November 18, 2004

How an open source community gets built

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

CURACAO, NETHERLANDS ANTILLES -- When I agreed to speak at this island's first-ever free/open source conference last Wednesday, I was warned that Linux and open source were not well-known here. This was not true, but most of Curacao's Linux and open source software users thought they were alone. Indeed, it turns out that almost every major IT-related business here was already using Linux, and that most plan to use it more in the future. This saddened Microsoft employee Edwin Marchan, who also spoke to the approximately 75 local IT leaders who came to learn about Linux and open source, but everyone else went away happy.Sometimes the phrase "developing world" must be taken literally

Wherever I go in the "developing world" I meet software developers who are working on open source projects. The most exciting part of conferences like the one in Curacao is that they bring these developers together, often for the first time. The speeches are nice, but the real action takes place between the speeches and during after-hours social gatherings, when local people get together and learn from each other. Permanent connections are often formed, and these connections lead to the spread of open source and the genesis of new projects.

An example here was the discovery by several IT employees and teachers who work for Curacao's Catholic school system that if they wanted a version of OpenOffice.org or Linux in the local language, Papiamentu, they were free -- even encouraged -- to create one.

This ability to translate on your own especially excited Anna Titawanno, a teacher who has created several simple learning programs in Papiamentu that run on Windows. Anna spoke at the conference, and after she spoke she met both a translator and a programmer willing to help with Papiamentu software translation. Her conversation with them continued over supper and was still going strong as of Friday evening, my last night on the island.

Curacao is not a large place. The total population is around 120,000. But there are enough Linux-hip programmers and sysadmins here to build a small but active local open source movement that not only translates but creates open source software.

Linux excitement in the school system

The Curacao schools are faced with a common dilemna: Trying to prepare students for an IT-rich 21st Century without enough budget to update the hardware and software they already have, let alone buy more. Immanuel Derks of Translucent came from Holland and, with the help of local open source people, set up a demo LTSP-based client-server network running on old hardware. IT people from the school system went wild over it.

Despite Microsoft's constant claims of lower TCO for Windows than Linux, the savings in licensing and administration that come from using a Linux-based client/server network instead of discrete workstations, all loaded with their own copies of Windows and a full rack of proprietary software, are obvious to any smart, budget-minded sysadmin. And Curacao school sysadmins are as smart and budget-minded as any in the world.

Living on a small island does not mean you have a small mind. As I said, conference organizer Stimul-IT had warned me that Linux was not well-known here, and I was also told that IT people on Curacao tended to be conservative and resistant to change. But when you filled a room with local IT people -- a rare occurrence here -- it was obvious that there was much more open source horsepower on Curacao than anyone had previously suspected. The Stimul-IT people themselves left the conference eager to try Linux and other open source software once they saw how advanced Linux desktops have become, and how easy it was to set up a Linux client/server network.

You need to show, not just tell

I was the first speaker. I didn't do a slide show. Instead, I showed off the MEPIS Linux desktop -- essentially Debian + KDE -- and demonstrated a number of user-level programs. I was like a tour guide for desktop Linux, and since at least half the people in the room had never seen an actual, user-level Linux desktop screen before, the tour was an eye-opener for many.

I believe this is the most effective kind of advocacy. An awful lot of people in the world think Linux is hard to use. Their impression of it was formed back in the 20th Century, when it was almost impossible to carry out day-to-day computing tasks in Linux without at least a little bit of command-line competence.

Now, of course, a desktop Linux user can point and click all day and never type in a single text command. Even people who are IT-hip and know this intellectually find it easier to believe when they see it for themselves. And I have an advantage over a true "Linux guru" in giving this kind of presentation: I'm not smart. Experts tend to make things look hard and to talk over the heads of ordinary people without meaning to. My approach to desktop Linux training is self-deprecating to the point where I literally say, "If a doofus like me can do this, a smart person like you will have no trouble at all learning to use Linux."

But all I really did was prime the audience for the experts. Local business people Arien Kamphuis, Kees Barneveld, Jaime Francisco, and Randolph Arendsz told how they used Linux and open source software to save money and keep things running smoothly. IBM's Michael Schipper talked about IBM's Linux products and services, sadly using Windows on his laptop to make his pitch, a move that disappointed the audience and drew derisive comments from the Microsoft rep, who unsurprisingly was not the biggest Linux booster in the room.

How to not win friends and influence people

I felt sorry for Edwin Marchan, Microsoft's man on the spot. He should be in business for himself, not working for a large American company. But there he was, without question the best-dressed man in the building, wearing a custom-tailored suit (he showed us the label) while others made do with off-the-rack clothing. He played a video that showed us how the President's office in Costa Rica had converted from Linux to Windows and saved money and increased security by doing so. He told us how Costa Rica had developed a vital proprietary software industry, and warned that Linux and free software wouldn't allow this kind of income production. He told us that hardly anyone needs to look at a program's source code, that hardly anyone needs to modify a kernel, and that we don't need to mess with our cars to increase performance, either.

