Occupying some 30% of the Earth's land, with a population of 3.7 thousand million, Asia includes 47 countries and assorted island dependencies. This is a region where resources are scarce and infrastructure weak, yet GNU/Linux is achieving some interesting gains in Asia that are not widely being reported.
When less than 15% of the population has access to
electricity, and a far smaller fraction owns computers, it is clear that
only the wealthy will have access to this technology. Here, a modem costs
more than a cow. ... The ownership of the Net is almost
entirely Northern globally, and exclusively urban and elite locally. The
hype surrounding the Internet and the top down approach with which it is
meant to provide deliverance, hides the politics of corporate ownership, the
way in which this media is controlled, and the simple fact that for the
majority of the world the Internet doesnt exist, and for many others in the
South, it is barely effective.
-- Dhaka-based photographer and Bangladeshi campaigner Shahidul Alam
The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook by Dr Madanmohan Rao gives a snapshot of
Rao traces the growth of the Internet in Asia in four episodes -- the birth
"With a population of over three billion people, the 23 countries comprising
There are signs for both hope and pessimism. Take the case of India itself, as reported by Rao.
Yet for a country with a population of a thousand million-plus, just 0.7 million
Rao says India is likely to experience, perhaps as no other country has, an explosion of cybercafes in the new millennium. Many people can afford Rs 30 [around 70 cents -- now the figure is one-third that] to
Clearly, this talent-rich, resource-poor region is finding Free/Libre and
Open Source Software to be well suited to its varied needs. Not only is it
affordably priced in most cases (except for highly customised
industry-oriented solutions, which could be as costly as their proprietorial
software counterparts) but FLOSS enables speedy learning and offers the ability to
deploy products across a number of computers without facing copyright restrictions that block purchasers of software from copying software from one PC to another.
Consultant Michael Dunham argues
that there "is no question that Linux is a natural fit for developing
countries with educated, talented entrepreneurs but limited capital."
He also says that FLOSS licensing "has presented a wealth of adaptable
software that with localization and enhancements can drive technology
adoption in business and homes." He says Asia has taken GNU/Linux to its
heart and is doing a great deal of innovative work to simplify
installation, reliability, and desktop acceptance.
Difficult to notice, hard to understand
Like the legendary story of the blind men and the elephant, the role that GNU/Linux is actually playing is both difficult to notice and hard to understand. There are hints from all over
that GNU/Linux has excited the imagination of a generation, whose members are
suddenly finding the rules of the software game drastically altered -- in their favour, for a change.
One could argue that GNU/Linux's impact -- in Asia in particular -- is
difficult to gauge primarily (though not solely) due to the following
- Change is coming from the grass roots, meaning it is scattered and difficult to report. It doesn't fit into the typical paradigm of what makes news. (Yet, in examples where efforts
have been made to document the impact of GNU/Linux, such
compiliations have suprised many. Documenting the projects has
emboldened others who see how much is happening and are
encouraged to try things themselves.)
- In many cases, countries that are adopting GNU/Linux
may not be inclined to package their successes. This could
be because their primary mode of communication is in
languages other than English; for example, a lot is
happening in countries like China, Republic of Korea, and Thailand,
but very little of it seems to be reported on an
- For a continent where survival issues are still to be
successfully vanquished, questions of communication remain
a distant priority.
- Impact of change can take time to be felt. A
generation of young techies is just now discovering the
potent combination of low entry barriers into technology,
sharing across what has been called one of the largest
collaborative projects of humankind, and the possibility
of sharing (utilising and contributing to) the skills
of other coders. In countries like India, the recent visit
of proprietary software leader Bill Gates, and
the attempts of companies like Microsoft to win over
students to their products, indicates the seriousness which
this 'threat' could shape the world of software in the
years to come.
Despite the low visibility, GNU/Linux is being used in some interesting ways in various Asian regions, as we'll see next week.