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Monday, June 3, 2002
Lead Article

Openness and sharing make Linux attractive
Illustration by Gaurav Sood

As the ease-of-use of Linux increases, the open source movement is making its presence felt in developing countries. Frederick Noronha gives a regional snapshot of this new, cheap, practically free operating system that now has adequate application support.

POLICY planners, IT experts and computer users across the Third World have a way out. No more do they have to choose between being labelled pirates or foregoing the use of potent software that enhances their productivity.

GNU-Linux, the alternative free operating system and useful software that comes along with it, is clearly attracting interest from a range of quarters. From Pakistan to the UNDP, from Africa to Malaysia, and even Thailand or the Philippines and Nepal, GNU-Linux is being closely watched, studied and adopted in a range of interesting experiments.

Created and propagated largely by volunteers, most of GNU-Linux growth simply isn't based on giant billion dollar corporations that have the resources to promote its cause. So, such success stories from the Third World could largely go unnoticed, in the absence of resources.

In large parts of the world where the average per capita income is often less than the cost of a computer, the hugely expensive software turns millions into pirates. In these parts of the globe, words like free or low cost are not necessarily associated with low quality but on the other hand they offer a viable option to millions, who otherwise would be simply left out in the cold.


Because GNU-Linux is free - in the sense that its code is freely available to anyone who wishes to work on it further or adapt it or just reproduce it - there are no mountains of secrecy blocking the easy-replicability of such software.

This means, prices of the same fall to a point that is dramatically low compared to 'proprietorial' software... and thus suddenly become affordable to the millions.

For instance, a couple of hundred thousand copies of GNU-Linux have been distributed across a country like India, through local popular computer magazines, at a price of just around Rs 100. That includes both the cost of a slick magazine, and CD. This software can, of course, be legally copied across as many computers as needed.

This being the case, is it surprising that there are interesting stories coming from varied corners of the Third World? Let's examine some of them:


Linux can power the software development, help boost e-commerce plans and also play a great role in Web development. Best of all, it comes at a price anyone can afford. At a conference held at Bangalore not too long ago young engineering students, mainly from the newly formed Vishweswaraya Technological University (VTU) of Karnataka, worked hard and explained patiently the power of this new OS (operating system) to visitors.

Besides the volunteers, there were a growing number of business firms -- from India and abroad -- that see business opportunity for themselves in the spread of Linux, or GNU-Linux as it is sometimes called.

Some of those making their presence felt were SuSE, the Germany-headquartered commercial company offering its own distribution of Linux at far lower than proprietorial software prices. So was Caldera, another Linux distribution. Caldera says it has trained giant companies including MCI WorldCom, Ford Motor Company, the National Weather Service (US), the Boeing Company and IBM.

Competing for the attention of the crowds then were Bangalore-based Peacock Solutions that was offering the power of Linux-computing in Indian languages. This promise has immense implications for businesses across India too.

Even research labs, like the Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development

Establishment (under the Defence Research & Development Organisation) were demonstrating how the apt use of Linux was saving lakhs of rupees both in software and hardware costs.

What is Linux? And what makes this UNIX work-alike so different? This OS (operating system) was developed by Linus Torvalds in the early nineties, when he was still a young university student in Finland. It has continued development under his guidance. There are thousands of people worldwide who contribute to the Linux development effort.

What makes this different from other operating systems is that these people work on Linux because they want to, not because it's their job and not because it's expected of them. The result is an operating system that is a labour of love. Above all, it's entirely free. Both to further work on, and this is almost true in price terms too.

Bangalore has a very-active ILUG (India Linux Users' Group). So do some other cities. But, in India's Silicon Valley, the activity is at a far higher level and much more organised.


Ministry of Science and Technology, Pakistan, advisor Salman Ansari says that some 50,000 low cost computers are to be installed in schools and colleges all over Pakistan. These will be P II computers, each being sourced for less than $ 100 a piece, he says.

Proprietary software for these PCs would cost a small fortune. Surely more than what the computers cost! But, using GNU-Linux as the OS would ensure that the overall prices are kept low. Pakistan is seriously considering the use of Star Office, an Open Source productivity tool that does the same work as proprietary software costing thousands of rupees. "Don't be surprised if we become the first country in the world to say that all (government-run) services are going to be GNU-Linux based," Ansari says enthusiastically. It's to be seen if this can be accomplished.

