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Vol 10, No.01 (January, 1998)

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Toward realistic approach to open source in poor countries

The first and the most important task for any school or university is to provide computers for students, teachers and educational institutions. In this respect high quality information about low cost hardware is of paramount importance. Software comes second. As for open source software the main question is "not why but how".  

It's naive to think that OSS will solve all problems in developing countries. As Wayne Marshal wrote in the Linux Journal discussing all the pitfalls of technical aid to Africa:

In the developing world--where most of the population still cook with firewood and carry water in buckets--the practical value of focusing foreign assistance on IT projects would seem negligible, if not ludicrous entirely. Given the more serious fundamental issues facing developing nations--health care (AIDS, TB and malaria), nutrition, sanitation, education, poverty, pollution and political corruption--providing the means to surf the Web should probably fall fairly low on any reasonable scale of human priorities.

First of all Microsoft software is very popular in this region and what is important both DOS and Windows 9x has very valuable infrastructure support. DOS is much simpler than Linux and generally is a better first operating system. Starting with complex Linux distribution like Red Hat can kill kid's interest in computers really quick. Many developing nations are bypassing wired  telecommunications and moving straight to wireless, and Windows is much friendlier to wireless.

Also Windows Desktop with open source software can be used as a server avoiding costly server license. The difference between Windows server and Windows workstation distributions is not that important for most purposes.  In a similar line of reasoning it does not make any sense to pay Red Hat inflated costs of license and support for its enterprize line of products.  You can use Suse desktop or Debian or Ubuntu. Red Hat with its cost structure is a sick joke for developing countries.

So there are several ways to bypass inflated Microsoft server and software prices and exorbitant Microsoft applications prices (they should be calculated relative to GDP, but so some reason Microsoft tries to extort from legit users the losses it suffers from piracy). Again the most important of them is not Linux -- just one of several free flavors of Unix, but to use Windows Workstation as a server with open source applications.

But the key way to find over inflated prices in those countries (I would say that Microsoft prices are very reasonable  for the USA, actually almost like shareware prices) is to use open source applications especially those that are created by a cooperative of commercial users and thus has stable level of support. Microsoft should realize that there are a lot of good programmers in countries like Ukraine and that charging US prices in countries as poor as, say Ukraine, is suicidal.

Contrary to primitive understanding of this complex issue, software piracy is actually a positive marketing tool for Microsoft and it should provide huge discounts for legalizing software  (see for example ):

"It's ultimately a question of strategy," says Carlos A. Osorio, a Harvard researcher and author of a recent working paper examining the "Catch 22" facing proprietary software companies in developing markets. "For a closed-source company competing with open-source companies, the optimum strategy is often to use its illegal user base in addition to its legal user base."

As Tim O'Reilly aptly noted "Piracy is a kind of progressive taxation, which may shave a few percentage points off the sales of well-known artists (and I say "may" because even that point is not proven), in exchange for massive benefits to the far greater number for whom exposure may lead to increased revenues." [O'Relliy2002]

People will make an illegal copy of a friend's favorite program and often (especially if the program is used for business purposes) like it enough to eventually buy it for the price twice of three time exceeding price of the same program in USA (just ask Microsoft how much they charge for the Office in developing countries, especially for the localized version of the Office).

Or maybe the person doesn't buy it, because its too expensive, but they will never buy a competitor's product either and that still provides a market for books, training, etc. This is largely how Microsoft Office became the standard in former USSR countries. Before Star/Open Office, Microsoft Office in this region just did not have a really dangerous competitors. 

It's not often wise to rush Linux deployment in developing countries, especially on the client side. Email server running Linux is OK (WEB servers are not that important unless you have really good connectivity usually limited to capitals and the biggest cities). Open Office like other major open source programs works on Windows 9x. The problem is that Linux (like any Unix) might be too complex for the local desktop environment. Using different open source packages in Windows (Unixification of Windows) is often a safer bet. See Linux as a magic bullet for poor countries myth for more information

Actually hardware in developing countries is much more expensive (relatively to per capita income often 100 times more expensive) than in the US and preinstalled OS (Windows) often constitute a lesser part of the total cost consumer pays for the PC than in USA. Also such PC often have pretty obscure (cheap, but not necessary bad) components for which drivers may not exist in Linux. Very few device drivers are available for Linux today, especially for components used in developing countries. That may change in the future but that's how it is now and to close eyes of this fact is just stupid.

