Government has a choice to make on software spending, and it should be free to do so

Standing up to Redmond: government has a choice to make on software spending, and it should be free to do so

Jack Epstein

In raising the banner of software libre–free software–Brazil may have sparked a rebellion against a corporate titan that could have repercussions for the rest of Latin America.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration has been encouraging government offices to join the so-called open-source movement that seeks an inexpensive alternative to Microsoft’s Windows operating system. It hopes to switch 80% of its offices within three years to Linux, the operating system for free software and No. 2 in the world behind Microsoft.

It’s the right move to make.

Windows code is a closely guarded secret and requires licensing fees and expensive updates. Open-source code, however, is made on programmers writing software and giving it away on the Internet so that everyone can use it and improve on it.

“Latin America is very fertile ground for Linux,” says Miguel de Icaza, a Mexican programmer who has been developing free software since 1994 and is chief technological officer at Ximian in Boston. “Linux is maturing and we are increasing the scope of our work.”

In 2000, Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco passed the world’s first law requiring open source software in state offices. The southern state of Rio Grande do Sul followed with legislation making open source mandatory in both government agencies and privately managed utilities. IBM has recently opened centers in Silo Paulo to develop Linux technology for the private sector.

To be sure, there is money to be made in open-source software. Linux packages are not free and there are costs to install and customize such software. To meet the challenge, Microsoft is starting to sell its services in addition to its traditional, and hefty, licensing lees.

But while the battle between the king of the hill and the upstart plays out in the market, switching to open-source soft ware would be a huge savings for poor nations that can hardly afford basic services for many of its citizens. As Linux matures, the system is attracting regional customers not only in Brazil but also in Mexico, Argentina and Peru. In Argentina, two bills have been submitted since 2001 requiring the federal government to use free software and some state offices are already using it on their own. Politicians in Mexico are pushing for a similar law.

Although free software can generate income for local programmers needed to constantly update and customize it, its critics say that very process would create many incompatible versions. But proprietary software also has its share of different standards and compatibility issues. And, most importantly, I don’t believe Microsoft will help bridge the digital divide as fast as software libre by making computers more affordable for the poor.

It is estimated that 70% of the richest Latin Americans will have Internet access in 2004, versus a 10% estimate in the region as a whole, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. As hardware costs shrink because of competition, software prices are an increasingly large slice of the cost of buying and maintaining a home computer. Microsoft heavily discounts some software, but it certainly charges full price for most of it, and that cost is always passed on to ordinary people, be they taxpayers or consumers, rich or poor.

Sergio Amadeu, chief technology officer for the Brazilian government, is well aware that only 10% of Brazil’s 175 million people have computers at home and that the Brazilian government accounted for about 6% of Microsoft’s Brazilian revenues of US$318 million last year He says continuing to pay Microsoft is “unsustainable economically.”

Not surprisingly, Microsoft is worried about a domino effect if Latin America switches en masse to Linux, which Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer once called “a cancer.” When challenged by software libre, the Redmond, Washington corporation typically donates millions in software to public schools and nonprofits and goes on costly marketing campaigns.

In 2002, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates personally traveled to Peru to donate $550,000 to schools that the Congress was about to require to use free software. Congressman Edgar David Villanueva, a sponsor of the bill, at the time pointed out that Peru owed some $30 million in overdue software license tees. The bill has yet to pass.

To be sure, Microsoft freebies will be tough to turn down. Early this year, Microsoft announced a five-year $1 billion commitment to provide cash and software to nonprofits in 45 countries working in tandem with the United Nations Development Program. I applaud Gates for that.

But, in the long run, open source is the way to go for Latin America. Viva software libre.


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