"I've set up several networks. When I started setting them up six years ago, the only thing I could run them with, without breaking the law, was Linux. At that time, Windows NT was very flaky. So I've developed a healthy respect for Linux and Open Source. Though I'm a typical Pakistani, I still feel a bit uncomfortable in buying pirated software, and paying 90 cents for a software priced $ 500," he says with a smile.

Ansari says Pakistan has been speaking to some big vendors about proprietorial prices. "We told them we would like to do business with them but for that the pricing would have to be realistic first," says he.

If current software prices are taken into account, to go 'legal' Pakistan would have to pay something like $ 400 for converting each of its PCs to proprietorial software.

"The Business Software Alliance (the network promoting proprietorial software) has been going all out for it. But they have to come in at a price which equates to the economics of the country," argues Ansari.

Ansari points to the growing belief that says that if professionals wanting to enter the software development field need to get into Open Source. "You will be then able to create products and not just projects," he says.

It makes sense from the regional language solutions front too. "Urdu (the national language of Pakistan) language software is easier (to use) if it resides at the OS level," he adds.

Ansari says that as chairman of the peer review committee of all IT projects, he has been keen to turn down any project that uses pirated software. "But what this ends up doing is that it bloats the cost of the software," he complains, suggesting the Open Source could be a way out.


In Africa too, GNU-Linux is making its impact felt. Dakar (Senegal)-based Pierre Dandjinou is ICT-D Policy Advisor for Africa. Says Dandjinou: "At one point, we got an idea to set up an Open Source Foundation for Africa. We are working on it."

He points to discussion list to discuss Open Source. South Africa's network is perhaps the most popular among the continent. Dandjinou, as ISOC (Internet Society) chairman for Benin, was able to organise a conference on this subject. UNDP has been experimenting with such technologies from way back in 1994, virtually the babyhood days for this new and young operating system, that was launched in the early nineties. "Can African citizens be paying for all proprietorial software stuff?" he asks.

Besides, SNDP, the Sustainable Network Development Programme that is a network promoted by the UN, itself uses Linux in some 47 countries worldwide.

But Dandjinou says: "I don't feel the cost (alone) is an issue. Of course, if you compare (the price of Open Source or Free Software products) with what we've been paying by using proprietorial software packages, we have been paying really a lot of dollars. But more than price, what matters is the application development. The idea of the openness should be kept there. Openness and sharing... these are great values in themselves."

M. Thierry Hyacinthe Amoussougbo, the coordinator for the Cisco regional academy in Benin, says that enthusiasm about GNU-Linux is high, even if there are still practical problems in implementation.

A part of the problem is due to the lack of enough technical skills to spread GNU-Linux sufficiently. Besides, the widespread predominance of pirated versions of proprietorial operating systems makes the need for innovation and study of options a low-priority. "Everybody says let's go over to Open Source. But on the ground, it takes time to get started. It is being used by some, but is yet to be widely used," Amoussougbo admits.

"Linux is used for many servers. We too want to promote it and establish more Linux-based servers. But what moves on the ground level is still Microsoft... maybe without respect to copyright though," says Amoussougbo.


In Malaysia, in end-March, the Kuala Lumpur newspapers reported a verbal spat between the global software giant, Microsoft, and the fledging-but-influential Open Source movement in that country.

Tabloid daily, The Star, reported in its March 26 issue that Microsoft (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd had "fired its first salvo against the Open Source movement in Malaysia" with an article sent out through its electronic newsletter and posted on its Website. This article, 'Not quite an open and shut case' (www.microsoft.com/malaysia/business/articles/linkpage3866.htm) was signed by Microsoft Malaysia managing director Butt Wai Choon. It argued that Open Source Software was a threat to the commercial software industry. The Star, a popular Malaysian daily, noted however that the article sounded familiar to a speech given by Jim Allchin to US lawmakers in Washington just a bit more than a year ago.

The Star also noted that in the last few months, both Malaysian National Computer Confederation (MNCC) and the Association of the Computer and Multimedia Industry of Malaysia (Pikom) have formed special interest groups devoted to the Open Source movement. MNCC is the national body of computer professionals, while Pikom is the industry trade association.

"Both bodies have announced or are considering initiatives to create greater awareness amongst business and government, of the benefits of using and adopting Open Source solutions," reported The Star in an article by A. Asohan.