So unless you assemble hardware yourself from components that are known to be Linux compatible (which is not that difficult and costly in most developing countries, but still simply is not the case), Windows is probably a better choice for the desktop, at least for now.  So not replacement of Windows but "unixification"  of Windows is more realistic and more attainable goal. In an extreme case Windows can be the only commercial software installed on the system.

Not the replacement of Windows but "unixification" of Windows is more realistic and more attainable goal.

At the same time Ms Office is really too expensive and here OSS replacements might have an edge, especially for businesses (I doubt that Microsoft will prosecute private citizens of developing countries, who is using MS Office for personal purposes).  That means that for business (and may be for the government) Open Office is a very attractive alternative. But again it is available for Windows too although it might drive Gnome or KDE to become an alternative desktop environment  to Windows.

At the same time Linux, Solaris Open/FreeBSD, etc are definitely preferable on the server side. I would say that FreeBSD is a more solid server than Linux for both mailserver role and web server role,  but your mileage may vary. I also consider GPL to be a part of the problem, not the part of the solution, or at best an invitation for creating a new better license.

Some open-source advocates promote lobbying radical solutions like that governments exclusively purchase and implement open-source technologies. Usually such people never lived in any developing country and have very fuzzy understanding of the real situation, real problems and the extent to which government intervention can harm the pace of development in a particular country :-(.  Here is one relevant quote:

Right on! Corruption is a *big* problem. (Score:2)
by sumana ( on Sunday January 30, @05:34PM EST (#208)
(User Info)

I'm not sure how many natural-born US citizens actually realize the extent of what we would call corruption in Asian countries. It's a fact of life, a custom, a cost of doing business. If you want a phone or cable line hooked up, if you want a permit to do ANYTHING, if you want to get into a school, if you want anything, there's always baksheesh (the Indian term). There's always gotta be something to lubricate the palms. Here (northern California, to be exact), such a thing would result in investigation, 60 Minutes interviews, outrage, scandal, firings, etc. But who will investigate someone for only doing the same thing the investigator does?

Bureaucrats' wages are low; it's accepted and expected that they will compensate for those low wages via bribes. And, for anyone who's studied political science, remember that this is less a rational-legal relationship than a traditional one (in the Weberian sense) -- there are patron-client dyads everywhere, which are diffuse relationships, not limited ones.

To steal from one is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

Re:Yeah! (Score:0)
by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 30, @01:44PM EST (#96)

Given India's monstrous bureaucracy, who knows what will happen if Linux becomes the standard OS over there. Unfortunately, it would benefit everyone if there were a standard OS for everyone. It sounds crazy, but I think Windows it should be. Sorry.

One important point. It's rather dangerous and probably unfair to seek public funding of GPLed software (but this is OK for BSD software). That means that BSD-based OSes like FreeBSD are more suitable for developing nations than GPLed OSes like Linux.  Also free download is CD image via FTP is not that easy and can be quite costly in most part of the world:

From:	 Charlie Stross 
Subject: Free downloads of CD images
Date:	 Thu, 12 Apr 2001 12:17:13 +0100


Apropos the lack of a SuSE 7.1 downloadable CD image ...

Here in the UK, I rent a colocated server. Bandwidth costs between Ј7 and Ј15 (i.e. $10-$22) per gigabyte per month. Thus, if I were to provide an FTP service, downloadable CD images would cost roughly $5-$10 a pop.

Of course, by buying bandwidth in bulk (my very own OC3 line!) I could probably cut the cost by an order of magnitude. And bandwidth costs in Europe are higher than in the US; again, it's an order of magnitude cheaper where you're standing.

Nevertheless, the key fact is that those distributors who provide FTP-able CD images are providing a service which costs them money to run. In the beginning, when they were poor, they sold CD's. Then they floated or otherwise became cash rich, and could afford to run FTP servers with enormous bandwidth. Now that the economy is looking gloomy, is it any surprise that they're seeking to transfer the burden of costs back onto the shoulders of the consumers (who are, after all, the people who used to pay them by purchasing CD's)?

There's a lot to be said for Tannenbaum's Law: "never underestimate the bandwidth of a pick-up truck travelling cross-country with a trunk full of magnetic tapes" -- or, in its contemporary incarnation, the bandwidth of a FedEx parcel full of DVD-ROMs.

