropriate IT technology base for developing countries.

When I spoke at the Free, Libré and Open Source Software Conference in Trinidad, my primary topic was "Saving money with Free and Open Source Software." As is my habit when speaking to people who haven't used Linux, I also demonstrated desktop Linux in action. As usual, the folks who watched me perform basic home/office computing functions with Linux were amazed to see that I was pointing and clicking, not typing in strings of text commands. They were especially amazed when I demonstrated Mozilla features, like tabbed browsing and popup ad suppression, that Explorer lacks, and their jaws dropped as I put OpenOffice through its paces and then told them it was a free -- as in no-cost -- program.

But my presentation was not the most important one. FSF member David Sugar and Dr. St. Clair King, a retired electrical engineering professor, talked about matters of much greater social significance than I did.

King quoted heavily from interviews with Peruvian Congressman Edgar Villanueva. One of his main themes -- which applies to developed countries as much as to developing ones -- is that government data should be stored in open formats, not proprietary ones, because that data belongs to the people and they should be able to get at it without buying a particular company's products.

Another issue King raised was national self-sufficiency. The two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago (TT) relies on imports for almost everything except beer, rum, some locally-grown farm products, and oil -- and oil is its major cash export. That oil is expected to last, at most, another 35 years. After that, how is TT going to pay foreign companies for software licenses?

Other Caribbean nations not blessed with TT's oil resources already face this problem daily. You need to sell an awful lot of trinkets to cruise ship passengers to buy a proprietary office suite. Suddenly (free) OpenOffice looks great, even if it only does 90% of what (TT $3000+)Microsoft Office can do. Not only that, OpenOffice and other Open Source programs can be customized and modified at will -- by local programmers instead of by companies overseas. Money spent locally to modify Open Source software or to create entire new software packages built on an Open Source base are a boon to a poor country's economy, not a drain on it.

These are all fairly standard Open Source advocacy points, but King delivered them with passion and fervor to an audience that had not heard them before, and said audience ate it all up. Big applause at the end, too.

Sugar's speech was not nearly as rousing, but had a theme not enough Free and Open Source advocates take when talking in developing countries: How a small country not known for software expertise can use Free Software projects to gain credibility in the worldwide software marketplace.

In other words, Sugar boosted the benefits of developing Free Software rather than just using it.

All too often, when a speaker from the U.S. or Europe goes to a country like TT or Mexico or Macedonia or Jordan to speak about Free and Open Source Software, the assumption is that the people in the poor (by comparison) country are going to be interested in freeness-as-in-beer more than in any other benefits FOSS might offer.

Sugar's message boiled down to, "You coders here, in a country that is commonly thought of as backwards technologically, can use Free Software as a way to gain worldwide respect." As an example, Sugar mentioned a blind-accessibility project he suggested to Macedonian developers in the wake of a presentation he gave in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, last year.

The point of building a local Free Software community by working on an essentially altruistic project is not totally altruistic. This may sound like a contradiction, but if a group of developers can make a bit of a mark on the world with a software project that has no commercial possibilities, they gain the kind of recognition and publicity that can lead to paid programming and consulting work. This is a very Free Software Foundation-type viewpoint -- and note that it was as a FSF-anointed speaker that Sugar was invited to both Macedonia and Trinidad.

Not only that, Sugar himself is living proof that unpaid work on Free Software can eventually be turned into an income stream. He is core development team leader for GNU Bayonne, a telecommunications application server project, but he also makes a pretty decent living as chief technology officer of the Open Source Telecom Corporation (OST), a company that sells products and services based on GNU Bayonne and other Open Source Software.

What do the words, "developing countries," really mean?

Too often, when we hear the phrase, "developing country," it's used as a euphemism for, "poverty-stricken nation whose most obvious features are poorly-maintained roads, tin-roofed shacks, bad plumbing, and unreliable electricity."

But with Free and Open Source Software, even the poorest nation can become a "developing country" in the most literal sense. And in the long run, this is more important than saving money on software licenses.


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