I had the opportunity to speak Monday afternoon with the CEO of Mandriva, François Bancilhon. Recently, a deal with the Nigerian government to use and install Mandriva Linux on 17,000 Intel Classmate PCs was derailed when the government decided to overwrite the installed operating system with Windows XP. Mr. Bancilhon wrote about this issue in a highly publicized "Open Letter to Steve Ballmer." I wanted to follow up with him and get his take both on this deal and on larger issues related to the adoption of open source software in emerging markets.
Since our conversation was fairly informal (and over the phone), I'll summarize the key points, as well as his answers to my questions.
I asked Mr. Bancilhon to comment as directly as he could about happened behind the scenes to cause such an about-face from the Nigerian government. While, as he noted, Mandriva are still gathering facts themselves about a situation that seems even more complex than it looked in the beginning, he was able to give a sense of the process. Most importantly, the process was competitive; Microsoft was part of this competition to place a particular software platform on the Classmate PCs to be deployed in Nigeria. He explained that it was a truly "global deal," with engineering done in Brazil, final production of the machines in Taiwan, and customers taking delivery in Nigeria. Not surprisingly, the process was both lengthy and complicated.
However, in the end, as is the model for most of the Classmate deployments, the software vendor/partner was chosen by the customer (in this case, Mandriva) and OEMs were provided with the operating system. The local OEMs had actually started loading the software and shipping the laptops with Mandriva installed. Within an hour of a call with Mandriva's Nigerian partners discussing the status of the shipments and the deal itself, Mr. Bancilhon was informed that the Nigerian government would honor the agreement with Mandriva, but would replace the software on all of the laptops with Windows XP and Office 2003. The exact motivation for this switch remains unclear. Mr. Bancilhon believes that there is still some hope for a resolution favorable to Mandriva; we will have to wait and see.
Ultimately, when I asked him what he thought the final outcome of the Nigerian deal would be, it was clear that the real problem was not the choice of operating system. As he noted, Windows is simply one other choice. The more important issue was that the Nigerian customers (and other customers in similar situations with whom they have partnered around the world) really valued the ability to be part of the localization efforts for the software and, in fact, to generate local jobs. Microsoft does not offer the ability to customize at this level for a "local market and involve local people in terms of content."
The future of open source (vs. Microsoft)
As has been noted in this blog and many others, established markets are largely saturated. Mr. Bancilhon explained that the "next billion computers will go to emerging markets and will be low cost." The true opportunity for Linux, he noted, will be in emerging markets where the openness and customizability of the software for local markets has the most value. He felt that the Nigerian deal was particularly important because it could have been a model for other similar situations, which are remarkably widespread in developing countries.
Kids should learn Windows anyway
I asked Mr. Bancilhon specifically how he addresses OSS detractors, many of whom say that kids should be using Windows anyway to prepare for what they are likely to see in the "real world". His answer surprised me, but actually made a lot of sense. He reminded me that there are currently 8000 languages spoken on Earth. If, as predicted, by the end of the century, 6000 of these will disappear, there will still be 2000 languages spoken worldwide; Windows is currently available in about 50 languages. The solution, therefore, as he sees it, is not to have 1 software manufacturer, but to offer open solutions so that local people can be involved and do their own localizations and distribution. His final statement on the matter reads like a company slogan, but certainly isn't a bad banner behind which OSS supporters can stand. His solution is to "replace monopoly with choice."
When I asked him about the future of OSS in developing markets and potential segmentation (e.g., education vs. private sector), he reiterated that the value of Linux is in its suitability for extensive local customization. Different segments of each market obviously have different needs, which can be met by local partners. As he noted, the right way to enter this market is through education. "People are smart enough to move from one system to another," he said. Clearly, whatever platform they start on, appropriate education should allow them to be effective users of technology. He drew a parallel to learning multiple languages and the advantage that offers for students.
Tax incentives open doors
Finally, I asked Mr. Bancilhon if it was time for government regulation in this matter. He pointed out that the most effective government intervention so far has been in the form of tax incentives, rather than anything heavy-handed. In Brazil, for example, tax incentives for companies to "break the Digital Divide" have resulted in the shipment of 30,000 to 50,000 Linux-based computers a month.
Talk back below and let us know what you think about software choices in emerging markets, as well as in established markets. Keep in mind that the kids we are educating now in these "established markets" will be business partners of the Nigerian (and Brazillian, and Libyan, and Chinese, and...) school children using Classmates today.