Monday, January 12, 2009

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 9: Linux and the Third World

Open Sourcing the Third World: Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 9

The government of Vietnam announced last week that it will be converting all its government computers to open source software by the end of 2010, with conversion to begin almost immediately.

So apparently open source software really is communism. But ├╝bercapitalist Bill Gates can't really complain; the Vietnamese government cites a crackdown on illegal copies of Windows as one reason for the switch, and we all know Bill wants you to be assured of that Windows Genuine Advantage, right?

When most of us think of computers and the Third World, we think of that guy in Nigeria who'll most respectfully split his $10 million inheritance with us, if only we'll kindly send him our bank account number right now. (Maybe he'll pay us in Zimbabwe money; that 100 billion dollars would meet even Dr. Evil's demands.) But seriously, as countries develop, they use more energy, and anything we can do to keep that down is great.

Last week we saw how Linux is greener than Windows, using less power and packaging and extending the life of old machines. That's got big implications for the Third World. And so does the lower cost ($0 Zimbabwe or American) of open source. If the West won't price software appropriately, the Third World has other options. A global look at search popularity shows that interest in Linux is highest in developing Asia and the former Communist bloc: India, Cuba and Russia, the Czech Republic and Indonesia.

The West sucked the wealth out of Africa and Asia in the colonial era, and they're still recovering. Sure, in these tough times we want to keep our jobs at home. But the right way to do that is to raise standards of living, and wages, in the rest of the world, so that shipping the jobs overseas isn't cost effective anymore. We can help keep our jobs here by leaving their money there. Bill Gates is the second richest man in the world; Should a struggling entrepreneur or agency in Ougadougou really have to ship a big chunk of change off to Microsoft, or upgrade that sturdy and functional old computer because it won't run Vista?

Nigerian students with OLPC laptops, learning to do much more than send spam.

Getting computers to the Third World also has back-home benefits. The netbook niche was inspired in part by an initiative in getting computers to the developing world. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project designed and developed a low-power, small screen computer that can be built for about $100. Initially, the only way for a First World customer to get one was to buy two: one for themselves and one for a kid. Linux was a key keeping the cost down.

The OLPC project has continued, bringing Linux to all sorts of Third World countries like Alabama. But there have been stumbles, in part because Microsoft wanted a piece of the action. Legions of Linux geek kids in the developing world means fewer future Microsoft customers.

Another stumbling block to Linux adoption in the third world has been the slow pace in the first world:
At first glance, Free and Open Source software should be perfect for places like Mali. The local economy is poor, and average salaries make proprietary software an unimaginable expense for most people there. Yet the place is overrun with copies of Microsoft Windows. The outcome of this rampant illegal software copying is that Windows is seen as “the first world standard” and any attempt to push a cheaper alternative is strongly resisted. They consider it trying to cheat local people out of getting the same quality of software that is used in the developed world, even though it’s a legal way of getting quality software for free.

As I started this series I noted that my interest in Linux was first motivated less by technology and more by philosophy and ideology. Thus, by extension, one way you can encourage the developing world to go open source is by doing it yourself.

You'll think of the rest of the world immediately if you check out Ubuntu, the Linux distribution I use. Global accessibility is one of the big goals of Ubuntu developer Mark Shuttleworth, a native of South Africa. The first step of installing, or checking out Ubuntu from a live CD, is choosing your language. Like Press 1 for English on the voice mail, only with lots more options, 64 to be exact. Rep. Steve King (Know Nothing-IA) would first have fits and then try to get it banned under our English Only law. Don't get scared, the default is the world's default second language, English. Sure, Windows supports a lot of languages too. But the Ubuntu install process literally makes you think of the rest of the world as the very first thing.

“Ubuntu” is a South African word with as many definitions as shalom or aloha. Nelson Mandela describes it thus:
A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?

That's the open source software community in its ideal form. Or, as Barack Obama might say it, “I am my brother's keeper.”

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