Why the third world won't save open source

Why the third world won't save open source

Summary: The primary barrier to Linux growth is the cost of moving from a Windows ecosystem to a Linux ecosystem. Developing nations, however, have less existing IT infrastructure.

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TOPICS: Open Source
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The primary barrier to Linux growth is the cost of moving from a Windows ecosystem to a Linux ecosystem. Developing nations, however, have less existing IT infrastructure. Much as African nations are bypassing wired telecommunications and moving straight to wireless, why can't developing nations bypass the Windows standard and grow a Linux ecosystem?

First, don't underestimate the installed IT base present in developing nations. Nations such as Brazil aren't Zaire. Per capita GDP in Brazil is six times that of China, and over half of the Czech Republic. The IT base in most nations isn't exactly a tabula rasa, and any large organization will have already built up credible amounts of IT infrastructure.

Second, consider why English is the de facto language of business. Given the need to communicate in business situations, people naturally gravitate towards one language, and for historical reasons, that language is English. It doesn't matter whether an economy newly integrated into the global marketplace has less of a track record of using English. They will use English in business situations, because that's what the wider business world is using.

The same principle applies in computer technology. Asians outnumber Westerners by a factor of 4 to 1. Still, the West will remain a critical market for the forseeable future, and having systems that integrate seamlessly with, and can consume products created by, Western corporations will continue to be important. That means Asian IT infrastructure is likely to mirror Western IT infrastructure.

Some think that third world nations' enthusiasm for open source, driven in part by a desire to replace IT imports with domestic product (a form of IT industrial policy), will change the equation and pull the Western world into open source nirvana. Unfortunately, such industrial policies don't have a great track record of success.

Dana Blankenhorn wondered aloud in a recent blog post whether Brazil's commitment to open source might "jump-start profitable businesses." He also noted, interestingly enough, the disastrous consequences of Brazil's last industrial scheme:

In the 1980s the country instituted a market reserve policy aimed at limiting PC imports. This proved disastrous. The country missed 15 years of progress.

The goal, of course, was to replace PC imports with domestically created product. Unfortunately, hiding domestic companies from foreign competition merely makes weak domestic companies that can't survive without government preferences. I don't see why replacing the last system of preferences with a new system of preferences will fare any better

The open source community can't look to the developing world as the tugboat that drags the developed world into the Linux port. They will need to figure out a way to convince the developed world to adopt Linux. In my entirely fallible opinion, the only way to do that is to lower the cost of shifting to Linux, and that's going to depend on making it easy for Windows developers to move into open source. If the open source community doesn't want to do that, then Windows developers aren't going to move, and that means the people who use their products will stay put, too.

Topic: Open Source

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • I can't figure out what points you are trying to make

    [i]First, don?t underestimate the installed IT base present in developing nations.[/i]

    Yes, some do have an infrastructure in place. So what? You're assuming it's mostly Windows I presume? Do we have a breakdown on that?

    [i]Second, consider why English is the de facto language of business.[/i]

    Again, so what? Are you assuming that all overseas companies will have some dealings with the west, and therefore must standardize on the most prominent English operating system? What about smaller businesses that deal only with locals, you know, the ones that make up most of the jobs? Wouldn't it make more sense to use the local language in their systems? And if MS does not support that language, wouldn't a localized open source solution be better than having to teach everybody a new language they wouldn't need to learn otherwise?

    [i]Still, the West will remain a critical market for the foreseeable future and having systems that integrate seamlessly with, and can consume products created by, Western corporations will continue to be important. [/i]

    And how would using an open source solution lock them out of the Western market?

    [i]The open source community can?t look to the developing world as the tugboat that drags the developed world into the Linux port. They will need to figure out a way to convince the developed world to adopt Linux.[/i]

    Now that I agree with. The developed world can't rely on the undeveloped world to single-handedly drag them anywhere. But why is that relevant? And why did you even bother to bring that up as a subject matter? I don't see why the undeveloped world HAS to lead the way. Why can't it just play its small but important role?
    Michael Kelly
    • What a wonderful spellcheck I have

      Changing /i to /me. I really need to stop being lazy and get my Firefox Spellbound working again. Either that or I need to stop being lazy and actually proofread myself.
      Michael Kelly
      • Fixed.

        I used my superpowers ("Shape of... an </i> tag!") to tweak your closing tag.

        Stephen Howard-Sarin
        VP, ZDNet.com
        Stephen Howard-Sarin
        • Thanks!

