2009. november 9., hétfő

Africa: The Linux Continent?


NAIROBI, Kenya -- Every Friday afternoon, Githogori wa Nyangara-Murage holds free computing seminars to young programmers in his cluttered office.


Githogori, a former software researcher at the Xerox Research Center, is preaching the gospel of Linux. He's convinced that the free software model is the only way for Africa to ever leapfrog its status as an underdeveloped continent.

At the heart of Githogori's quest is the explosive politics of proprietary versus free, open-source software. In Africa, even with its few computers, this debate is now boiling down to a clash between Microsoft Windows and Linux OS.

"The free software model makes sense for Africa. It puts Africa and the rest of the world on an equal level," Githogori says.

"Under the proprietary software model, Africa is just investing in unattainable dreams because we cannot afford to pay all this money that the continent is paying proprietary software."

Robert Bunyi, a research analyst with Equity Stockbrokers, attributes the high cost of proprietary software to be a major contributing factor to rampant software piracy in Africa.

For instance, the Windows operating system costs around US$100 and the Windows Office Suite applications may cost as much as US$800 in Kenya. In a continent where the average annual per capita income is less than US$250, proprietary software -- with its accompanying licensing difficulties -- is a major drawback for would-be Windows users.

But by definition, Linux piracy is not even an issue. The Linux OS is free, but Githogori's company, Silicon Bazaar, has added applications for small- and medium-sized businesses for an affordable fee of US$6.50.
Already, the technology scene in Africa, led by the much richer South African and Nigerian economies, is starting to stir up passions for Linux.

The Linux User Project rates South Africa as having the 24th-largest user base in the world. Kenya, Algeria, Egypt and Botswana are trailing behind. There are several registered users, even in the most remote parts of the continent.

Microsoft (East Africa) Ltd., however, does not see Linux as a threat.

"We don't have the technical skills for the development, support and training for a Linux platform in Africa," says Loiuse Otieno, Microsoft's Business Development manager for East Africa.

She says that with the broad range of application software and support that Microsoft has in Africa, it will be very hard for Linux to make major inroads.

"It goes beyond the cost of the box," Otieno says. "We look at it as the cost of ownership in installation and support."

Sam Nganga, a technology columnist with the East African Standard, says that Microsoft, while nowhere near total penetration in the continent, is relatively entrenched.

"The reason why Linux has not caught up so fast is because most big companies operate on group-wide IT platforms built on Microsoft NT," Nganga says.

He says that African businesses have been slow to deploy Linux "because it's relatively new and businesses are watching to see whether it's reality or just another fad before they commit millions of dollars in IT budget.
"But once businesses get to trust the Linux platform, it will catch on like bush fire."

Peter Gitau, the systems administrator at Kenyan ISP Interconnect Ltd. and a devout Linux aficionado, counters that Linux users do not need an elaborate support system because all the support is on the Internet. Interconnect has been running Linux OS in parallel with Unix, Windows and Macintosh environments over the last year.
"Its all about freedom," Gitau says. "You can download it free on the Internet, install on as many computers as you want or even resell it if you feel so inclined."

But as in other parts of the world, Linux has yet to build widespread acceptance in Africa.

"The popularity of Linux in Africa, like in other parts of the world, is currently restricted to an exclusive band of techies," says James Mbuthia, the webmaster at Interconnect.

Techies in Kenya and elsewhere, he says, are driven by a "devotion to Linux and a passion against Microsoft products."

The biggest Linux users are in the ISP business for networking and connectivity purposes, Gitau says. Though Windows NT and Unix have local support, it's not easy to walk into a shop and come out with the product. The other alternative is Sun Microsystems' Solaris, which is not readily available.

"We expect the general public license platform, under which Linux operates from, to make major inroads in the African technology scene, as it is doing in the West," Githogori says.

At the moment, however, software piracy is the biggest problem affecting the IT industry in Africa. Piracy rates in East Africa are estimated at 80 percent, according to Microsoft's Otieno.

In 1998, Microsoft's anti-piracy manager for Africa, Frederik Jonker, estimated that Kenya loses US$3.5 billion annually to software piracy. Business Software Alliance, a U.S. anti-piracy lobby, estimates piracy levels in South Africa at 49 percent, with the loss to the South African economy estimated at US$94.2 million.
The World Intellectual Property Organization was even constrained to threaten Kenya with embargo if it did not move to stamp out piracy. That led to the establishment of the Kenya Anti-piracy Authority, and the country's High Court is also growing impatient about copyright infringement.

Microsoft has benefited from the crackdown. The company won a US$325,000 judgment against a Kenyan computer and software vendor, Microskills Ltd., which had been pre-loading machines with pirated software.
Otieno says the High Court's decision sent a tough message to the market.

But it could backfire on the software giant. Microsoft's success in the anti-piracy war might lead to a backlash that could popularize the Linux model in Africa.

Still, Linux must overcome its own obscurity. The dream to jump-start a software industry in Africa depends on the ability of regional engineering schools to produce dedicated Linux developers.

In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology has already included Linux in its computer labs to be taught as part of its software engineering syllabus. JKUAT has even invited Githogori and his Silicon Bazaar to provide Linux training.

Big businesses are also growing curious about using Linux in Kenya, with giants such as Kenya Airways and Kenya Power & Lighting already evaluating its merits.

The platform's embrace by big businesses will be important, but perhaps not any more than if small- and medium-sized businesses join the revolution.

That's where people like Githogori come in, devout Linux users who want to teach as many as will listen.

Source: Wired
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