The International Telecommunications Union's World Summit on the Information Society (or WSIS for short, because we need more acronyms in the world) was last week. The conference was intended as a forum to discuss the information technology revolution, and more specifically, the growing "digital divide" between rich and poor nations.
In practice, this resulted in a rather diverse set of talking points, as interest groups strove to link their pet issue to the central theme with varying degrees of success (among them a group that went by the name of The Geneva03 Collective, who was most notable for filling my inbox with "out of office" replies from every person registered as a member of the press).
Of particular interest, however, was a moderated debate on the issue of preferential treatment for open-source products in government procurement, a topic I have discussed in the past. Four of the panellists were pro-preference, and represented Malaysia, Cuba, Peru and Kenya. The lone voice opposing such preferences was Bob Kramer, vice president for public policy from the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a group upon which Bruce Perens has trained his ever-present "Microsoft is the source of everything bad that happens" machine gun.
The "pro" camp made good points, and you certainly couldn't fault them for failing to be close to the IT situation in their respective countries. There were a few misconceptions, however, regarding the role proprietary software plays in software development. In short, proprietary software is little more than a means of "monetising" software so as to make it a source of growth and an attractor of investment, and that "monetisation" is essential to the health and future growth of a software industry in developing nations.
Highlights of the pro-preference argument
Developing nations have less money to spend on software than developed nations. This makes initial cost a far more important discriminator than might be the case in rich nations. The "choice" can come down to use of free, open-source software or no software at all, as proprietary software, most of which comes from rich countries and is MUCH more expensive due to exchange rate differentials, can cost too much from a licensing standpoint ("Total Cost of Ownership" only matters if you can afford to start using IT solutions in the first place). The Malaysian representative spoke of low-cost PCs running Linux that were shipped out to villages, enabling them to use in some way information technology without being hit by expensive licensing fees associated with proprietary products.