In a recent article for Linux Journal, Ethan Zuckerman of Geek Corps points out some uncomfortable truths for those promoting open source as the answer to developing countries’ software problems.

Open source software is customizable, expandable and available at low or no cost. Closed source software is difficult to customize or expand and often exorbitantly expensive. As a result, businesses and governments worldwide are beginning to make extensive use of open source technologies, in some cases going as far as introducing legislation to mandate their use.

You’d expect developing nations to be leading this charge for free, high-quality software. You’d be wrong.

In Geekcorps’ experience supporting over a hundred IT projects in developing nations, open source is a surprisingly difficult sell. Open source advocates have a challenge ahead as we attempt to demonstrate the unique values of open source software to users in less-developed nations.

The chief mistake the open source movement has made in marketing to the developing world is an overemphasis on "free beer". The expression comes from Richard Stallman’s demand that software be "free as in ‘free speech’, not free as in ‘free beer’". Emphasizing the low cost of open-source software often backfires. The history of "technology transfer" and "appropriate technology" projects includes efforts that dumped obsolete technology on developing nations when it was no longer marketable in developed nations. As a result ,"inexpensive" and "inferior" are often falsely equated, and users insist that they want the same software used in US and European offices, which more often than not is closed-source Microsoft software.

In fact, "free" software frequently costs users in developing nations more than shrinkwrap software. Widespread copyright infringement means that copyrighted software is often available for the price of the media it’s delivered on. In Yerevan, Armenia recently I found Windows XP and RedHat 8 shelved side by side, both selling for less than US$5 USD. For users familiar with Windows, Linux has an incremental cost - the cost of the manuals necessary to use the software. And, at copyright infringement prices, manuals can cost twenty times as much as software.

While online documentation can address some of these problems, it can be expensive and intimidating to access this information. Downloading the 3MB emacs manual gets expensive when you’re paying by the minute for connectivity at a cybercafe where 20 machines share a single 28.8kbps modem. Asking questions of experts in another country, often in an unfamiliar language, gets even more intimidating when new users encounter netiquette for the first time. A well-meaning response of "RTFM" is likely to be misinterpreted by someone from a culture with a high value on politeness or formality. (And almost every culture in the world is more polite than global geek culture)

While open advocates need to consider the linguistic, cultural and bandwidth barriers that affect adoption in developing nations, our chief focus must be on demonstrating that open software can be more advanced and powerful than closed alternatives. This will require a focus on the "free speech" benefits of open expandability, transparency and resulting high performance. A great example of "free speech" application development is the translate.org.za project, dedicated to providing operating systems and critical applications in all eleven of South Africa’s official languages. Thanks to their work - and the availability of code for Mozilla - a browser now exists in Zulu, Xhosa and four other languages.



Political developments may also advance the adoption of open source globally. An increasing number of politicians, like Peru’s Edgar Villanueva Nuñez, are pushing legislation to mandate the use of open source in government. Advocates in the developed world can push in a different direction: demand that money spent by your nation’s foreign aid agency on development of new IT products in developing nations go towards the creation of open code. The result would likely be a boom of open source developers in poor nations working on these new projects and a wealth of code that could be repurposed and used in other developing nations. Not to mention a few more Xhosa-speaking geeks.