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Free and Open Source Software: A Blind Alley for Developing Countries? [With a comment added by FN]

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  • Frederick Noronha (FN)
    COMMENT ADDED BY FN: [A rather dismissive paper of Free/Libre and Open Source Software in the so-called developing countries . Needless to say the interest
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 11 11:12 PM

      [A rather dismissive paper of Free/Libre and Open Source Software in
      the so-called 'developing countries'. Needless to say the "interest in
      the 'e-development' community" is often out of touch with reality, and
      what developers are doing at the grassroots. It's often based on hype.
      But that doesn't mean FLOSS is ineffective!

      The "5% of computer systems" overlooks the role played by FLOSS in
      servers, in keeping the Internet running, in giving unprecedented
      access to developers of the Third World to take part in a global
      movement, and more.

      By saying "proprietorial software is free" for the bulk of the
      'developing' world, the study is guilty of both tolerating/encouraging
      the illegally copying of software ('piracy' is a loaded term,
      unfortunately accepted by academia too) and missing the essence of what
      Free Software is all about (offering the freedom to be used, copied,
      studied, modified and redistributed). We are not fighting just for the
      right to remain 'pirates'...

      By focussing on Africa, the report probably overlooks the benefits
      flowing to other 'developing' countries from FLOSS. Including countries
      like India, China, Brazil, South Africa and a whole lot of other
      nations located in an intermediate stage of 'development'.

      Whatever the latest fashion among the development network, FLOSS will
      probably just continue to make its impact. Significantly, it's growth
      till now went largely unnoticed by academia, and researchers, till the
      media-blitz post 1998. --FN]

      PS: A more detailed and realistic, in my view, study can be found at
      http://www.maailma.kaapeli.fi/FLOSSReport1.0.html (this poster had a
      role to play in part of the Maailma report).]


      eDevelopment Briefing No. 1
      Development Informatics Group, University of Manchester

      Free and Open Source Software:
      A Blind Alley for Developing Countries?

      There is considerable interest in the "e-development" community about
      FOSS: free and open source software. It is argued to be cheaper and more
      customisable than proprietary software; it is argued to be a potential
      kick-starter for the local IT industry; it merits a mention in the WSIS
      Plan of Action. So what is its likely trajectory?

      We can turn first to historical evidence because we have been here
      before. In the 1980s, "shareware" – FOSS' forerunner – was a temporary
      source of excitement for exactly the same reasons; even attracting the
      attention of the World Bank. Yet the developmental equation for
      shareware was "Impact = Zero".

      What of the evidence today? A recent survey on our eGovernment for
      Development Information Exchange plus survey data from Africai suggest
      at most 5% of computer systems in developing countries have any open
      source software running on them, and that is almost entirely represented
      by Linux. Even in Cuba, where the US embargo should make conditions
      highly propitious, proprietary software dominatesii.

      Because of piracy and the limited size of initial purchase price within
      total cost of software ownership, there is no clear, general evidence of
      FOSS delivering cost savings. Because, by and large, FOSS means Linux,
      the benefits of customisation and IT industry kick-start are also

      The lack of strong evidence of FOSS benefits helps explain its lack of
      success vis-a-vis proprietary products. In particular, proprietary
      software may not be open source but it is certainly free for the great
      majority of developing country users, thanks to piracy. Other key
      factors uncovered include:

      * Lack of awareness of FOSS: the African evidence suggests most IT
      managers simply don't know about it.

      * Poor international links: to work effectively with open source
      code you need to be part of an active, global community of
      like-minded developers; links to such communities from
      developing countries are weak.

      Donors have moved in with interventions to support FOSS, as recently
      seen in Tanzania with the development of Jambo Office. Yet such efforts
      are found to make little impact. To date, they have been amateurish;
      focusing on the techies who write the code, and failing to introduce a
      business focus that would draw in needed market research, marketing,
      distribution and support skills. As so often, too, donor FOSS projects
      have been short-terms flares of interest rather than the required
      sustained efforts. They are no match for proprietary firms who are in
      for the long-haul, and who will use the carrot of low pricing and the
      stick of anti-piracy actions to achieve their aims.

      Even the potential "backfire" of anti-piracy actions, leading
      organisations to abandon their pirated proprietary products and adopt
      FOSS instead, seems exaggerated. Microsoft and the Indonesian police
      recently launched a crackdown on cybercafesiii. As could be predicted,
      many owners changed over to FOSS. However, users then stopped coming to
      those cybercafes because of their unfamiliarity with the software. Soon
      after, the pirated products were back in place.

      FOSS' trajectory, then, is intimately bound up to proprietary software,
      especially Microsoft products. At best, FOSS looks like a lever to
      extract concessions from Microsoft and similar vendors. In its present
      state, FOSS will remain a marginal activity that does not deliver on its
      development promise and that is no match for the enduring power and
      business acumen of major proprietary players.

      Richard Heeks, October 2005

      i Kamuzora, F. & Baruch, J. (2005) 'Contextualising the challenges of
      free and open source software adoption in African countries', UK DSA
      conference, Connecting People and Places, Open University, 7-9 Sept

      ii Mitra, A., Garcia, A. & Somoza, A. (2005) 'Imperatives of free and
      open source software in Cuban development', UK DSA conference,
      Connecting People and Places, Open University, 7-9 Sept

      iii Robinson, A. (2005) 'Square pegs for round holes?', UK DSA
      conference, Connecting People and Places, Open University, 7-9 Sept
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