My friend Andrew Heavens has been engaged in a great adventure – installing Ubuntu on one of his laptops in Addis Ababa. He’s found it harder than he expected – in an earlier post, he observed that he was only able to do the install because he has the luxury of two machines to play with – one running Windows, which he uses to access the internet and get help, and the other to run Ubuntu – most Ethiopian internet computer users don’t have this setup.
(Predictably, Andrew got caught up with the whole Winmodem thing – most Windows computers emulate a modem in software, rather than actually having a hardware modem… which Linux strongly prefers. Poor guy – I remember trying to debug this years ago under Debian and finally going out and buying a real moden – one that modulates and demodulates on a chip, not using the CPU. Probably not such a realistic option in the fine technical emporiums of Ethiopia…)
His most recent post centers on a subject I’ve always found interesting – does it make fiscal sense for people in the developing world to move to open source? Andrew observes that many pirated, cracked software packages are for sale in Addis at very attractive prices – Adobe’s Creative Suite for 80 birr (about $9) rather than the $1100 it would cost on Amazon. But it’s not just the cost that matters:
So the Ethiopian computer user can choose between paying nothing for an open source graphics package like The Gimp, or saving up 80 Birr to buy Photoshop CS2.
For 80 birr s/he gets to learn how to use the most popular graphics package on earth – a skill that could land him/her a job with one of the high-paying NGOs or UN organisations scattered across Addis. (Most of these international organisations have IT departments that limit their branch offices to a list of authorised software, almost all of it from Microsoft). Or for nothing, s/he gets to use a package that is very cool and opensource, but totally obscure.
I know which way I would go.
The obstacles to adoption of open source software in the developing world are myriad. Yes, there are countries like Brazil and China that are making governmental investments in open source. And there are organizations like the Shuttleworth Foundation – main sponsors of Ubuntu – who work hard to make open source software available and useful.
But there are lots of other countries where the reason to get a computer is so that you can develop marketable skills so you can get a good job with an NGO or a branch of government… which means you need to learn the software your potential employer uses… which ain’t Gimp.
This is just one of several difficulties open source has in gaining traction in less developed nations. Another is the lack of information and documentation. If Photoshop is $9 and Gimp is free, but you know how to use Photoshop and don’t know how to use Gimp… and manuals are impossible to get and hugely expensive if you do get them, Photoshop just might be a better deal.
I wrote an essay about this years back for Linux Journal: “Free beer doesn’t sell” Since I was writing it for Linux enthusiasts, it was a bit less critical and more solution-oriented than I tended to be in my practice with Geekcorps. When we worked on projects in developing nations, we tried very hard to push Unix when people were working on server-side applications… which meant pushing Linux or FreeBSD, because none of our clients were lining up to buy Sun workstations. But we almost never pushed Linux on the desktop – generally speaking, it would have been a disservice for our clients, who had an easier time supporting their pirated copies of Windows, an easier time hiring employees who knew the software, and very few worries that the BSA would shut them down any time soon.
Linux has made some real strides in the last few years. Ubuntu is a pretty, pretty thing and may be my next operating system if Apple can’t build a MacBook Pro that doesn’t catch fire. But Andrew’s experiences reveal that it still has a long way to go before it’s an OS for everyone in Africa.