October 2004

FLoss In Asia:Bridging the yawning digital divide

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In the evening, Ramesh and his friends, children from the neighbourhood, gathered more out of curiosity as a container full of used computers were being shipped-in to a storehouse in a suburb of the Indian state of Goa. For the Goa Schools' computer project team, getting used computers had been an uphill struggle against bureaucracy and laws in force. One minor victory that evening was the 300 plus computers which got unloaded, was the realisation that underprivileged children took to the Linux desktops quite readily.

'Please could you give us some (software programmes)? Will 'our' school too get some computers?' Ramesh's friends wanted to know.

Light at the end of the tunnel? Or just a mirage? Gaps between those who have access to the power of computing and those who do not are wide and further yawning. Getting in affordable hardware might initially seem like a good idea, but that is only a small part of the problem.

Moving further on, let us examine the role of FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) in bridging the 'digital divide'. Can it bridge the growing computing gap that is felt between rich and poor countries, and within countries between the rich and poor?

This issue has many dimensions
Cost is still the major barrier, and a huge problem for anyone serious about the digital divide. Yohanes Nugroho (open source.or.id/) of Bandung's Instituteof Technology in Indonesia puts it thus: 'Developments in the South East Asian countries vary a lot. Here in Indonesia, Open Source Software (OSS) is mostly used to fight piracy, by providing low cost software. Unlike in some parts of Asia (like Thailand), where Microsoft and some other commercial companies create cheap version of Windows or their products, it is not happening in Indonesia. So we are faced with expensive softwares.' 'Affordable' is a relative term. 'The price of a typical, basic proprietary tool-set required for any ICT infrastructure, Windows XP together with Office XP, is US$560 in the U.S. This is over 2.5 months of GDP/capita in South Africa and over 16 months of GDP/capita in Vietnam,' says a study by the Netherlands-based Rishab Aiyer Ghosh.

Hardware obsolescence and software-generated problems is another critical factor that urgently needs to be addressed.

According to a US National Safety Council study, only 11 per cent of the 20 million computers junked in 1998 were recycled. Therefore, it is not a question of having insufficient computers. United Nations University in Tokyo lead by scientist Eric Williams points out that a personal computer consumes far more resources, pound for pound, than many larger machines. With more than a hundred million new computers manufactured every year, that is an incredible strain on the world's resources. So the pressure to upgrade is enormous. Software gets needlessly phased out, and no longer supported. Hardware turns unserviceable, as compatible components no longer get manufactured. Thus, shipping redundant computers to the Third World is not much of a solution, as they quickly turn unusable there too. Thanks to speedy hardware and software obsolescence traps! So another issue which has got insufficient attention is that 'Can software work to make sure computers last longer?'

Another issue that comes to mind is that is GNU/Linux also going the bloatware way? From India, techie K. Raghu Prasad explains: 'This is due to an ongoing effort from GNU/Linux distros to please or convert Windows users into its fold. This makes a lot of business sense. Unless a Windows user finds the system user friendly going by his definition of it, he is not going to use Red Hat or SuSE distros. This comes naturally with some additional costs. If you want all the bells and whistles of latest KDE and GNOME, you need to spend a lot of CPU power and RAM.'

Prasad's way out is to look to other, lighter options. This can be tackled in another way. Take the RULE (Run Up2date Linux Everywhere ) Project. Fioretti, who is behind the RULE Project, for some time now his goal has been to modify the Red Hat Linux installer so that it runs in less than 32 MB of RAM, or create a new one if needed.

Fioretti points out that 80 per cent of the world's population will take years to afford a computer that can run decently the majority of modern, apparently 'Free' software.

FLOSS can play a big role in language solutions. Linux-Plus has developed a special GNU/Linux distribution, along with its complete tools, administration and office software packages, to be freely and exclusively distributed by 'Loghat Al Asr' magazine, published by Al Ahram. One of the main development objectives of this distribution Linux-Plus Core is to make it available on a single CD instead of three, so that it could be distributed on a large scale with Loghat Al Asr magazine. See www.linux-plus.com

Other complexities add to the problem. Licenses are becoming increasingly complex – per user, per seat, per year, based on size of the business, among other things. Only when proprietorial software realised that FLOSS was filling in the gap, that it started to make tempting offers that would lock computer learning into the proprietorial software route.

There are other little-discussed dimensions of the 'digital divide'. Proprietorial standards (or non-standards) lead to unhealthy dependencies. Restricting users to a shallow understanding of technology further complicate issues. Entry barriers to accessing software is another concern.

One aggravating factor is the lack of re-use possibilities in software. One needs to see whether FLOSS offers a way out? FLOSS offers low entry barriers, and reduces the barriers for anyone wanting to enter this field by making everything open. But this is to such an extent that many people fail to appreciate that fact. Besides, there is the undeniable element of cost.

Source Software is unmatched
Learning is easier in FLOSS. Sharing resources comes naturally, more so in the case of individuals and academics, rather than corporates, whether this is software or knowledge.

Recently, Dr Nah and Colin Charles put together some interesting material, published by IOSN (International Open Source Network). As all of this was released under the Creative Commons Attribution license, one is free to copy, publish and modify them as long as one credits the original authors and copyright holders. (See www.iosn.net/training/end-user-manual)

Dr Quang says that, 'First of all, Open Source give us the opportunities to learn from the experiences of other developments. We can change and adapt IT solutions to our specific needs. For less-affluent countries, specially the non English-speaking areas, there is a very large amount of basic adoption to be done, to push digital tools into daily life. Companies from abroad cannot earn much profit working on these changes. So we have to do the work ourselves, step by step but fast enough to keep pace with global trends. Only Open Source helps us, and gives us a chance of crossing the 'digital divide'. Localising IT opens other doors

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