Watching them get it

What does it take to increase the use of Linux in a developing world? The answer, of course, is to ensure Linux and open source software are perceived as real production alternatives and not experiments.

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 countries need.

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 Gimp 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.

More 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.

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