Stimul-IT conference attendees take it in. (Photo by Ace Suares)

We learned that there are over 370 million happy Windows users in the world, as opposed to just a few Linux users. We heard how Microsoft gives free software and hardware to schools in poor sections of Ecuador and other countries.

It was all heart-warming and wonderful, introduced by Miles Davis tunes -- and there was irony in this because Davis was a grand improviser who, if he had been a programmer, would no doubt have chosen the free-form world of infinitely-modifiable open source software over the "don't you dare change a thing" Microsoft proprietary software style.

Miles Davis aside, I was so swept away by all the talk of Windows wonderfulness that I was ready to trade Marchan a copy of MEPIS Linux for a copy of equivalent Windows software, except one of the pesky school IT people popped up and asked about licensing fees, and I suddenly remembered that Windows software is costly, while everything on my computer was free-as-in-beer free (and also free-as-in-freedom free). So I trashed the idea. As a software user, there is no way I can beat "free" as a price, even if I rarely modify any of the source code in the programs I use. And in later conversations it appeared that the Curacao school IT people, along with other conference attendees, had come to a similar conclusion.

There was very little anti-Microsoft rhetoric at this conference, and hardly a word about how a dollar going to Microsoft was a dollar going to the American imperialists. In fact, Marchan was the one who made the most disparaging comments about the Bush administration, and he made them with such fine humor that I almost didn't point out that his employer was a major Bush backer.

In the end, it was apparent that Microsoft had few Linux-competitive alternatives to offer most Curacao business and government IT users. You could say that anywhere in the world, of course, outside of the few special applications that are still available for Windows and not for Linux, but here this message came through louder and more clearly than I've heard it delivered elsewhere.

Microsoft isn't going to be run off the island anytime soon

No one expects every Windows desktop on Curacao to be replaced with Linux next year or even in the next decade. Inertia often keeps Linux users from switching to GNOME from KDE and vice versa once they're used to one or the other, so why would we expect anyone to switch from one operating system to another without a major reason?

But one local ISP marketing manager saw viruses, trojans, worms, adware, and spyware as great reasons to help his clients make that switch. His thinking was, "We can give them free software and charge a little money for training classes to teach them how to use it, which will increase our income. And since many of our customer service calls have to do with viruses and other Windows-borne problems, at the same time we're increasing our income from training, we can cut support costs by helping our clients move to Linux."

Stimul-IT -- the conference organizers -- gave everyone a questionnaire asking what percentage of Windows and what percentage of desktop Linux they expected to see on Curacao in five years. I put down 80% and 20%, which was close to the consensus.

On the server side, same as everywhere else, Linux is gradually moving toward dominance on Curacao. The costs of setting up Linux servers are so low compared to Windows costs (not to mention freedom from pesky and time-consuming software audits) that hardly any government agency or business that makes rational purchasing decisions can avoid choosing Linux.

Even the glowing Microsoft video about the Costa Rican president's office failed to convince many people that Windows is less expensive for server applications; several people approached me during the cocktail hour following the formal conference and asked if I'd noticed that some -- possibly all -- of the software and much of the hardware involved had been given to the Costa Ricans for free or for substantially reduced prices. (Yes, I'd noticed, and I hope to find someone in Costa Rica who can look into this story for us.)

Linux on the march, slowly but surely

On November 4 and 5 a similar conference was held on the the nearby island of St. Lucia.

Venezuela, the nearest mainland country to Curacao, is considering a total government move to Linux and other free software.

And the Curacao conference, while not visibly producing a sudden desire to move the island government's IT infrastructure to Linux, certainly helped the local tourist board learn that, yes, they can build a new, improved curacao-tourism Web site based on free software that will give even the smallest tourist-oriented businesses, right down to curio carts near the cruise ship piers, their own sub-sites, and that this can be done by local IT people instead of sending money abroad.

The Curacao conference was spurred by just a few people, mostly local IT consultants who want to boost Linux because they prefer working with free software to working with proprietary software. Getting official support for the conference took more than a year, but the effort involved was more than worthwhile for the consultants who pushed to have it held; they made new contacts and will get new business from it.

The people who created this conference were doing it at least partly to build their businesses and make money. These are not bad reasons to organize a Linux, free software, or open source conference. I would like to see a lot more local, business-oriented Linux, open source, and free software conferences in the U.S. and Europe. On one side, you have a growing amount of curiosity from IT managers about how they can use Linux effectively and how to find support. On the other side, you have a growing number of people with the skills and desire needed to build Linux-based consulting and support businesses.

Getting these two groups together for a day helps everyone involved, whether it's on a small Caribbean island or in a large American city, with or without official support. If your local Linux users group has a number of business-oriented members, maybe you should talk with them about organizing a similar conference yourself. And if you manage to put one together, please let me know when it's going to be so I can drop by if I happen to be in the neighborhood.

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