Commentary: open source software bridging the technology gap – Storage Networking – Column
Give people food and they’ll eat for a few days. Teach them how to farm and they can eat for a lifetime.
Remember that old adage? It doesn’t just apply to food. In technology, as well, a dramatic shift is taking place in the way the developing world is achieving self-sufficiency rather than dependency. And at the forefront of this shift is the rapidly maturing world of open source software.
Open source–whose better-known implementations include the Linux operating system, the Apache webserver and the OpenOffice desktop suite–ships with complete source code and is freely copyable and redistributable. As much a philosophy as a method of licensing software, open source technology offers an inexpensive source of software. It provides the building blocks for any country to provide the necessary infrastructure for a homegrown IT industry, far less reliant on foreign sources of technology than is currently the case.
Indeed, the benefits offered by open source in this regard go beyond the software itself, and can affect the hardware and service sectors in any country that uses it widely. While this may not be good news for companies that simply export technology without local presence in their target markets, it offers opportunities for those willing to partner with local technology groups to help them provide local infrastructure.
Before and without open source, the gap in national technology capabilities and infrastructure between the developed and less-developed countries–the technology gap–has been widening. Proprietary software companies, some of which have been judged to be illegal monopolies, have been able to dictate proprietary file formats and network protocols. Such imposed standards, controlled by single vendors and deliberately hidden from competitors, stifle real competition and thus innovation. As a result, poorer countries, ironically, must import most of their information technology resources from richer countries, increasing dependence while inhibiting local alternatives.
The emergence of open source software to such proprietary and monopolistic approaches, on the other hand, allows that gap to be closed not just in software but also in hardware and, most important, services.
The use of Linux and open source software helps deal with a number of hardware-related facets of the technology gap. Poorer countries don’t always have the ability to afford the latest and greatest; the three-to-four year cycle of replacing computers, in most parts of the world, is a dream. Because of severely tight budgets, older computers that would have long ago been tossed out in the developed world must continue to be pressed into service.
Because of this, not only are developing countries far more dependent on older PCs, such as Pentium I and PII systems, but even the larger minicomputers often need to be supported long after their officially supported life is over.
Linux, because of its creation by computer users rather than computer vendors, doesn’t exist to help sell new hardware. In fact, the very newest version of Linux runs well on a decade-old 486 system that wouldn’t stand a chance of running even Windows NT, let alone the much bigger footprint of XP. While such a 486 system couldn’t be expected to efficiently run complex graphic applications, it would be quite suitable as a light-duty firewall or network server.
It’s not unusual in the developed world to want a new software application, then find that the application requires a recent version of your operating system, and that new operating system requires brand new hardware. What started with the intent of buying a software package for a few hundred dollars turns into a complete overhaul of the OS and computer hardware. This is a luxury most in the developing world simply cannot tolerate to the same extent.
While the open source world is not without its memory-hungry applications, in many cases small-footprint alternatives are available for users who want to get the most out of older, slower hardware. Not every system is going to run the KDE desktop quickly; however, alternative desktops such as XFCE offer good functionality and work fine in slower (or older) systems.
Open source operating systems (not just Linux, but others such as NetBSD) are designed to run on big computers (like IBM mainframes), small computers (such as embedded systems and Sharp’s Zaurus PDA), and everything in between. This allows an organization to run the most current OS and platforms on hardware systems that were long ago given up by the affluent. Most simply put, Linux allows users to do more with less, an absolute requirement in countries that can’t always afford the biggest and fastest.
Keeping current with the newest proprietary applications, throughout the developing world, means spending a lot of money and sending it out of the country–either that or turning a blind eye to illegal copies. In many developing countries, software piracy is more a matter of survival than an intent to break the law. Closed file formats and protocols encourage and practically force vendor lock-in, preventing development of alternatives. Such lock-in forces software users to follow the vendor’s rules regarding upgrades and support, or invasions of privacy such as software activation. And, just as with the original software purchase, continuing upgrades require sending money out of the country.
In addition, the closed nature of conventional software can allow for “hidden,” undocumented interfaces that could be used by a software vendor to its own advantage–to the detriment of other would-be support organizations.
On the other hand, the very nature of open source software eliminates software piracy and measures necessary to enforce licensing (such as activation, snitch lines and forced audits). All interfaces, file formats and protocols are open by design, encouraging interoperability and improvement. In the world of open source, software succeeds or fails based on its quality and innovation, not whether it can read some other software’s closed file formats. Compatibility and interoperability become integral components of open source software, not features.
Once purchased, support for conventional software requires going to the original vendor (or the vendor’s official agents). Unavailability of source code means that actual changes to eliminate locally identified problems must come from the vendor’s labs, few of which are located within the developing world. In addition, requests for locally desired features must be balanced against the needs of other countries that may have larger markets and, thus, higher priority.
Because of the restricted access to proprietary software interfaces and formats, creating local support infrastructures in the developing world is almost impossible. Total dependency on foreign sources inhibits development of local enhancements, limiting true innovation.
Again, open source eliminates all these restrictions. The free availability of source code encourages exploration, innovation and support infrastructures that are most useful to local communities. Enhancements can come locally as well as internationally and, in the meritocracy that underlies most software projects, contributions are judged on quality.
Free access to open source means that all developers and support providers worldwide have access to the same quality platforms, languages and applications. Software developers are judged on the utility and innovation of their work, not on who has access to the best and newest tools or the fastest hardware.
Going open source eliminates the licensing and cost problems attached to proprietary software, allowing companies to use current releases of platforms and applications while staying completely legal. Local support infrastructures are not only possible but encouraged, eliminating the need to import software and services, and offering the potential for any country to actually create a viable export industry.
Indeed, the emergence of open source has started to bring about a recovery in global software and support companies coming from outside the usual sources within North America, Europe and Japan. Good examples include Conectiva in Brazil and ELX in India, as well as the phenomenally successful Red Flag project in China. The ability of open source to enable any country to expand its own development, support and infrastructure companies is not just a theory, it’s already taking place.
The goal of those who want to close the technology gap is to enable IT developers anywhere to be able to succeed based purely on their innovation and their sensitivity to the needs of their customers. The goal is also to build homegrown infrastructures for both support and development. And above all, such goals require truly open and widely adopted and respected standards, which will allow innovative approaches while maintaining compatibility and interoperability with existing systems.
In countries where the salary for an IT worker can be $25 or less, open source techniques truly do level the paying field, offering the opportunity to turn economic drain into an economic gain. The full effects of this shift have yet to be realized–just keep watching.
Evan Leibovitch is president of the Linux Professional Institute (Ontario, Canada)
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