Unnamed industry sources were also quoted saying that one or two Malaysian government or semi-government bodies are studying the feasibility of developing Linux-the Unix-based operating system that many consider the flagship of the OSS charge-into a "national operating system" like what's being undertaken with China's Red Flag project.

MNCC's member and security consultant Dinesh Nair was quoted saying: "In my opinion the article indicates a growing concern that Open Source may be a threat to them locally." Nair also leads the technical sub-group of the MNCC's Open Source Special Interest Group.

"Only Mr Butt can answer for certain (about the article's) timing... but it is true that at this moment in Malaysia, there is substantial interest in Open Source in both the private and public sectors," another MNCC-OSSIG member Dr Nah Soo Hoe, told the newspaper.

He said his fellow MNCC-OSSIG members believe that the Open Source model can in fact be a critical element towards making projects like Malaysia's ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor a success. The MSC is an ambitious ICT (Information and Communications Technology) initiative planned by the Malaysian government to attract leading global companies to locate their multimedia industries along Kuala Lumpur. This dedicated corridor stretches 15 km wide and 50 km long, between the giant Petronas Twin Towers and the hi-tech Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Open Source software, they argue, is even more important for a developing country like Malaysia.

In other ways too, Malaysia is giving Open Source and Free Software a close look. Take the case of MIMOS (www.mimos.my), the Malaysian Institute of Micro Electronic Systems, which is intended to grow into a premier R&D powerhouse in this South-East Asian country.

"Mimos has a programme on Open Source. Lots of our programmes are running on Open Source," says Dr Raslan Bin Ahmad of MIMOS Berhad. MIMOS is one of the key pillars in taking this country towards becoming a K-society and K-economy (based on knowledge) and turn into a 'developed country' by the year 2020. .

In its e-world section, MIMOS showcases projects like its attempt to build a low-cost PC that is "affordable to everybody". This computer is based on GNU-Linux and is expected to cost far less than what it costs to buy a PC in the market. 'Infoniti' ("infinite" plus "information") is being built up as a handy Web device "that makes accessing the Web as easy as using a TV or VCR". Both inexpensive and friendly to use, this device would, hopefully, "cross the digital divide separating computer phobics from computer literates". Its promoters say it aims to help "all Malaysians" improve their quality of life through the "power of information".

Thailand and the Philippines

Says Emmanuel Lallana of the E-ASEAN Task Force based in Manila: "It makes sense to use open standards and open source. We don't want to get locked into proprietorial software. You can use Open Source also because it's cheaper. Why pay for an operating system and office suite, when you have people giving it out for free?"

In Thailand, the ambitious SchoolNet experiment-an initiative that seeks to provide universal access to teachers and students in schools in that East Asian country-also taps into the power of GNU-Linux.

It has developed a Linux School Internet Server (Linux SIS) to be promoted and distributed to schools "as a cheaper alternative to using an expensive server software".

"Since its introduction, Linux-SIS has been very popular in Thailand due to its excellent documentation in the Thai language, its simple-to-install CD-ROM and Web-based server management without the need to know Unix commands," says Dr Thaweesak 'Hugh' Koanantakool, director of Bangkok's National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (NECTEC).

"Initially we used Windows NT on a straightforward PC. Then we developed the Linux schools Internet server. We now have our own software, running GNU-Linux, which is managed via the Web, using the Thai language. That means, to run it the user hardly needs to know anything of Unix. This runs on just a PC. Compared to it, we could not afford a Sun Microsystem box and router for each school," says Koanantakool.

GNU/Linux and a simple PC allows the schools to run an FTP server and "virtually everything out of one box". Says he: "It's far cheaper too. You just get a modem, and put on Linux. Even an old PC can replace a router."

Koanantakool says the Thai language Web-admin tool became "some kind of a breakthrough" that helped teachers to run a school network at the lowest cost. In addition, the Thai-language extension of the project started last year. Version 4.1 was released in March 2002.


'Linux Journal', which calls itself the "monthly magazine of the Linux community" worldwide, reports in its March 2002 issue about various GNU-Linux initiatives in classrooms across the globe.

Of particular interest are those coming up from the Third World including Ganesha's Project in Nepal, a plan using donated machines and open-source software like Linux, in a move to cut the costs of acquiring software licences for "an already impoverished school system."

These are all significant ventures. Some are small; others are more ambitious. But there are lessons for everyone, who can emulate and adapt some of these interesting ventures... from across the Third World.