July 14, 2003

Open Asia: GNU/Linux gaining visibility across the continent

- by Frederick Noronha -
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
A regional snapshot

The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook by Dr Madanmohan Rao gives a snapshot of
the Internet economies of Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and
Singapore. For each, it seeks to "flesh out" the shape of the regional
Internet economy via the "Eight Cs" of the Internet economy: connectivity, content,
community, commerce, capital, culture, cooperation, and capacity.

Rao traces the growth of the Internet in Asia in four episodes -- the birth
of the early computing infrastructure in Asia (1960-1980); the rise of the
early internetworks, the academic Internet, and the Asia-Pacific Network
Information Centre (1980-1995); the rise of the commercial Internet and
datacom deregulation and early wireless networks in Asia (1995-2000); and the
rise of emerging Internet powerhouses of Asia, including the countries
covered (starting circa 2001).

"With a population of over three billion people, the 23 countries comprising
the Asia-Pacific region represents a rapidly growing and lucrative segment
of the global Internet market," argues Rao. But there are questions over
how evenly spread the potential is.

There are signs for both hope and pessimism. Take the case of India itself, as reported by Rao.
India is an extremely content-rich country with a free press, unlike some of its Asian counterparts. The news, culture, entertainment, sports, and medical knowledge base of this country can easily sustain dozens of portals and vortals for a content-hungry consumer marketplace consisting of domestic users, non-resident Indians (numbering 20 million in more than 120 countries around the world), international businesses, and enthusiastic Indophiles.

Yet for a country with a population of a thousand million-plus, just 0.7 million
modems were sold in 2000-01.

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
check their email for half an hour every few days in the local cybercafe instead of owning their own
PCs and Internet accounts.

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
reasons:

  • 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
    international scale.
  • 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.

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