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09 April 2010, 12:32

Promoting Free Software in Developing Countries

by Glyn Moody

Here's a paradox. Free software seems perfect for developing countries: it's free both to obtain and to share, runs well on low-spec machines and – an important aspect that is often overlooked – can be easily localised. And yet the uptake of free software in many such countries is poor, with Windows still dominating computing at all levels. How is this possible?

Here's what looks like a highly plausible explanation:

If you live in a "well to do" country for instance, downloading 600MB of data might be a matter of minutes, but to those of us who only have 1GB of bandwidth for a whole month, it generally is out of the question. This first bottleneck alone puts Linux out of the use of most people in developing parts of the world.

The post goes on:

The relative unpopularity of Linux in most 'developing' countries, relative to Windows, can be due to many factors, but I strongly believe that the issue of 'accessibility' is the overriding one. Before you fire your comments about how Linux is free and Windows is paid for, let me please tell you that in all sincerity and honesty, 90% of Windows users in 'developing' countries, run pirated versions.

This is what makes me believe that should there be the availability of Linux CDs, then some inroads can be made. This leads me to wonder if there is any initiative anywhere to the effect that the Linux community in the 'well to do' parts of the world come together to make as many copies as they can of their respective distros and send them to potential user communities in developing parts of the world.

So, let's consider the options of how free software can be brought to people in these countries.

There are existing projects like One Laptop Per Child, but that has been something of a disappointment, not least because it has abandoned its initial total commitment to GNU/Linux and is offering Windows-based systems – the last thing developing countries need if they are to escape from dependence on expensive technologies owned by Western companies.

Then there are new initiatives like this one:

IBM, Canonical and Simmtronics today announced they will market a low-cost, Intel Atom-based Simmtronics netbook in emerging markets. The Simmbook will be preloaded with the IBM Client for Smart Work Linux distro, based on Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and will first be made available in Africa for just $190, says IBM.

That's a reasonable price, but still $190 too much for most people in developing countries. The best solution remains sending out CDs and DVDs that can be copied and handed out locally among people who want them.

It would be easy to create a Web site where people from around the world applied for free CDs/DVDs, and where those in the countries with more resources could burn those discs and send them out. But there are a few problems here. First, there are issues of privacy: people might not want to send their addresses to a site such as this. Then there is always the danger that the discs sent out might not be “real” distros, but might include malware. That can be addressed using MD5 hashes from the distros concerned (for example UbuntuHashes), but that's a slow process, especially on older machines.

What is needed, then, is for the discs to be sent out by authoritative sources so that the recipients can be sure they do not contain any (well, reasonably sure – nothing's perfect) malware. In fact, Canonical already does this with its Shipit scheme:

Ubuntu is available free of charge and we can send you a CD of the latest version (9.10 (Karmic Koala)) with no extra cost, but the delivery may take up to ten weeks, so you should consider downloading the CD image if you have a fast Internet connection.

That's clearly a great solution, but it has a big drawback, as the original blog post quoted above points out:

please remember that Canonical as a company has limited resources, and cannot meet all the demands from users. My first CD of Ubuntu was Hardy which came via Shipit, then Jaunty, when I requested one for Koala, I was told I'd reached my quota.

You can hardly blame Canonical for that: it needs to maximise the effectiveness of this scheme by distributing its free discs as widely as possible, which means one copy only. So maybe the solution is for us to pay Canonical to extend that scheme. Fortunately, there's an easy way to do this using the Canonical store.

On the page selling CDs and DVDs, it would easy to add an option to buy copies to be added to the Shipit pool. There might also be a more general option to append such an extra disc to other purchases on the site – I'm sure that many people would be happy to add this to their shopping baskets if presented with such a painless and relatively low-cost way of giving Ubuntu to people in developing countries who would like to receive discs. Then, when requests to Shipit arrive, more of them could be met – including those repeat requests that are turned down at the moment.

The Canonical store already accepts most forms of payment, so there's no need to set up extra infrastructure. All that needs to be done is for the store page to be modified accordingly, and for the scheme to be publicised. And of course there's no reason why this should be limited to Canonical and Ubuntu: any distro could set up pages with similar systems allowing people to pay for extra discs to be sent out.

As well as the purely philanthropic aspect, there are good selfish reasons why people might want to help spread free software in developing countries. It would increase the market share of core software like Firefox, and GNU/Linux, which would help persuade more companies to support them, and more governments to adopt them. It would increase the pool of programmers who can contribute to free software projects, making them better for everyone. It would also make it more likely that entirely new, indigenous applications would be created for developing countries and their particular needs. It might even lead to a whole new era of free software creation and use.

Sounds like a real win-win situation: how about starting the ball rolling, Canonical?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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