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Why Doesn't Linux Dominate in the Developing World?

By Katherine Noyes
Apr 26, 2010 5:00 AM PT

There's no doubt FOSS is steadily gaining popularity in government circles, as evidenced most recently by the United States White House's own decision to adopt -- and even contribute back to -- open source Drupal.

Why Doesn't Linux Dominate in the Developing World?

A proposal from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, meanwhile, suggests that certain regulation-mandated submissions should be required to be written in Python for better consistency and interpretability, as Heise Online points out.

Then, too, there are all the various reports of governments, including North Korea, Canada, Cuba, Russia and Vietnam embracing free software as well.

'A Long Way to Go'

It is in the developing world, though, that many see FOSS' greatest immediate potential, largely for its low price and minimal resource requirements.

Therein, however, lies a paradox.

"Using my country Ghana as an example, I can say with reasonable certainty that Linux in the developing world, to put it nicely, has a long way to go," wrote sinaisix on the Ghabuntu blog. "You probably might have read in the news about how the government of some country in Latin America or Asia is switching to Linux or Open Source in general which might sound great, but in reality however, it has very little bearing on the use of Linux among the everyday people."

Bandwidth Issues

Windows dominates PCs in developing countries, sinaisix asserted, largely through the prevalence of pirated versions. Bandwidth constraints also make downloading Linux a problem, he added.

"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," sinaisix suggested.

It wasn't long before the topic caught the attention of Glyn Moody,who recently posted his own take on how to solve the problem.

'I Would Be Willing to Mail an Install CD'

Other bloggers, meanwhile, were soon chiming in with thoughts of their own.

"This is where projects such as the Freedom Toaster comes into play," wrote Darlene Parker in the Ghabuntu comments, for instance. "It addresses the very issue you describe, as it does take a large chunk of managed bandwidth to download the ISO."

Alternatively, "I would be willing to mail an install CD to anyone in the world who needs one if I could have a reasonable assurance that it would be used and shared," asserted stlouisubntu. "All we really need is a community website where one can request a CD and another can respond to the request."

Given how much free and open source software can offer those in the developing world -- as in wealthier nations -- the topic struck Linux Girl as an important one. What is the problem here, she couldn't help but wonder, and what can be done?

'The Thesis Is Wrong'

"The thesis of the Ghabuntu article is wrong," blogger Robert Pogson asserted.

"The counter-example is copying M$'s CDs," he added. "The GNU/Linux CDs can be copied for the same price. All it takes is one download to make many CDs. If they cannot download, do they need a networked OS?"

That said, "I would ship a case of Debian CDs anywhere in the world if it would help," Pogson told LinuxInsider. "I will do something like that right here in Canada where folks can download but may not know how to burn a CD image.

"Can these folks buy naked PCs? They are lucky if that happens," he added. "Most of the world is forced to buy PCs with that other OS installed."

'More Software Runs on Windows'

Linux isn't taking off in the developing world for "probably the same reasons it isn't taking off here," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider.

"One: Windows is easy to pirate, so the whole 'Linux is free' bit doesn't actually hold any water," he asserted. "There is a good reason why old Bill said, 'If they are gonna pirate, I want them to pirate from us.' It creates users familiar with your product who will hopefully be able to buy your product later."

The second reason is software, hairyfeet said: "Everyone wants to run the same things that everyone else does, and if it is free thanks to piracy, why bother with Open Office when you can get MS Office, or Gimp when you can have Photoshop? No matter how Linux users want to spin it, there is simply more software that runs on Windows."

'Windows Updates Are Free'

Then, too, there's what hairyfeet calls the "PITB factor: Sure Linux is great IF all your hardware is supported and IF no updates bork anything, but I find that about as likely as WinME machines that don't crash," he said. "And if something DOES go wrong? Oh Lord have mercy upon your poor tortured soul, because you are gonna spend more time in CLI hell applying 'fixes' than you ever will using the PC!"

Finally, there's also "a little point I bet most Linux users don't even know," hairyfeet added. Namely, "if your ISP has caps, ask them if Windows updates count?" he suggested. "Guess what -- they don't, but Linux updates do.

"So when bandwidth caps come to your area, be prepared to pay more for using Linux, folks, because Windows updates are free," he asserted.

'Inertia Rules!'

Then again, "it's certainly NOT the bandwidth problem," asserted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"The poster says that people have no problem copying Windows and other software CDs, so it's not like everyone would have to use up their monthly 1-gig bandwidth allotment to grab a distro," Hudson explained. "Just find someone who already has it, and make a copy."

The real root of the problem is quite simple, Hudson asserted. Specifically, "most people:

  1. don't know that there are alternatives;
  2. aren't interested in learning about alternatives;
  3. are already psychologically invested in Windows and don't want to have to throw out what they've learned;
  4. are already physically invested in Windows and don't want to have to discard all that pirated software 'that's worth thousands of dollars';
  5. 'need' Windows for a printer/scanner/other hardware;
  6. 'need' Windows for one particular piece of software;
  7. 'need' Windows because their school/boss says so;
  8. 'need' Windows 'security' because 'linux won't run my antivirus';
  9. don't see a financial opportunity in open software;
  10. are afraid to try something different."

In other words, "it's a law of physics," Hudson concluded. "Inertia rules!"

'We Can Do More'

Linux will likely gain more traction as Microsoft becomes more effective at stamping out piracy, Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack pointed out.

Nevertheless, "we can do more," he said. "Sending a lot of installation cds is one idea, but it makes me wonder if we need to be more effective at creating downloadable security update cd images as well."

For Chris Travers, however, the premise that FOSS is suffering in the developing world doesn't ring true.

"It's doing better in the developing world than folks think," said Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project and has spent many months in Indonesia and Ecuador. "However, one important element here is that people are conditioned to distrust inexpensive/free (gratis) software due to anti-piracy efforts."

'Every FOSS Consultant Is Doing Well'

The major issue holding back FOSS in developing countries, in Travers' experience, is simply a lack of expertise, he said.

"There are more Windows consultants than Linux consultants," he explained. Also, "the lack of good vertical applications hurts somewhat."

FOSS will, however, get there in the end, Travers opined.

"LedgerSMB is used in every continent except Antarctica," he noted. "Every FOSS consultant I know in the developing world is doing pretty well."

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