KINGSTON, Jamaica -- It's not as if there's some evil conspiracy
afoot, though one might be excused for thinking it seems that way.
On the day I write this, The Jamaica Observer newspaper proudly
published a photo of the country's Minister of Commerce and Technology,
Phillip Paulwell, looking a little awestruck while shaking hands
with Bill Gates at a recent Microsoft conference.
On the same day, I had the honest joy of watching the look on people's
faces as the real benefits and opportunities from using open
source software and development techniques sank in. I was making a
presentation in front of a room full of public school educators, my third
Linux session in Jamaica this week, and it elicited an extremely
enthusiastic response. You can almost freeze the moment
when you see the change in people's eyes as they 'get it.'
You see it coming from the kinds of questions, skeptical at first, then
curious, then people nodding while taking an increasing amount of notes.
And then comes the sigh -- a sigh of relief, really, like the sigh that
comes after the completion of a particularly challenging task. In this
case, the task was understanding the concepts behind free software, and behind
collaboration and cooperation on technology projects, as an alternative
way of looking at the world of computer technology. To the group I was
addressing, these concepts have simply never before been put forward as an
option. It is, quite literally, thinking outside the box (of software).
I doubt such options have yet to be earnestly put before Mr. Paulwell, but
it's only a matter of time. Based on the reception I received at my three
talks -- each to a different kind of audience -- Linux and the concepts
behind open source development are just what Jamaica and other developing
First off, there are the practical needs. Many of the school districts are
desperate to have Internet access but can't get their hands on anything newer than
486 systems. Now, while you're not going to get good (or even, to
most people, acceptable) performance running a Linux word processor or the
on a 486, there's still an awful
lot of life in a current Linux system running on older hardware.
One of the questions I hoped to answer during my trip was why Linux use in
Jamaica wasn't already higher than it was. While the Linux Counter
project is staggeringly unscientific, its placement of Jamaica at 117th place (out of 183) in the
world in Linux use (proportionate to population) appears to be no
fluke. Most developing countries appear near the bottom of the list.
Why is this? While nobody I spoke to during my Jamaican visit had
definitive answers, a number of people offered suggestions that, taken together,
may explain why the developing world has actually embraced software
freedom more slowly than North America and Europe.
One major element is piracy; apparently the number of companies and
organizations sharing a single copy of Microsoft Office, or any other
application, is fairly high. I heard from multiple sources that Microsoft
was stepping up its anti-piracy efforts on the island, which include
widespread publicity for snitch lines such as this online
one that encourage disgruntled workers to get back at their employer
by turning them in to the code cops.
than a year ago, I commented that I wished commercial vendors would
step up their efforts to curtail piracy. I still hold to that, because
the more consumers are forced to confront the real cost of
proprietary commercial software, the more they'll be encouraged to
look at free software and other open alternatives. How many Jamaican
companies can truly afford to pay for all the commercial software
they're using? Not many, I'd wager.
Another factor that's less obvious is rooted in fear and inertia. With
high duties on imports, low Internet bandwidth, and limited resources, fewer
companies here appear willing to experiment with open source solutions
when their existing paths are comfortable and good enough.
"What about accountability?" asked one attendee at my first talk, a formal
presentation on Linux at the Jamaica Computer
Society (JCS) annual conference. I have come to accept the word
"accountability" these days as a FUD-ism when used in the Linux context.
I mean, after all, when was the last time someone sued Microsoft because its
software made a computer crash?
The polite answer to such concerns was to indicate how many Linux vendors
were lining up to offer commercial support, and even accountability.
But as I thought more deeply -- with the help of a some friends from the JCS
and a couple of rum creams -- I realized the accountability issue isn't really
about the vendor, it's about the buyer.
While choosing Microsoft for a project that results in burst budgets
and missed deadlines might be acceptable because "everyone else does it
that way," one can't use that excuse when choosing Linux. In other words,
at a certain level it's all about which operating system helps you
cover your tracks better, regardless of which choice is in the better
interests of the company. While you can easily find Linux organizations
willing to stand behind their installations, they're not as ubiquitous as
Microsoft and therefore offer easier targets for blame.
The answer, of course, is to ensure that Linux and open source
software are perceived as real production alternatives and not
experiments. This change in perception is happening, but not as fast
as Linux enthusiasts might like. Besides seminars like mine, there are other
efforts helping to change perceptions, such as the
Jamaican Linux Users Group (whose website
isn't yet functional but should be soon).
In addition, it looks like the JCS's Education Foundation is having a look
at initiatives such as the development of training classes in the use of the free
StarOffice rather than in Microsoft Office as originally planned.
Such support will help business users achieve a comfort level with
open source software, and will ease their transition from Windows to
less expensive, more reliable Linux desktops.
In addition, I sense
an openness (pun intended) on the part of the Foundation to explore
more aggressive initiatives to enhance the role of Linux as a genuine
and trustworthy alternative. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the local
institute for higher education, the University of the West Indies,
has recently standardized on Linux for its computer lab.
Still, nothing matches the reaction I received from that group of
educators on the last day of my trip. This kind of enthusiasm
can't be achieved with a checkbook or a handshake. They see it coming,
and they appear determined to help it along. I wish them well, and hope
the larger community can offer the support they need.
PS: Many thanks to TurboLinux for
sending 200 of its current Linux CDs, which the seminar attendees were able
to put to immediate use.
What does it take to increase Linux acceptance in the developing world?
Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet
Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.