5.7 FLOSS in developing countries

In this section I want to look closer into how FLOSS is applied in developing countries. The awareness of FLOSS is rising in developing countries. The reasons for this growing awareness are because of, among other things, the danger of falling into a dependent relationship with software vendors, the potential lower cost of FLOSS, the open standards FLOSS promotes, the ability to inspect code for national security reasons, less vulnerability to viruses and the possibility of fostering home grown computer industries.

5.7.1 Advantages FLOSS offer

FLOSS efforts in developing countries have received attention from the mainstream media, this has created some hype around FLOSS, but a quick web search will show that the hype is not altogether unfounded. Coverage in the media have the tendency to make technology sound like “silver bullets”. FLOSS is not a “silver bullet” for developing countries, it requires hard work, but offer real advantages.

One of the great advantage FLOSS offer is that it removes the control over the software from software development companies. If a government chooses to sponsor a FLOSS project instead of buying it from a company, the government is not dependent on updates from one company. In developing counties in particular, fostering of home grown industries is a major concern. If the government choose to take advantage of the rich body of FLOSS software, and hire people to adapt this software to the needs of the government, you have two advantages. First you build up the capacity of the home grown computer industries, and second you can pay in local currency. As small amount of foreign currency is a problem for many countries, this is an advantage.

It is common for government bureaus to develop their software in-house without releasing the source, but in the longer run it will most likely be a major challenge to maintain the software. If the software on the other hand is released with a FLOSS license more government and non-government organisations can benefit from the software and share the load of maintenance. When the software develops over time by the contribution of many independent actors the software is more likely to stay in sync with changing demands. It may no longer be necessary to rip out old software and exchange it with new software. This is often the case for in-house developed software, because the ones who made the software are long gone, and the code is to difficult to maintain. When the code is developed by many independent actors you have to program in such a way that other can understand what you have done, without too much difficulty.

To use proprietary software legally you will most likely have to buy a license. The license often require companies to pay for every user using the software. Even if the software is placed on a server, and used by clients through a network you have to pay a license fee for every client allowed to connect. With FLOSS you do not have any such license cost. When you have software with a FLOSS license on a server, any number of clients can legally use it. In this way developing countries do not have to pay money from their limited foreign currency pool to a company in the developed world. Piracy in the developing world makes this a weaker argument (Rajani 2003).

Perhaps the greatest advantages with FLOSS, and which indirectly lies behind the other advantages, is the learning potential that lies in FLOSS. Even if the source code is unavailable for people who do not have knowledge in programing, it gives the potential for those who have access to computers and who either can or want to learn programing, an insight into how programs have been created. Only a selected few can have a direct benefit from this, it is few people who can read code and even fewer that read it. Those few people that read and/or make code, can make the information embedded in the code more available through making tutorials, and teaching good programing practices learned from the code. Using business jargon FLOSS can be seen as a massive donation of intellectual properly rights into the developing world.

If you add open development processes and open documentation to open source, the learning factor becomes even more significant. It is not necessary to have open development process and open documentation in order to call a project FLOSS, but it is often the case that e-mail archives, forums and wikis is open for everybody with Internet access. There exists many tutorials on programming languages and libraries which have been immensely useful to me. If you have a problem chances are that some else have had the same problem and asked about it on a forum/e-mail list, so you can search the www for the answer. If you don’t find the answer you can ask the question yourself.

5.7.2 Participation in FLOSS

According to the Hacker Survey only 7,5% of the 519 respondents were from what I identify as a poor country. 42.2% were from Europe and 46% were from the North-America. This show, not surprisingly, that the wealthy and predominately western counties dominates FLOSS. North-America and Europe dominates most sectors of the computer industry, but unlike other sectors FLOSS gives developing countries a chance to catch up. The body of code produced with an FLOSS license is freely available. There are, however, still limiting factors to this freedom. The two most important factors that limits developing countries from contributing to and benefiting from FLOSS is education and Internet access. Those fortunate enough to have education and Internet access in the developing world can most certainly contribute, provided they are sufficiently motivated.

