May 22, 2002

Microsoft, Open Source and the Third World: A fair contest?

Author: JT Smith

- By Jack Bryar -

Over the past few weeks, a new type of trade war has been brewing in a number of
smaller, poorer countries around the world. Country after country has
begun to evaluate whether to mandate Open Source software for
government agencies and schools. Microsoft has fought back with its own form
of free programs. However, countries comparing Open Source to
Microsoft programs are considering a lot of other factors completely
unrelated to the technical merits of the two platforms.
It has been said that if Linux and Open Source were going to triumph
anywhere, the first big successes would happen in the Third World.
Cash-strapped countries looking for ways to declare their technical
independence would be deeply tempted by the price point and technical promise of Open
Source software.

In recent weeks, NewsForge reporters have mentioned the growing interest
in Linux by government agencies in places such as Peru and Argentina.
This week, the Indian state of Karnataka announced it was looking at
mandating Open Source in its public sector.

Microsoft has been fighting back. In a number of countries, it has
rapidly expanded giveaway programs, especially to schools in the poorest
parts of Africa and Asia. This week, Microsoft announced it had signed an
agreement with the South African government to give all the schools in
that country free access to a selection of the company's software. It
was a controversial decision in that country, but not necessarily because
of any technical considerations. Increasingly, as cash-strapped public
agencies in other Third World countries struggle to determine the best
choice, they may find their decision process has
become complicated by a variety of political and ideological issues.

Both South Africa and India's Karnataka state are good examples of
other considerations overwhelming the technical issues.

South Africa's decision involved a mix of financial, technical and,
above all else, political decisions. On the face of it, the decision was
fairly straightforward. According to South Africa's Finance Minister
Kader Asmal, an agreement this week gave South Africa's schools free
access to a variety of Microsoft's essential programs, including Windows
2000 Server, Office, Visual Studio, and Encarta among others. The deal
represented potential savings exceeding $100 million, according to the
deal's defenders.

However, critics have charged that the deal was little more than a
tactic to kill the Open Source software movement in the country.

When South African President Thabo Mbeki first announced Microsoft's
offer, it appeared to short-circuit several regional initiatives. By far
the most important of these local programs was a provincial pilot
program called Gauteng Online. This program was an ambitious, public/private
program that proposed to equip each of that province's 2,500 schools
with a minimum of 25 computers each. The program expected to do more than
simply provide an inexpensive tool for students to surf the Internet,
however. Among its objectives was teaching programming skills and
developing the province as an IT center. Prior to Mbeki's announcement, the
program was evaluating a mix of Linux and Microsoft platforms.

When Education Minister Kader Asmal signed the agreement with Microsoft,
Open Source critics charged he was killing off any chance for South Africa
to develop an independent software industry in exchange for a
three-year software license. They pointed out that the agreement flew in the face of a recommendation by the government's National Advisory
Committee to deploy Open Source products in all state organizations.

The Mbeki government and Microsoft have asserted that they "expect"
that the license will be renewed without any costs three years from now,
and that this arrangement may continue indefinitely, although there is
no hard agreement to this effect.

Is the agreement worth it? Local defenders claim that not all
alternatives to Microsoft were practical alternatives. For one thing,
government officials have learned that Open Source is not necessarily "free," an
important distinction in countries where resources are extremely
scarce. Further, defenders claim that products and services advertised as
Open Source don't always seem to be that open, either. For example, a
messaging and collaboration alternative to Microsoft Exchange called
WeMeeting turned out to be "Open Source" only in the sense that source code
was available to purchasers of seats in blocks of 100 and at a price of close to $40,000 per block.

However, local observers in the South African press suggest that
technical considerations played only a small part in the decision process.
Just as significant is South Africa's emerging role as a local power, and
as a financial center in the continent. South Africa has one of the
most dynamic financial sectors on the continent, and one of the most
advanced. Nearly 30% of the country's banking customers bank via the
Internet. It is also a financial conduit for outside investors looking for
investment opportunities on the continent.

These observers suggest that Microsoft has acted as a corporate "good
citizen" in many African countries. They argue that the company has been
seen as an important corporate advocate on behalf of emerging African
countries trying to shake off reputations for corruption and instability
as they attempt to attract foreign capital. Microsoft has been
particularly active in a program called the New Partnership for Africa's
Development. Nicknamed NEPAD, the program has been the centerpiece of
Southern Africa's campaign to attract massive investment and technical
resources for that country and its neighbors. Such advocacy, combined with
the no-cost software, made it hard for the Mbeki government to turn down
Microsoft's offer.

Meanwhile, the decision by Karnataka to explore Open Source appears to
be just as political.

While located within the Third World, Karnataka is no backwater. It is
home to the tech hub city of Bangalore. It contains a population roughly the
size of France, and it features a profitable electronics and
I.T. industry. Its National Informatics
Center
is among the most influential organizations in the state. In
fact, Karnataka may be the only state government anywhere in the world
with its own Ministry of I.T. and Biotechnology.

The head of that ministry, Professor B.K. Chandrashekar, is leading the
initiative that would mandate Open Source as part of Kanataka's
"e-Governance" initiative.

Again, the decision to support Open Source can be, and has been,
defended on technical grounds, but political and ideological concerns are
definitely part of the mix here as well.

Defenders of the Linux initiative suggest that the state is simply
trying to reduce costs and support local initiatives such as the "Simputer"
a primitive PDA/"Community Digital Assistant" made in Bangalore and
regarded as Linux based. However, other observers point out that the
Simputer might not qualify as under Chandrashekar's definition of "open," because the
device employs a mix of Linux and proprietary software. Further, they
suggest that Karnataka's growing dependence on pharmaceuticals and
biotechnology make it an awkward place to argue against intellectual
property rights, as some in the Free Software movement do.

Critics suggest that Karnataka is a stronghold of the India's
opposition Congress party, which has a long history of economic nationalism and
which has been skeptical of Western business interests. Chandrashekar recently stated that apart from any financial or technical considerations, he saw Linux as a means to overcome "the international digital divide." He added that "you need radical political appreciation" to fully understand the appeal of Open Source software. Chandrashekar has also proposed that local Indian states should both
adopt Linux and coordinate their Open Source development programs with
the neighboring People's Republic of China.

Open Source advocates may celebrate the adoption of Open Source in one
location and condemn its rejection in another, but the issues that are
driving these decisions seem very far removed from the discussions Open
Source advocates and critics are used to having.

Category:

  • Open Source
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