NB: I just did the following:

  dd if=/dev/cdrom of=suse-7.1.1.iso
  bzip2 -9 suse-7.1.1.iso

This compressed the image file from 601,997,312 bytes to 507,265,922. Which suggests to me that there's still a bit of slack space in those filesystems full of oh-so-compressed RPMs. Given that enhanced compression would cut the cost (to the distributors!) of running a download service by up to 15%, maybe it's about time someone looked into the best way of providing a CDROM image. Maybe a tiny bootable Rock Ridge partition followed by a highly compressed filesystem?

-- Charlie Stross

Public funds can be stolen with or without OSS software and software firms that produce air can function perfectly well in the open software world. Monopoly of making money from Linux does not belong Western investment banks ;-) And bureaucrats in developing countries can give greedy Western venture funds capitalists a run for their money...

I already saw several relevant examples like taking substantial money for the fake project (possibly run by relatives or friends) for the creation a localized (magic bureaucratic word) Linux distribution and producing nothing :-(  Here I would definitely prefer that money would be spend on Microsoft software instead. It's stupid to assume that local bureaucrats cannot award a Linux contact to somebody who does not even have a computer. In this area they are much smarter and inventive than western observers usually assume...

Although some government might support GPLed OS, such discriminative actions can backfire. Paradoxically, but in some cases the total cost for consumers can be higher with GPLed OS. Generally this question is far from simple and some counterviews exists. 

Please remember that that catch phrase "GNU not Unix" can mean things quite different that RMS originally intended ;-). Actually a lot of commercial software both on Unix and Windows and first of all Oracle needs a reality check from open source. Switching to an open-source database can slash costs for one of the most expensive segments of the software budget by as much as 90%.  In such cases who cares is Oracle replaced with open source database (Postgres, Ingres, or MySQL) on Windows or on Unix as long as the result is reasonable reliability and lower costs.

Still I would like to stress three factors that one need to take into account are:

Those three change the playing field and are important factors that need to be calculated into equation. I suspect that a proper mixture of proprietary and OSS (BSD and GPLed) tools is usually a better mix that only proprietary or only OSS (and, especially, pure GPL) extremes that some advocates.

But one area really stands out -- education and especially computer education. Here open source can really improve the quality and lessen costs. That means that open source movement may  have a major impact on the improvement of the quality of education in developing countries.

We also need understand that learning is inherently social and that other parts of infrastructure, especially available books, are as well important as software tools.  I would like also stress that sharing is an important part of learning so participation in OSS projects is a natural form of growth for students. But, of course,  excessive zeal can be harmful and can distract students from studies. But again I would like to stress that BSD license based projects are much better choice here than GPLed projects.

Open source approach simplify architectural modularity and reuse and even on windows enables Unix-style small, focused, innovative applications based on open formats and protocols that may displace the large, integrated solutions that dominate markets. I believe that open source XML and HTML editors have a change to compete with MS Word, because paradoxically even within MS Office 2000 product line FrontPage is for certain tasks more convenient than MS Word. Direct access to underling HTML that is available in FrontPage simplify some complex tasks and make it more efficient despite the fact that MS Word is much more powerful and mature product.

This component transition has already occurred in most tiers of the computer hardware market. It is a vital feature of the automobile industry. May be open source software will help to move software development on a somewhat higher level -- the reusable components level. I see this trend as important trend on OS utilities level -- one now can assemble portable set of vital OS utilities for several different kernels including Linux, FreeBSD, BeOS, MS Windows and MacOS.

I hope that a significant open source movement for the creation of educational material will emerge, and this will might help to provide access to free educational books. At least average computer science textbooks.  Here Macmillan with its Inform It  and O'Reilly with its CD bookshelf are a good starting point. Books freely available on the Internet can help to lessen the isolation of teachers in less developed countries from their colleagues and may have the positive side effect of forming teams of talented teachers to work together in creating new exercises and other supplemental learning materials.

I would like to stress that so called "problem of digital divide" is much more complex than many help organization imagine.  There is a definite value of providing Internet connectivity and WEB access as it help to dissimilate knowledge. But this does not mean that those countries that the only way to achieve that is to try to implement universal Internet access as in developed countries. Internet connectivity might be better concentrated in companies educational institutions, libraries, medical institutions, etc and here it makes sense to fight for it. Access to individual (outside of email) might be provided via Internet café. Outside this scope the return on investment becomes less and less certain. 