India, China and Brazil are countries know be progressive in their support for FLOSS. In Brazil, FLOSS has strong government backing. Linux is used in a number of Telecentros offering public Internet access, among other things. China is know for its Linux distribution, Red Flag Linux. India is known for the Simputer Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) based on FLOSS software. All this countries have one thing in common, they are quite advanced developing countries. More advanced countries are better able to effectively participated in the global FLOSS community. Even if poorer countries can participate less they can benefit from FLOSS as users of the software.

A natural place for countries aspiring to use FLOSS in the developing world to start their participation, is with the localisation of software. The Kiswahili Linux Localization Project ( http://www.kilinux.udsm.ac.tz/) is an example of such. This project’s mission is to localise FLOSS software. The project has localised OpenOffice and Firefox. As we will later see localisation efforts is also important in Ethiopia.

Ubuntu is an interesting distribution in the African context. Ubuntu was founded by Mark Shuttleworth, a dotcom millionaire from South Africa. Ubuntu focuses on user friendliness and call it self “Linux for human beings”. To help people with slow Internet connection to get Ubuntu they send CDs on request, free of charge. The Ubuntu distribution describes it self in this way on its website:

’Ubuntu’ is an ancient African word, meaning ’humanity to others’. Ubuntu also means ’I am what I am because of who we all are’. The Ubuntu Linux distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world.

The Ubuntu project is led by a company named Canonical which is registered on the Isle of Man, so Ubuntu is not strictly African though it has African ties. A more strictly African Linux distribution is Impi Linux which is an Ubuntu gold partner in South Africa. Impi Linux is a commercial distribution including third party proprietary software, unlike Ubuntu.

Rajani (2003) gives an overview of FLOSS efforts in Africa, Latin America and Asia. It is about three year old and do not show the latest developments, but it is still a valuable reference. FLOSS in developing countries is a fast changing field, like FLOSS generally is.

5.7.3 Projects for the developing world

Digital divide arguments and solidarity with the poor in developing countries have inspired the development of low cost computer hardware solutions. In this section I am going to describe and discuss three project aimed at giving computer and Internet access to people who are not able to buy a conventional PC. All of this projects uses FLOSS software as part of their solutions.

The Simputer project ( http://www.simputer.org/) has developed a PDA designed to provide affordable computing to poor and illiterate people in developing countries. The Simputer is the first computer designed in India, and was primarily designed with the rural poor and illiterate people of India in mind. Simputer uses a Linux based operating system, and initially had a few applications thought to be relevant in a rural Indian context. A prototype of Simputer was finished in 2001 and since that time two companies, PicoPeta and Encore Software have started to manufacture and sell different version of Simputer. Simputer has not become the success it was hoped to be, initial sales have been low. In response to marked realities the Simputer has been refined to include applications common to regular PDAs. According to a SciDev.net article3 31st of July 2006, one of the initial Simputer designers, Swami Manohar, is reported to have said:

The under-privileged want to have the same technologies the privileged have, not some cheap stuff that do-gooders provide for them.

The story is far from over for Simputer. Simputer was probably the first serious attempt at making an affordable computer. Simputer shows how it is possible to make computers based on FLOSS available to a bigger audience in the developing world. Simputer is based in India, which is a developing country. India is also known as a popular country for outsourcing software development. This shows that a combination of computer knowledge and openly available software and standards can give business opportunities for developing countries. Without FLOSS I cannot see that a project like Simputer would be possible. If all code were closed Simputer would have had to license proprietary software giving less freedom in design and increasing the overall price, or make the operating system and all the applications from scratch which would require a lot of man hours and finances.

The new hot candidate to provide low cost computer access is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project ( http://www.laptop.org/). OLPC is a non-profit association which was formed by MIT Media Labs and funded by a number of sponsor organisations including AMD, Red Hat and Google. OLPC have partnered with Red Hat to provide software. This project aim at providing laptops to children, the chairman of OLPC, Nicolas Negroponte, says that OLPC is about learning and exploration, not giving kids costly tools and toys.

