April 21, 2006

Open source provides opportunity, challenge for developing world

Author: Jay Lyman

Open source software and development can push governments of
developing nations ahead in the world, but only if they participate
as producers of the technology themselves, United Nations University (UNU)
researchers say. While they say developing regions such as China, East
Asia, India, and South America are among the biggest markets for open
source software, UNU officials worry that there may be too few open
source developers in those regions.

UNU International Institute for Software Technology director Mike
Reed explains that because the cost of a Windows system equates to a
year and a half of salary in such areas, the proprietary software model
is not sustainable. Indeed, as much of 90 percent of the proprietary
software in use in these developing countries consists of pirated
copies.

Although UNU estimates 70 to 80 percent of open source software use
comes from developing countries, only 2 percent of FOSS community
developers are from these countries, according to Reed. "We're trying to
train people so they can become producers, not just consumers," he says,
referring to the Global
Desktop Project
, an initiative to enlist open source developers in
East Asia that involves 19 partners from industry, government and other
fields. "We're looking to teach and train, but in doing so, we're creating a
community of open source developers."

Open source may not be the answer

Some doubt that open source, even though it is maturing and spreading
to more applications, is the ideal solution for those at an economic
disadvantage.

"Open source is not the poor man's Windows," says Mukul Krishna, a
senior analyst with industry researcher Frost & Sullivan. "That is a
mindset that should be discouraged from being advocated."

Krishna says that open source software is valuable
and necessary for developing nations. "It is a cheaper way for
developing nations that have limited resources to help reduce the
digital divide," he says, adding open source also helps countries avoid
proprietary monopolies, which remain a threat in developing nations.

Still, Krishna stresses that limiting prospects to only open source
solutions and development may deprive these nations of access to other
resources, which might include proprietary solutions, companies, and
their money. "A lot of people argue there are more opportunities from
proprietary solutions, and they might not get it if they are so open
source oriented," he says. "The proper course of action is not to be
tied to one or get into any religious wars. You want everyone to work
with you. The good thing now is there are a lot of choices."

Krishna also points to incentives and offers from proprietary
vendors, arguing much of the opportunity, and possible employment, in
developing nations lies with these large, proprietary companies.

UNU's Reed also highlights the need to involve corporate giants, and
said companies such as IBM, Intel, and Sun Microsystems are among the
Global Desktop Project partners. He indicates other large companies,
such as Microsoft, have been forced to adjust their own strategies
because of open source, the example being Microsoft's opening of code to
some government customers to offset security fears.

Reed says the open source opportunities for developing countries do
not preclude their use of proprietary solutions or assistance. "We're
not fighting a battle," he says. "We're trying to avoid the 'us and
them.'"

Nevertheless, Reed believes the best way to get more developing world
production in open source and overall is to give people a chance to
create. "We're looking to create real projects people can use in the
real world," he says, referring specifically to Brazil and Southeast
Asia.

Krishna blames the lack of software developers from these developing
nations on lack of time, as most people have to work other jobs to
support themselves and their families.

Still, the analyst says software is an area of technology where the
barriers to entry are "minuscule."

"What could impede it is education," Krishna says. "That's something
where the nations have to help themselves."

Krishna says open source software may be among the drivers of success
in places such as China and India. He decries the lack of attention and
focus on sub-Saharan Africa, which he describes as "truly lost right
now" in terms of technology and economic development

Reed, who says the Global Desktop Project effort has succeeded
somewhat in China, Southeast Asia, and Brazil, agrees that Africa does
not show up on the map in terms of IT development and economic
opportunity. But open source, which helps fuel development and economic activity in
Northern Europe, has the potential to bring along developing regions,
including Africa, according to Reed.

"There's almost nothing else like it," he says. "Once you get in that
community, it's a more level playing field. We're trying to teach people
how to get into that community."