As  Wayne Marshall  aptly observed in his paper LJ 86 Algorithms in Africa:

....Now, as I write this, bridging the digital divide has become one of the hottest trends in foreign assistance, and many aid organizations and corporate philanthropists have found publicity for their efforts. Simplistically, it seems, the gap in information technology has now come to be identified with access to the Internet. Thus, we have such programs as the USAID-funded Leland Initiative, designed to bring internet access to Africa; the Peace Corps announcing an information technology initiative in partnership with AOL; and a recently formed organization called Geekcorps sending its second group of volunteers on three-month stints designing web sites in Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa [see LJ April 2001 for more on the Geekcorps]. Naturally, the high-profile publicity given this issue has created an opportunity for many international aid organizations to develop projects and funding appeals for serving the digitally needy.

The New Tech Testament

Delivering the miracle of the Internet is the new zeal of the high-tech missionary. In what seems to be a rush to market--bringing the Internet to the developing world--sometimes projects are announced with only naïve regard to the technical issues and without full consideration of whether such projects are viable, appropriate, relevant and sustainable. Thus, one hears of a women's cooperative in Central America marketing their handcrafts over the Web; advocates describe the potential of ``telemedicine'' for delivering virtual health care to isolated areas; and the US State Department Global Technology Corps proclaims, ``We have seen farmers in Mexico using [the Internet] to check weather conditions and crop prices.''

...At the extreme, the new economy proselyte promotes the Internet as the solution for everything from education and health care to pollution, inequality and world peace. As though everyone who has access will be able to browse their way to nirvana, as though the path to heaven is paved with bandwidth. The satellite dish is the new icon of the digital evangelist, replacing the holy cross.

One of the implicit beliefs of this testament is that information, in and of itself, is sufficient to promote economy, remedy problems and narrow inequities. A corollary implication, the message from one side of the divide to the other, is that we have information and you don't, that our information is good and yours is useless. This is the lesson CNN preaches to its international audience when it tells us, ``The human without information is nothing.''

It should be clear that in this form, divide rhetoric is simply new raiment for the familiar old taxonomies of prejudice that have long sought to divide the world between believers and heathens, the enlightened and the savage. From a historical perspective, rather than helping, these kinds of belief systems have generally been devastating to their targets.

More importantly, the belief in the sufficiency of information and information technology is simply wrong. Information alone doesn't help people. If only this were true, doctors would be made from medical textbooks and entrepreneurs would be born from accounting manuals.

In fact, the developing world is littered with unused X-ray equipment, broken-down tractors and empty schoolrooms contributed over the years by well-intentioned and simpleminded donors. These resources are made useless not from missing user manuals or lack of web access, but by the lack of trained technicians, mechanics and teachers.

In short, what empowers people are skills.

Even in the US, this kind of awareness is emerging. In ``How Does the Empty Glass Fill? A Modern Philosophy of the Digital Divide'' (Educause Review, Nov/Dec 2000), Solveig Singleton and Lucas Mast write: ``From the standpoint of higher education, students who leave high school without exposure to digital learning tools such as the Internet will prove a much less serious problem than students who leave high school with inadequate reading or math skills.''

And the leading journal of free-market capitalism, the Economist, recently observed: 

The poor are not shunning the Internet because they cannot afford it: the problem is that they lack the skills to exploit it effectively. So it is difficult to see how connecting the poor to the Internet will improve their finances. It would make more sense to aim for universal literacy than universal Internet access.

It may be that, with the recent outbreak of dot-com bankruptcy and declines in the stock market, the tenets of the digital religion could be losing their currency. At a time when the mega-billion, IPO-funded ebiz stars like Amazon and Yahoo are having a tough go across the US and Europe, it's hard not to wonder how the promises of e-commerce could possibly prove viable and sustainable elsewhere, particularly in places where there aren't even good banking and credit systems. And for someone like me who has lived several years of the past decade in both rural and urban parts of the developing world--where most of the population still cook with firewood and carry water in buckets--the practical value of focusing foreign assistance on IT projects would seem negligible, if not ludicrous entirely. Given the more serious fundamental issues facing developing nations--health care (AIDS, TB and malaria), nutrition, sanitation, education, poverty, pollution and political corruption--providing the means to surf the Web should probably fall fairly low on any reasonable scale of human priorities.

So is there any way to make a difference, a real difference that improves people's lives? Is there any role for Linux and open-source advocacy in emerging markets? Are there ways of using technology for solving human problems in places like Africa, without trying to sell wool sweaters in the desert? I wouldn't be writing this article if there weren't.

Dr. Nikolai Bezroukov


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