          And not to sound unappreciative, but is ZDNet ever going to give us our preview screen back so we can have those same superpowers? Well not quite the same, but you know what I mean.
          Michael Kelly
    • Re:

      [i]Yes, some do have an infrastructure in place. So what? You're assuming it's mostly Windows I presume? Do we have a breakdown on that?[/i]

      No, I'm not assuming it's mostly Windows. I'm betting, though, that it's composition matches that of the West, which ISN'T mostly Windows on the server side, but is mostly Windows on the client.

      I also don't think that just "some" IT infrastructure exists. I've worked on various projects with companies in "third world" nations, and these are large companies with large investments in IT infrastructure.

      [i]Again, so what? Are you assuming that all overseas companies will have some dealings with the west, and therefore must standardize on the most prominent English operating system?[/i]

      It's not just a matter of dealing with overseas customers. Rather, it's a matter of plugging into a global IT infrastructure. That infrastructure is oriented around preferences in Western nations, but that affects the habits of people in lower-income countries. Witness the fact that [url=http://informationweek.smallbizpipeline.com/news/49400103]four out of five Linux PCs[/url] end up with some copy of Windows (albeit bootleg) installed. That speaks to a demand to plug into the global IT infrastructure, with its supply of Windows software and Windows-oriented products.

      [i]What about smaller businesses that deal only with locals, you know, the ones that make up most of the jobs?[/i]

      My previous statements apply here. Even companies that deal only with locals have an interest in plugging into the global IT ecosystem. There's so much product available for Windows, and even small companies are going to want access to it.

      I'll grant there's LESS of a need, perhaps, but it's not going to be the straw that breaks the back of Microsoft dominance, IMO, which was the point of this blog post.

      [i]And how would using an open source solution lock them out of the Western market?[/i]

      It wouldn't, at least on the server side, but on the client, you are locking yourself out of the ecosystem that caters to the 95% of the world that runs Windows. That matters.

      [i]But why is that relevant? And why did you even bother to bring that up as a subject matter? [/i]

      Because in every discussion about open source and the network effects that favor Windows, someone brings up that the third world will change everything because they are less beholden to existing standards. This is my response to that.
      John Carroll
      • Ecosystems

        Most of that 95% caters not only to the Windows world, but also the English speaking world. The fact of the matter is that most of the free software out there does a better job of allowing for internationalization than does proprietary software. I'm not saying that this is makes free better than proprietary in any way. But what I am saying is that in general the free source folk have chosen to design their software from the ground up to allow third parties to internationalize their software, whereas in general the proprietary folk have chosen not to. So if you're from a third world nation in which there is no MS internationalization and you have little or no infrastructure, wouldn't the path of least resistance be to build upon an open source's project's internationalization module? And if you look at what free source has to offer, it doesn't exactly stink.

        Also you say:
        [i]in every discussion about open source and the network effects that favor Windows, someone brings up that the third world will change everything because they are less beholden to existing standards. This is my response to that.[/i]

        Yes, someone does almost invariably say that, but are the intellegent posters saying that (and I think you know the difference between an intelligent poster and a troll)? The intellegent ones will indeed say that the third world may not follow MS's party line and they are indeed an untapped market the free source world can go after, and that is true enough. But to say that the major nations are relying on the third world to bring free source to the forefront is ridiculous.

        The third world cannot be ignored and they do have a role to play, I will say that, but if the rest of the civilized world can't even make the USA convert to the metric system, how can the third world make them change their predominant desktop OS? If any change is to be made in the USA it will ultimately come from their own discontent.

        And in case you decide to make THIS a subject of another blog because you see posters say it all the time: No, there will never be a "Year of the Linux Desktop". If the Linux desktop is to ever become a force, it will not happen in a year's time, it will be a gradual transformation, so gradual you won't notice it, and it'll probably be one particular distribution (I'd put my money on SuSE) rather than all of them at once. Also I agree with you in that Apple, at least in the short run, has a better chance at making a run of it.
        Michael Kelly
      • Thanks for the pirated Windows overwriting Linux link.

        Confirms my expectation, which makes it valuable.

        I do wonder, though, why the Gartner analyst thinks Linux will grow to match the Mac share by 2008.
        Why shouldn't those using Linux upgrade to Windows when they can. (:-))

        More seriously, given the predicted Linux share of sales, seems unlikely that the Linux installed base could grow that large under any plausible scenario.
        Anton Philidor
        • RE: Thanks for the pirated Windows overwriting Linux link.