OLPC is based on constructivist theories of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay, as well as the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte’s book ’Being Digital’4.

OLPC and associates are in the process of developing a laptop specially designed for children in the developing world. The design goals of the laptop is to make it robust and durable, able to withstand dust and heath, and able to operate where there is little or no electricity. It is going to be equipped with long range wireless hardware able to do ad-hoc Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networking, or mesh networking as it is also called. In this way information can be sent between the laptops and if one laptop is connected to the Internet, all the laptops in the mesh get connected to the Internet. It is going to have a low cost dual mode display, one color laptop mode and one monochrome mode for reading books. For electricity it is going to use batteries and perhaps some sort of manual electricity generator, like a hand-crank, in addition to regular power. It is planned to run on a Linux based operating system provided by Red Hat. The price of the laptop is planned to eventually get lower than $100.

A prototype was presented on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005. Since that time many different prototypes have been made. The OLPC projects relies on large orders from governments to sell this laptop. At this time OLPC only accept order of over 1 million units, and production will not start before the orders have passed 5 million units. Several countries have shown interest; Nigeria, Brazil, China, India, Egypt, Argentina and Thailand are among them. India has pulled out of the project. The Indian Ministry of Education dismissed the laptop as “pedagogically suspect”5.

This ambitious project has received a lot of press, being praised and criticised. The design of the laptop is innovative, and the price tag is appealing compared to existing alternatives. It is an interesting device which can, among other things, make more books available to children and their family, if books are allowed to be distributed electronically for little or no charge. A major flaw with OLPC is that the design and distribution is done in a top-down manner. The project with its constructivist pedagogy and sole focus on children, can easily be perceived as a way to impose US liberal values on the developing world. There seem to be an overall lack of cultural and contextual sensibility in this project. Lee Felsenstein at the Fonly Institute identifies some thought through problems with the OLPC approach6.

Negroponte is known for his techno-utopianism, apparent in his book “Being Digital”. Negroponte has a techno deterministic view of technology, the laptop is imagined to have a predetermined effect, where for example the children learn about mathematics by making a program that draws a circle. Resistance to the laptop is perceived as backwardness and techno-phobia, children do not have all this “baggage” and are more receptive to technology. This is one of the reasons the project only focuses on children. Experiences obtained from IS research show that the effect of technology is not predetermined, but dependent on the context within which it is applied. Some of the children will perhaps only use the laptop to play games, and as a consequence homework and house duties will not be done.

The sole focus on children without regard to the family, teacher and local community can also become a problem. The laptops can empower children at the expense of the family and the teacher. The teacher should at the very least have a laptop too. There are more pressing needs in many schools in developing countries, and the value of laptops in teaching and learning is uncertain. I guess this and the constructivist pedagogy, are some of the reasons the Indian Ministry of Education calls this project “pedagogically suspect”. Even if the laptop manage to sell in sufficient quantity, it still needs software useful for children in various countries, software that facilitates learning not time-killing. Despite all this reservations it is clear that OLPC has at the very least been successful as a marketing campaign by raising attention to low-cost computing for developing countries.

The last project I am going to review is Ndiyo ( http://www.ndiyo.org/). Ndiyo is the Swahili word for “yes”. Ndiyo is a non-profit organisation based in Cambridge UK. The vision of Ndiyo is to provide low-cost networked computing, making computing affordable to more people. The fundamental idea to provide this is through ultra-thin-client computing and FLOSS. Thin-client networking is a solution with one powerful server, having all or most of the software, and a number of less powerful clients with minimal software. In the ultra-thin-client scheme promoted by Ndiyo the thin client do not have any hard-disk and a minimal set of I/O devices. Nidyo started with a monitor, and asked what was the minimum they could add to make it into a workstation. A company called Newnham Research was created based on this idea, and they invented the nivo (Network In, Video Out). This is a box to which you can connect a network cable, a monitor, a mouse and a keyboard. This device get compressed pixels from the server which is decompresses and sent to the monitor, so all computing is done on the server. Using the nivo boxes and Ubuntu Linux on the server, Ndiyo has come up with a working solution.

