Computing's "Comparison Study of Free/Open Source and Proprietary Software in an African Context: Implementation and Policy-Making to Optimise Public-Access to ICT" was published last week to provide needed background information and advice to people who want to make sound software choices that are right for their local environments. The report represents the first comprehensive analysis of software choices in the African public-access context. The study looked at 121 computer labs in Namibia, South Africa and Uganda, examining the range of factors that affect software choices; the realities of the current situation in Africa; and the long-term implications of software choices for Africa.

Both FOSS and proprietary software can be used effectively in public computer labs in Africa, but different challenges must be addressed depending on the type of software used.

In Africa, FOSS has been used with success in large, carefully- designed, well-implemented projects. However, its use in small, independent, remote computer labs -- where technical skill are often low -- has proven more difficult. By comparison, familiarity and experience with proprietary software are more widespread and lab managers are more likely to find help from a friend or colleague if they use the most common applications.

Furthermore, the fact that FOSS is available free of license costs has little financial benefits for African labs, which almost never pay for the software they use because of donations and unlicensed copies. However, software choices can help reduce the cost of hardware -- which constitutes the most significant expense in public computer labs. Specifically, the popular thin-client systems found in many FOSS labs can offer very good value for money, because they run on cheaper (usually older, and less powerful) hardware. When well- configured and installed on reliable hardware, these software systems also require little ongoing maintenance.

Overall, a few key obstacles characterise the software choice for public computer labs in Africa: labs lack awareness of the implications of software choices; staff do not have the necessary skills or time to investigate software options; labs cannot afford to buy proprietary applications or download FOSS applications from the Internet; and often local procurement channels are not available to provide information and deliver software.

But perhaps more importantly, many ICT projects struggle with fundamental difficulties that go beyond the choice of software. For example, with only rare exceptions, the current models for public computer labs in Africa are not self-sustainable, regardless of whether they are using free/open source or proprietary software. And subsidies are harder to come by as projects fail to deliver concrete social impacts.

It is difficult to resist the appeal of concepts like information sharing, collaboration, and freedom of knowledge -- which form the foundation of the free/open software movement that is taking hold across the globe. But in Africa, ICT is a means to an end that is most valuable when it supports social and economic goals, facilitating healthcare delivery, making small businesses more competitive, or improving education and government service delivery. So the African discussion of software choices necessarily moves beyond philosophical underpinnings to pragmatic concerns.

After all, what is the value of computers in communities that lack clean water and struggle to provide basic education to their children, unless these computers can be integrated into strategies that will ultimately improve living conditions? Sustainability plans linked with the effective delivery of social services could make public computer labs worth subsidising over the long term.

Free/open source software is now enjoying widespread interest among government officials in Africa, and a few international companies are contributing to its development and pushing for its adoption across the continent. These efforts mostly focus on resolving the key issues affecting the corporate and government sectors: migration strategies, compatibility with existing software, and availability of training and technical support. Some proprietary software companies are also working to solve important problems in public computer labs, especially enabling their software to run on less powerful and cheaper hardware, and reducing or waiving license fees.

But meanwhile, specific software applications (whether FOSS or proprietary) that could make computers more useful to local communities -- such as putting ICT to work to improve healthcare and education, and designed with cultural factors in mind -- are still missing.

If proprietary software vendors pay closer attention to the practical problems facing public computer labs, and build on the commitment to deliver on social and development goals, their value proposition for Africa remains high. However, the momentum in Africa is currently in favour of FOSS, whose supporters are riding on a growing wave of enthusiasm based on successes in other developing countries. FOSS supporters in Africa have an opportunity to capitalise on this enthusiasm, but need to overcome serious hurdles to translate the hype surrounding FOSS into tangible benefits. Above all they need to support communities of software developers who have the means and interest to develop and maintain locally relevant applications.

The study was conducted by in collaboration with the International Development Research Council, the Open Society Institute, and SchoolNet Africa.