          ?[B]Why shouldn't those using Linux upgrade to Windows when they can. (:-))[/B]?

          Why would they want too? I know I have no intention of ever running Windows in my home ever again. I have been on Slackware since 2000 and never needed Microsoft products for anything I do. I am just as productive, no license BS and I own my OS and software. To top it off, I have a fast reliable system that is secure as well without running several products to protect it.

          So why in the hell would any Linux user want to switch to Microsoft? To be honest the only reason would be games. Otherwise they don't have the tools, power or flexibility I seek in my computer and to top it off I am still running my trusty old AMD K6-III 266Mhz with 128MB of PC-66 RAM just as fast and more reliable as my girlfriends P-III 733Mhz with 256MB PC-100 SDRAM Win2K box. So just one more time, why would we want to switch?

          And for the record I also have an AMD-64 rig that I run SuSE 9.3 off of now. Just because I can and I am curious to see how far SuSE has come under the hand of Novell... not to shabby!
          In_the_end_I_Win
          • Windows on the world

            Windows is the world's software.

            It's what people are exposed to first. It's used in the developed countries. Telling people to use something else makes it seem that they don't deserve the real thing, only a cheap imitation.

            It's also the operating system on which many applications can be sold because the installed base is so large. And applications that work with other applications can be expected on Windows for the same reason.

            Did I say there's something wrong with Linux as software? I've hardly considered that issue. Software as a business and software as a social good (in the sense of product) are the issues here that control sales and use.

            Of course people will overwrite Linux with Windows. They know Windows is the best operating system for them. Not necessarily the best operating system (though I suspect its user-friendliness helps them), but the best for them as users.
            Anton Philidor
          • Haven't used SuSE 9.2 or 9.3

            have you. The people I am moving to Linux are happy with the overall experience AND pretty much all have said the same thing:

            "Damn this is easy! Easier than Windows!!!"

            No need to subscribe to AV, no need to constantly update spyware snoopers, or adware snoopers, updates are automatic if desired. No intrusive firewalls. It just works and it's so easy.

            Click the K > Internet > KMail done! OR!! The icon on the desktop that looks like an envelope... click one time and viola! E-Mail client launches.

            What is so hard about Linux for daily users? If the system is set up for them and they are taught to use it, how is it any different that Microsoft? It's not Anton, this is another red herring you like to throw out there.

            Windows is not the best OS for them, they know this. Until recently it was the ONLY OS known to them, exception being Mac / Apple, but many couldn't or wouldn't justify the initial expense. Which I still think is funny considering a comparable Win box is actually more expensive.
            Linux User 147560
          • Good sales job

            You wrote:
            What is so hard about Linux for daily users? If the system is set up for them and they are taught to use it, how is it any different that Microsoft?

            One obvious difference:
            Purchase computer with Windows. Open box, place items, plug in cords, turn on switch.
            You are now computing.
            Yes, there will be things to do that kept me from saying "Have fun computing." and we both know what they are.

            But no help with setup and no help with learning? That's a lot different from having the help of an expert like you.
            I'd argue, no comparison.

            But more, the choice of an operating system is about more than software. Think branding. Microsoft is the second biggest brand in the world after Coca Cola. People are loyal to their brands, and computing is Microsoft.

            This is the sort of issue I was considering, as I wrote in my prior post:

            Did I say there's something wrong with Linux as software? I've hardly considered that issue. Software as a business and software as a social good (in the sense of product) are the issues here that control sales and use.
            Anton Philidor
          • RE: Good sales job

            ?[B]You wrote:
            What is so hard about Linux for daily users? If the system is set up for them and they are taught to use it, how is it any different that Microsoft?

            One obvious difference:
            Purchase computer with Windows. Open box, place items, plug in cords, turn on switch.
            You are now computing.
            Yes, there will be things to do that kept me from saying "Have fun computing." and we both know what they are.[/B]

            Wrong Anton, I just helped a lady with her brand new e-machine her son bought her. He is in Philly. Anyhow, I pulled her machine out and plugged in all the components then whipped out a cd with all the current updates and patches on it. But before I could use that I had to wait while the system finished setting itself up. Anyhow on this CD, I also have several utilities for this 58 year old woman to learn to use (you know which ones?) spyware, adware, fire wall. So not only am I teaching her how to use her PC, I am also teaching her about software that she shouldn't have to worry about! Then I had to go through her box and make sure all services were off. Which they weren't, most but not all. Keep in mind this is a pre-built Windows XP Home PC.

