August 30, 2004

New U.N. open source agency: What value does it offer?

Author: Jay Lyman

It is unclear whether international workers
wearing blue helmets will soon be distributing bootable Linux CDs to the world's
population of computer users, but the United Nations has launched a new free
and open source software promotion effort dubbed the International Open Source Network (IOSN).

The new initiative, a project of the international body's Asia
Pacific Development Information Program, shapes its activities around
Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) technologies and applications. Some people
doubt the impact of the U.N. effort and question its industry support,
but it nevertheless highlights growing pressure on a significant part of
the world to use free and open source software.

The U.N. acknowledged the IOSN will be working "via small secretariat"
with limited duties and power but said the new agency will be tasked with
facilitating and networking FOSS advocates and human resources in the
Asia-Pacific region. The move comes just after Microsoft's announ
to pull out of a U.N. commercial standards group.

"The vision is that developing countries in the Asia-Pacific Region can
achieve rapid and sustained economic and social development by using
affordable yet effective FOSS ICT (Information Communication Technology)
solutions to bridge the digital divide," said a statement on the IOSN Web site.

Who knew?

The new U.N. open source initiative, which offers Internet primers on
free and open source software and their use in education and government,
kicked off last weekend by supporting the slightly publicized Software Freedom Day, which was Saturday.

"On that day, we will make the world aware of the virtues of Free and
Open Source Software (FOSS), and encourage its widespread use," the IOSN
said on its site. "We will set up stations in public places to give away
informational fliers and CDs with selected FOSS, including TheOpenCD and a
Linux Live CD."

Other supporters of the day -- which was broken down into smaller teams
of volunteers around the globe -- included the Open Source Initiative and Free Software Foundation. Those caught
unaware of Software Freedom Day -- like so many spouses on anniversaries -- were not alone, because many others in the open source community had not marked the Aug. 28 date.

Nevertheless, the grassroots marketing campaign had teams springboarding
open source software in areas throughout the world, including the North
America, Europe, India, the Philippines, and Australia.

Virtually no impact

Linux and industry analyst Bill Claybrook, president of New River
Marketing Research, said he was not impressed with the IOSN's Web site and
content, doubting such a group would do much for FOSS.

"I have very little faith that organizations such as this ever produce
anything of value," Claybrook said, referring to the group's lofty objectives.

Despite his doubts about the open source effort by the U.N., Claybrook
did praise the virtue of Linux and open source in developing countries,
referring to economic advantage as well as suppression. He used the situation in North
Korea as an example, "where the technology is driven toward military force more than the
people of the country," he said.

While he did refer to open source software potential that was not being
fully pursued in places such as South America and Africa, Claybrook said
Linux and open source continue to command the attention of developing and
advancing nations.

"Most countries with a degree of education or IT systems, such as India
or in the Far East, are looking to Linux," Claybrook said.

Breaking cost barriers

Mukul Krishna, senior analyst with IT researcher Frost & Sullivan, said
the cost of software licensing is forcing many up-and-coming nations to
embrace open source software.

"With open source and Linux-based systems, the cost with licensing
software is virtually eliminated," Krishna said.

The analyst added that even if open source software comes with its own
license, the fees are typically much less and tend to drive down proprietary
license costs by competing in the market.

"Companies like Microsoft want to be proactive, because widespread
deployment of open source and because of the cost factor," Krishna said,
pointing to less expensive, "Lite" versions of software from Microsoft.

Krishna said the U.N., working to narrow the traditional digital divide
and typically strapped for cash itself, is the perfect body to promote and
use open source software.

"I don't know how much [the IOSN] will help the people in [developing
nations]," Krishna said. "If open source really helps by bringing down the
prices of software licenses, it will have an effect."

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