Thursday, November 03, 2005

[geek][politics] Open Source in Africa

Black Looks, an excellent blog by Sokari Eskine that I've mentioned before, has an article up today that provides an overview of the state of Open Source software (OSS) in Africa. Seeing as how technology isn't her primary focus, I thought it was still a great look at how Sub-Saharan activists view OSS and are using OSS. She also touches upon some of the challenges facing OSS advocates in the developing world, one of which really caught me off guard: OSS is undercut by the widespread piracy (and therefore, widespread availability) of proprietary software. It seems to me that all-to-often, OSS advocates in the US get wrapped up in righteous indignation and moral superiority about "Information want[ing] to be free". What they often forget is that there are lots of people wanting to be free as well, and that their freedom - be it political, economic, religious - could be facilitated through better access to technology. Take, for instance, the reaction of Open Source advocates to Oracle's announcement that they plan to provide a stripped-down free version of their database software:
Oracle told CNET News.com, Builder UK's sister site, that it hopes that developers and students will choose the Express Edition over alternatives like MySQL or SQL Server Express. Users could then migrate over time to Oracle's higher-end products. "Even though the database is initially free, standards progress and those university students who are playing with the database today will eventually be working at corporations and making product decisions," he said. "We want to have mind-share with those people," said Andrew Mendelsohn, senior vice-president of Oracle's server technologies division. But Oracle does not appear to understand the benefits of free and open source software, according to Adrian Jones, the managing director of Sleepycat Europe, which makes the open source Berkeley DB. "When it comes to the open source market, Oracle still doesn't get it," said Jones. "Oracle is confusing free beer with free speech. There are many reasons why the open source database market is growing so healthily. Price is certainly one reason, but equally important is the fact that the open source vendors are progressively adding functionality to their products, improving product quality and building the community around them," he said. Oracle is not the only large technology company that has been accused of misunderstanding free and open source software (FOSS). Earlier this year, Jonathan Schwartz, the president of Sun, angered some in the free software community when he claimed that the most important feature about FOSS is the price.
It may be that Oracle is "confusing free beer with free speech" - but what may be more important in developing nations is free bread - or the technological version thereof. Free speech will follow... I know there are at least a few OSS supporters or advocates who are semi-regular readers of this blog - your thoughts?

2 Comments:

Blogger Mike Olson said...

I'm Sleepycat's CEO, and the quote you cite was made by the Managing Director of Sleepycat Europe; full disclosure!

None of us here disagrees that zero-dollar software is a great thing for users. If 10g Express is useful to emerging economies, that's wonderful. We're glad to see it, and I bet that Oracle would be proud of it. They ought to be.

The point is that giving away the software for free isn't the same as building an open source community. Just for (simple) example: What about high school and college students in Africa who want to learn about the way that database systems work? Are they better off with a sealed-box binary that is entirely opaque, or with the complete source code to the MySQL engine? Both of them are free beer already; only one is free speech now.

11/04/2005 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger protected static said...

Mike -- first off, thanks for stopping by to respond. Second, I've been reflecting on this some more, and I've got a post coming.

Short version: in principle, I agree with you; in practice, I think too much gets lost in focusing on the 'free as in speech' part of the FOSS... As I said above, I have another post brewing - I'm just not sure when I'll get a chance to post it today.

11/04/2005 12:05:00 PM  

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