            She will be getting Linux this weekend. After a week of running her PC, she has decided that it's to much work to use the darn thing. She asked me if there was anyway to make it easier. I told her that so long as you are connected to the internet with Windows you will need to run all those programs I installed for you as well as keep them up to date. This includes maintaining another bill (you know the annual fee to use much of the protection out there). She asked me what I use, I told her then showed her. I explained to her the benefits and downfalls of Linux.

            Did I tell you she gets Linux this weekend?

            ?[B]But no help with setup and no help with learning? That's a lot different from having the help of an expert like you.
            I'd argue, no comparison.[/B]?

            And I would argue you are wrong, just based on what I listed above, the average Joe doesn't realize what is needed to ensure their system is ready for the internet! This lady had no concept of what was needed, then the set-up process scared the crap out of her on top of that. You are arguing a losing case Anton. Take a Linux box home, plug it in, set up internet (done with wizards like Windows!) use it. Take Windows home and spend 2-5 hours securing the box.

            ?[B]But more, the choice of an operating system is about more than software. Think branding. Microsoft is the second biggest brand in the world after Coca Cola. People are loyal to their brands, and computing is Microsoft.[/B]?

            Actually when it comes to PC's, most people don't give a rats @ss what OS is on it. Does it work? Can I type my letter to Aunt Mae? Can I surf the web? Can I manage my bank. That is all they want. A toaster in essence. Plug it and it just works with no extra effort. Occasionally clean it out. That's about it.

            ?[B]This is the sort of issue I was considering, as I wrote in my prior post:

            Did I say there's something wrong with Linux as software? I've hardly considered that issue. Software as a business and software as a social good (in the sense of product) are the issues here that control sales and use.[/B]?

            No you are not directly saying there is something wrong with Linux, but your tone implies that Windows is the only solution out there. It's not, there is competition now and it's in the form of Unix in the form of Mac OSX and Linux.
            Linux User 147560
          • I installed a Windows machine myself yesterday...

            ... for a 71 year old.

            I set up the Windows firewall and installed Avast! and the anti-spyware beta. All are free and update automatically, without user intervention, including Windows itself. I also killed a lot of junk that started with her computer preprogrammed and the account in Outlook Express. Took less than an hour.

            She hasn't had to do a thing but use and enjoy the pc. I've been waiting for calls, but nothing so far. I'm expecting her to install Real or some other software that tries to take over and has to be killed through the startup program, but so far nothing.

            In the consumer market, do it all is right.
            Anton Philidor
  • Needs saving?

    I did not know open source needs saving. Open source can not be 'destroyed' in the sense of the word like companies can be. There are companies that make money out of OS but that is not the reason for OS existence, and hence it simply exists even without any monetary agenda. Secondly, OS does not exist to defeat Microsoft or any other proprietary software maker - it does not compete with anything.
    tero_t_vaananen9
    • Titles

      [i]I did not know open source needs saving. Open source can not be 'destroyed' in the sense of the word like companies can be.[/i]

      I don't make titles, because they tend to be very precise, but boring. This article is more about why the third world isn't going to be as dramatically different from the western world in terms of IT choices as open source proponents often claim it is.

      [i]Secondly, OS does not exist to defeat Microsoft or any other proprietary software maker - it does not compete with anything.[/i]

      Well, that sounds nice on paper, but practically I'm not so sure. Certainly dislike of Microsoft is a strong motivator to contribute.
      John Carroll
      • I don't dislike MS persay

        I dislike their OS. Their office suite is nice, but I can't say think the features you get at the high end is worth its price tag (especially for SMB's, some need Access, most don't need the other stuff that comes with Premium). I dislike their licensing scheme. I do like their input devices though, I find them to be ergonomic for both the righties and the southpaws and they certainly do adhere to industry standards. I've heard good things about XBox, but not being a gamer I can't say I have an opinion.

        I try not to make things personal. If Longhorn does turn out to be as wonderful as you think it will be, I'll be just as happy as you will be. I'm just not as optimistic as you are. Yes, people will switch, but that does not convince me that it will be good.
        Michael Kelly
      • Contribute to a Unix replacement?

        The post to which you responded was from someone who doesn't understand commercial realities.

        Linux is as widesprread as it is because of the backing of IBM et al. If that backing were removed, Linux would cease to be used by substantial numbers of people.
        And in return for the backing IBM et al, including the staff time provided, Linux's direction is consistent with the goals of the companies involved.

