November 8, 2004

Linux spread continues in the Caribbean

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

The Netherlands Antilles is a group of five-and-a-half islands that are self-governing even though they are still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which handles their defense and other international dealings. Linux and open source have never been formally introduced to this corner of the world, a condition that will change Wednesday, November 10, when Stimul-IT of Curacao holds the island's first-ever Free/Open Source Software conference.If you follow the conference link (above) you'll see that our friends from Microsoft will be there, too. They seem to show up at nearly all government-sponsored free/open source software conferences, all over the world. Some people think it's wrong for them to be included in these events, but I personally find them fun to debate. Microsoft's people always say pretty much the same things, and -- especially in low-income countries -- have trouble beating a price of "free" when it comes to software.

I'll be taking Linux LiveCDs with me, and encouraging local people to copy and redistribute them. I will challenge the Microsoft person to hand out free, redistributable copies of Windows and Office. His reaction will be fun to watch, won't it?

Small islands need love, too

My invitation to this conference -- disclaimer: although I am not receiving a speaking fee, the conference organizers are paying my travel expenses -- was arranged by local IT consultant and Linux advocate Ace Suares, a gentleman I met at a similar (but Microsoft-free) conference on the island of Trinidad in June 2003.

Ace is a Linux advocate in a land where the word "Linux" is rarely heard, a true pioneer in bringing free and open source software not only to local businesses but also to ordinary people who can't afford proprietary software. The formal conference will focus on enterprise deployment, but we hope to have one or two free public discussions during my visit.

Despite a bit of oil income and the inevitable tourism -- Aruba is more famous, but Curacao is full of history and has world-class snorkeling and diving areas -- this is a place where incomes are low, and emigration is more common than immigration. Residents who want good jobs often must go to The Netherlands to find them. Ace and others hope to break this pattern; to develop enough of a local IT industry that intelligent youngsters can stay on their home island instead of leaving. Free and open source software makes local development easier and more cost-effective than using proprietary tools that suck money out of Curacao's economy. And, as a free bonus, Linux can cut the cost of personal computers -- and of computers in public buildings like libraries -- so that low-income people get a chance to build computer skills that they might never get in a proprietary software universe where it takes $1,000 (or more) worth of software to perform basic office and Web design functions, let alone become a productive programmer.

Right now Linux is so unknown on Curacao that, according to Ace, "You can't find a single Linux book in any of the local bookstores." Hopefully, the Stimul-IT conference will be a first step toward changing that situation.

World domination, one island at a time

Linux lacks the marketing budget Windows has behind it. What it has, instead, is people who boost it wherever and whenever they can. Some of these people insist on calling it GNU/Linux and will tell you "free software" is the Holy Grail while "open source" is a cave-in to business interests that are afraid of true software freedom. Others take a more relaxed, "Learn what Linux can do for you," approach, and believe that getting a foot in the door is more important than immediate ideological purity.

These divisions aside, the ideas behind free and open source software tend to inspire people to spread the word even when they aren't getting paid to do it, while every proprietary software advocate I've met at any conference showed up only because it was part of his or her job.

There are little islands of Linux all over the world. They tend to spread gradually, for the most part with little fanfare. Now and then inhabitants of those islands travel to another part of the world and help start another island. This is the strength of Linux. With or without big-time advertising, it slowly infiltrates nation after nation, company after company, passing from hand to hand.

Microsoft puts out scary stories about the "viral" nature of Linux, meaning the GPL. But the true viral nature of Linux is in the way it is distributed. From a proprietary software vendor's perspective, open source conferences, and the people who attend them and speak at them, are like cancer nodes that can't be "cured" by using the PR equivalent of chemotherapy.

So, fellow cancer cells, keep up the good work. I'll let you know how things go in Curacao. And if you have been part of a similar infection recently, please post your experiences below so others can learn from you -- and possibly help our little "disease" spread even more rapidly.

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