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Nothing gets a dedicated techie hotter under the collar than a discussion about Microsoft and its software monopoly. Another subject that will get them talking is the subject of open source software.
Open source is in many ways the antithesis of what Microsoft and many software companies have been pursuing over the years. It’s a revolutionary movement and philosophy worldwide that ensures computer programs, such as word processors or spreadsheets, can be used by you, shared by you with others, and even modified by you at no cost and then re-sold by you to others.
It’s the vision of the world and technology that the original founders of the Internet had in mind. In fact, the Internet — unlike the software on your computers, bought from companies such as Microsoft — is one big, fat, free open source project.
IT billionaire and Africa’s first Astronaut, Mark Shuttleworth, is so passionate about it, he says it could rocket South Africa into the future: “We are on the cusp of a new era. This is the future of IT.”
So what’s going on here? On the one hand you have an IT billionaire with a self confessed “capitalist streak” who made his money, lots of it, on the free market. Yet on the other hand he is advocating a policy — called open source — that means software can be used and given away by you for free.
“I have a peculiarly capitalist streak, and am very much an open source software advocate. There are many others like me. Open source software is built on the same fundamental property rights, and intellectual property rights, as proprietary software.
“These tools are copyrighted by the authors, and simply licensed under terms that are new and innovative. I believe that these licensing terms will come to dominate the industry, so for me this is about backing a winning strategy more than an ideological view of what ‘software should be’,” says Shuttleworth.
The open source movement is nothing new and has been campaigning for a while now, yet Shuttleworth reckons it is “one of the best kept secrets in the IT world” so he is throwing his weight behind it.
His Go Open Source campaign has released the Open CD with a variety of open source programs on it which could replace many of the daily programs such as the word processor or spreadsheet you use on your everyday Windows PC.
The owners of the CD are encouraged to “make copies of this CD and distribute it yourself, lend your CD to family and friends” — not a message you would see stamped on your average CD carrying the latest version of Microsoft Windows.
The open source philosophers maintain that free software is not about the price, but freedom and increased ability for users to own their own data and not be dominated by a small group of players that control the market. They point to science – the ultimate of open source projects – and say the process of scientific discovery was served by sharing information. Computer software, they say, is no different to this.
Shuttleworth has experienced the benefits of using open source himself as a user, but also sees potential for other users and for developing countries like South Africa to use open source to put itself ahead of the pack. He says open source software is critical to the development of Africa and other developing countries because the flow of information and knowledge is not limited by software you can afford.
“I’ve been very lucky to discover some of these tools and use them to my advantage in years past, and now I would very much like others to have the same opportunity,” he says.
At the launch of the Open Source Centre at the Mogalakwena HP i-community centre in Limpopo province last week, Shuttleworth emphasised that if South Africa is to become a world leader, improve the lives of its people and focus on skills development, then open source is the key.
Developing countries using open source software have more ability to adapt the programmes they use on their desktop PCs to suit local conditions. This is because they have access to change the inner workings of the programmes, known as the source code.
A web browser with instructions in Sepedi and Afrikaans goes a long way to making technology accessible and relevant to local communities. And if a programme is in a local language, for example, there is a greater chance others in the local community will understand it, and then pass on knowledge.
It appears the South African government and Shuttleworth are reading from the same word processor. The government agrees with Shuttleworth to such an extent that it has formulated a policy ensuring that open source software is the preferred option for government. The government has recognised the pivotal role that open source plays in economic development and skills creation in the country.
Shuttleworth is quick to emphasise that although the software is given out for free there are business models around open source even though they may be “more limited in scale at this stage”.
“Several specialised software companies have been able to take on established proprietary software companies in their sectors, and build sustainable businesses despite giving the software away free of charge.
MySQL AB, and PostgresQL are two groups that have carved out substantial niches in the database market based on free software offerings. The Apache Group is sustainable and produces the world’s most popular web server software, substantially more widely deployed than Microsoft IIS,” he says.
“There are a variety of businesses that revolve around the open source software industry. Hardware is one angle. Support and services are another… People do pay. They pay for support, for services, for hardware. They just don’t pay to license software when there are free equivalents available,” he says.
Open source isn’t only about computer programs says Shuttleworth, we could see he concept applied to other areas.
“Right now the open source movement really defines itself in terms of software. There are efforts underway to bring similar concepts to other areas of publishing, such as books and music. And I believe that in due course the trend will spread to other, unrelated sectors. This will happen wherever we have tools for collaboration across the net. For the moment, however, software is where it’s at,” he says.
Shuttleworth is quick to emphasise that this isn’t ‘open source vs Microsoft’ project. But he says Microsoft will need to adapt to the emergence of open source.
“…I’m sure they will address this one fully in due course. I believe that open source software will become the default for new computers — home and office — but that doesn’t mean that there is no room for a company like Microsoft if they adapt quickly enough,” he says.