        In your post, you said that "dislike of Microsoft is a strong motivator to contribute." It is a strong reason to support any alternative, including open source, but Linux is directed far more againt Unixes on servers, its main success.

        I think you're confusing a motivator for the troops with the direction of software development.
        Anton Philidor
        • RE: Contribute to a Unix replacement?

          ?[B]The post to which you responded was from someone who doesn't understand commercial realities.[/B]?

          ?[B]Linux is as widesprread as it is because of the backing of IBM et al. If that backing were removed, Linux would cease to be used by substantial numbers of people.
          And in return for the backing IBM et al, including the staff time provided, Linux's direction is consistent with the goals of the companies involved.[/B]?

          I will agree that IBM has been a huge contributor to Linux but I don't buy that if Linux didn't have the backing of IBM it wouldn't be as widely used. In the US that may be a true statement, but I take your comment as a blanket statement for the world wide computing masses. Linux is taking off in Asia and Europe without IBM's assistance, South America is another place. The only place that Linux is really benefiting from IBM's backing is here in the good ol; US of A. and that is in he form of marketing.

          ?[B]In your post, you said that "dislike of Microsoft is a strong motivator to contribute." It is a strong reason to support any alternative, including open source, but Linux is directed far more againt Unixes on servers, its main success[/B]?

          No it's not directed against any particular system. Where are your numbers and where is your proof positive that Unix is the only target for Linux? There are thousands of open source projects for Windows as well. Are they targeting Windows only? I think not. They are providing solutions where applicable. And if it means replacing an expensive license with a more reasonable one, you lose. And this means Microsoft as well as Unix.

          Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD are not Unix killers. They are viable options to replace Windows, Unix, Solaris or whomever else. You are trumpeting a red herring my friend.

          ?[B]I think you're confusing a motivator for the troops with the direction of software development.[/B]?

          It's all about money with you isn't it? You know some of us make a good living coding and we also enjoy it so much that we sometimes will code for free. Why? Because it's a passion. Someone needs a solution to a problem and they can't do it themselves and it's not that big a deal for me or some other open source person to write it for them. In some cases it is about sticking it to the fat cats in corporate Amerika. But the bottom line is that not all people code to get rich. There is a level of passion that goes with it and I have that passion. I make damn good money coding for my company but I also take time and code open source. Help out people that can't do it or afford to hire someone to do it for them.
          In_the_end_I_Win
          • Using Windows

            To adopt Linux, businesses needed to be reassured that it was real software, lasting and supported. That was IBM's essential promise.

            As for the rest of the world, we discussed above that Linux is "taking off" and flying to where it can be set down and replaced with a pirated copy of Windows. Governments may force it on their populations, but it will take coercion or economic necessity.
            Exaggerating for fun, I like to say the Linux motto is:
            Linux: it's better than jail.


            On another topic, Linux's target is Unix on servers. There it has been taking over from Unix. You can see that in the sales numbers. At the same time, Microsoft server software has been selling amazingly well. Though Windows has probably been gaining at the expense of Unix, too, the gains are probably not as extensive as they would have been without Linux.

            In that clear sense, Linux is a Unix killer like no other.


            Finally, you wrote:

            I make damn good money coding for my company...

            And that's my single interest in money. if everyone were making "damn good money" and were secure in their jobs, I wouldn't care about the issue.

            Linux, we know, is replacement software that companies use to save money. Any person displaced by Linux suffers disruption and possibly hardship caused by Linux.
            That's why I do care.
            Anton Philidor
          • Anton

            did you miss the part where I also wrote I code for Linux / Open Source? It's not displacing my job and for that matter it's helping to build my resume.

            So what, Unix loses some sales. The Unix skills are still needed. There is still a job demand. This argument is the same the Carriage makers made with the advent of the car, the car makers made with the advent of the robot... see? Times change as do jobs, we will adapt and new types of employment will be developed.

            I think you are afraid of change. Those that cannot be flexible are doomed to extinction. Back in 98 I saw the power of Open Source and Linux. In 2000 I made the final leap from Windows and that has opened so many doors for me.

            I have skills that cover 3 of 5 major platforms out there. That makes me more valuable than someone with only one platform. And if you believe that Microsoft will continue to be on top, you are deluding yourself.

            Open Source and Linux are on the move, Mac OSX is on the move. People are taking notice of the cute little penguin and what it can do. They are also noticing how stagnant Microsoft has become and just how much of a burden it is to keep it running effecetively and efficiently.
            In_the_end_I_Win