Open source desktop adoption flickers in the Philippines

Use of the technology could flourish in the country if the government mandates its use in public agencies, say industry figures.
Written by Melvin G. Calimag, Contributor

MANILA--The number of open source desktop users in the Philippines--estimated at 5 to 10 percent of PC owners--is growing, but the adoption rate is somehow stunted by the lack of government sanction advocating its use.

The Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT), the government's ICT policy-making body, has decided to keep an "open choice" strategy, letting government agencies have the final say on which technology they want to use.

CICT chair Ray Anthony Roxas Chua, said in an interview that open source software (OSS) is "not yet ready on all levels" in the Philippines. "It would be too early to mandate it across the board when the support system is not there. What we need to do is build the awareness first," he said.

But this policy is a cop-out that will not make the situation any better, according to an executive of the Advanced Science and Technology Institute (ASTI), an agency of the government's Department of Science and Technology.

"I believe that this hands-off policy is bad because you're not displaying leadership. You're essentially delegating the task of choosing the right kind of technology to the heads of agencies."
-- Joseph Callao Jr.
Bayanihan Linux lead developer

Reynaldo Joseph Callao Jr., lead developer of Bayanihan Linux, an open source-based desktop operating system created by ASTI, said the government cannot expect to grow the support structure without setting a specific direction on open source.

"I believe that this hands-off policy is bad because you're not displaying leadership. You're essentially delegating the task of choosing the right kind of technology to the heads of agencies," he said in an interview.

By imposing a clear policy on open source, Callao said the government can transform the whole bureaucracy into a huge market for open source, thereby giving an incentive for developers to write applications and spur consumer demand for free software.

Based on ASTI's own experience, he said the agency created a demand for Bayanihan Linux within its own organization by procuring laptops and PCs that did not contain any OS, saving money in the process.

Callao said there are no actual statistics on the number of computers running on open source in the country, saying it's difficult or even impossible to accomplish such a task.

The actual size of the open source market in the Philippines, let alone on the desktop, is so dispersed that analyst firms IDC and XMG begged off from sharing their market insights as they haven't made an updated study on the topic.

Even for Bayanihan Linux, which was launched in 2001 to help the government and schools cut cost, no figures are available since a single installer CD can be passed around to a lot of people. However, the latest version, BL 4, had already posted over 100 downloads. An updated edition, BL 5, is slated for release in the first half of the year.

"But compared to other countries such as those in Europe, the Philippines is way, way behind in terms of adoption. Open source is limited only to a very small crowd who likes to experiment. I'd say about 90 percent of the country is not aware about open source," Callao said.

Piracy may be another reason why ordinary folks are not putting open source on their desktops, added Callao. "Instead of learning something new, they'd rather get a fake version of Windows XP because they are more familiar with it," he said.

Callao also said the country's educational system is skewed towards Microsoft's Windows platform, with students and teachers focused on learning Windows almost all the time. He said Microsoft's marketing muscle is tremendous, noting that the company has built innovation centers and laboratories in key government offices and institutions.

In fact, Microsoft's long shadow is evident even among local OSS developers who focus on the enterprise sector--an area where open source has made significant inroads because it offers a much cheaper alternative to expensive business software.

Mixed environment
Local firm PointWest Technologies said while it creates and sells products based on open source technology, it actually uses Windows on its desktops.

Two other high-profile open source advocates, sister companies Exist Global and Morph Labs, are also still using Windows on their desktops, though not as extensively as PointWest.

Winston Damarillo, founder and CEO of both firms, said Exist has been using open source on the desktops since it was founded in 2001, while Morph Labs began using OSS in desktops when it started to build its cloud computing infrastructure.

"At Exist, more than 70 percent of desktops are running OSS… We also espouse the use of Mozilla products for Web browsing, e-mail, etc.," Damarillo said in an e-mail interview.

He said although the adoption of open source has significantly increased over the last five years, the current economic climate will provide the impetus for open source to gain greater market share.

Indeed, OSS on the desktops has scored wins recently, particularly in the education sector which has found the cost of proprietary software too prohibitive. AMA Computer University, a private educational institution, even created its own version of AMA Desktop Linux (ADL) for use in its campus.

IT journalist Chin Wong also reported in his blog that Xavier School, an exclusive private school for boys, implemented a massive migration of its computer system, including desktops, from Windows to open source.

The country's top academic institution, the University of the Philippines, had long ago implemented a policy that prioritizes OSS in desktops and servers being used by the university.

It has also been reported that the Philippines has become the largest destination of CD installers for Ubuntu, probably the most prominent Linux distribution for desktops. Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu creator Canonical, even visited the country to brief local folks on the desktop OS.

Despite this, however, the Windows juggernaut has been extra hard to dismantle. A case in point is the netbooks, which everybody thought would finally bring OSS to the consumer market. But Asus, the Taiwanese netbook pioneer, announced in a forum late last year it was dropping Linux and will offer Windows in all its local Eee PC models.

For ASTI's Callao, time is running out on the Philippines to make OSS as pervasive and widespread as possible. "It's a terrible waste if we won't seize the opportunities offered by open source. Instead of being a technology pioneer, here we go again in danger of becoming a mere follower."

Melvin G. Calimag is a freelance IT writer based in the Philippines.

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