While the US tries to sandbag a UN conference on information technology, international open-source groups are making connections.
Do a search these days on the word “farm” on your favourite database of open-source software applications. You'll find that the result of your quest turns up, at best, a handful of projects related to server farms. This is fine for those of you who like to cultivate a roomful of servers. But what about conventional farms—the ones that are used to raise animals and grow crops? Without these kinds of real-world applications, open source is having a hard time realizing its potential within the developing world.
One would imagine that some of the greatest benefits from using open source would be realized in the world's poorest economies. The low cost, the ethos of sharing and community and building upon the work of others, make open-source methodologies perfectly suited to environments where the practice of self-help is not an option.
Unfortunately, a number of factors having nothing to do with logic are starting to cause new impediments to open-source growth in areas where it should be most embraced. Having failed to blunt the advance of open source through attacks on its quality, innovation, performance or support, opponents have resorted to the only weapon they have left (in abundance)—cash. Proprietary software vendors have been opening their chequebooks to developing countries and development agencies, in an attempt to blunt the adoption of open source that would occur in a truly neutral environment.
In February 2004, FOSSFA, the main African open-source group, issued a clarion call warning to governments of the long-term limitations of choice that could be associated with some of these donations. Even the $1 billion in gifts promised by Microsoft alone certainly would come back to the company many-fold if it could maintain long-term dependence on its wares.
Meanwhile at the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) conference in December 2003, original language that supported the use of open-source software systematically was taken out of ongoing drafts, until the final version merely recognized the existence of different software models. Although the negotiations that led to this conclusion were done behind closed doors, most sources suggested that the main arm-twisters against support of open source were the US delegation and the International Chamber of Commerce.
So how does the open-source world fight this blatant use of handouts and secret deals to maintain dependence? In this writer's opinion, the answer lies amongst the pigs and cows and vegetables mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Without the bankroll of open source's opponents, the community is fighting back using a tactic that no money can buy, with benefits right down on the farm.
The energy and enthusiasm of the community can—and must—go beyond commodity software, such as operating systems and utilities, and into job-specific applications that will take open source from the university lab to the village. Providing open-source systems and graphics software is of no value to someone who can't use the technology to sell more grain or fabric, or operate a school or hospital. Offering this kind of software allows for a turnkey open-source solution that can replace an entire proprietary system, not merely small pieces of it.
Think of a foundation with a structure similar to that of the Open Source Development Labs but creating software for dairy farms (as an example) instead of the kernel. Programmers get paid, costs of development are far below the cost of importing proprietary solutions, and the local community maintains a stake in both process and outcome. The idea of such a model was well received at the Idlelo conference earlier this year in Capetown, and some African governments already have expressed interest in supporting such foundations.
At the WSIS conference as well, community triumphed over money. While the politicians and policy makers were watering down the language of official documents, open-source advocates still were finding receptive ears amongst the delegates. The Linux Professional Institute (LPI) booth at the adjoining ICT-4D tradeshow was one of the busiest amongst hundreds of participants, drawing visitors from hours before the show started to hours after it ended each day. The LPI booth had 22 staff, coming from every continent, and included three people from the Geneva Linux user groups. This was a perfect way to demonstrate the strength of a movement that was global but has roots everywhere. The message taken away—as well as the 5,000 Debian and SuSE CDs given out—offered a bright counterpoint to the dreary and generally pointless policy work coming from the conference.
It is here—in our community's strength of local grassroots, common ownership and self-reliance—that open-source technology makes the leap from being simply an alternative to a compelling and undeniable option. And, that particular strength can't be bought or sold, at any price.