The ultra-thin-client solution is similar to the terminals of the mainframe area, but with thin-clients the user can get individualised displays. The PC has now become so powerful that a single one is powerful enough for many users. That is if the users do not play graphics intensive games, do video editing or make complex 3D animations. The ultra-thin-client computing solution is cheaper than the conventional networked PCs, but the greatest advantage in my opinion is the lower maintenance burden. There is nothing in this solution that mandates the use of FLOSS, but the use of FLOSS lower the total price of the thin-client network. This seems like a reasonable solution for Internet cafes, tele-centers, small offices and computer rooms in schools. Newnham Research currently market something they call the USB nivo, which is a device to connect monitors to a PC using an USB 2.0 port. Newnham Research seems to have distanced themselves from Ndiyo, Ndiyo is not mentioned once on their current web site.

All three of this projects are idealistically motivated to provide computing to poor people through low-cost hardware. Even if this projects are idealistically motivated there need not be anything idealistic about providing low-cost hardware. Providing low-cost hardware can be seen as a way to leverage emerging markets, low-cost hardware sold in large quantities can generate a handsome profit. The big hardware vendor Intel and the big software vendor Microsoft, have got their eyes opened to a potential marked in lower cost computing. Intel has started the World Ahead Program and is closely collaborating with Microsoft to provide lower-cost computing. Intel has made a laptop marketed as a learning device, which was formerly codenamed Eduwise. Microsoft has a PC purchasing model called FlexGo on the drawing board. With FlexGo the customer only pay a part of the cost for a new PC up-front, and the rest is paid by prepaid cards or a subscription with monthly payments. Intel has promised to invest $1 billion in India during the next five years. The World Ahead Program is a key part of this investments.

5.7.4 FLOSS participation and use challenges

In this section I will try to identify some of the challenges that are unique to developing countries when it comes to both using FLOSS software and participating in the FLOSS community.

Education is known to be an important factor for developing countries to be able to grow. This becomes even more true as we move into a post industrial era where ideas and manipulations of ideas becomes an increasingly important part of the global economy. FLOSS is at its very core a prime example of how ideas and manipulation of ideas can be used to create value. To be able to benefit from the opportunities that FLOSS provide, a certain level of knowledge is demanded. The ability to use software applications certainly requires some knowledge from the user, and perhaps even more to be able to use certain FLOSS applications. However, to be able to not only use, but to contribute to FLOSS and localise FLOSS applications, a much higher level of knowledge is required.

Considering, as the case is in Ethiopia, that only towns and cities have electricity there is for most people in the developing world a long way to go before computers becomes a commodity. Even if I am a computer scientist who like computers, I have to admit that for many people there are more pressing needs than getting a computer. Since the number of computer users with an Internet connection compared to the total population is lower in developing countries, there is also less people to be attracted into use of FLOSS and participate in FLOSS.

On a practical level I can mention one thing that can limit the adoption of Linux in the developing world; the lack of support for many softmodems. Softmodems are low-cost modems where most the of work is done in software. It is difficult to make drivers for this devices because so much has to be done by the driver. Many softmodem producers are reluctant to release drivers to Linux. In the developed world broadband access to the Internet has become so common that there are little interest among FLOSS developers in making softmodem drivers, there basically is no “itch” to “scratch”. In a weblog called Meskel Square, Andrew Heavens faced this problem when installing Ubuntu Linux on a laptop7. Dial-up access is still the most common and sometimes the only mean, to connect to the Internet in developing countries. Internet access is a necessity to participate in FLOSS, and a great advantage to effectively use FLOSS.

There are also broader social and political issues that can limit the applicability of FLOSS. (Rajani 2003) mentions bureaucracy, corruption, “brain drain”, political freedoms and legal framework. Many of this issues do not directly limit FLOSS, but can have an indirect influence. Rajani mentions bureaucracy as perhaps the most fundamental barrier to wider FLOSS adoption. It is common to think of bureaucracy as constraining, but it can be enabling as well. Bureaucracies can be fundamental in implementing plans for wider adoption of FLOSS.