Linux and the Rest of the World

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Brazil plans to have a subsidized PC program for lower-middle income Brazilians, and there’s some argument about what OSs should come with it. Some think it should get a cut-down version of Windows. Some think it should get Linux. Some think people should have a choice.

The article linked above has an academic institute offering its two cents to Brazil:

“We advocate using high-quality free software as opposed to scaled-down versions of more costly proprietary software,” Walter Bender, director of the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a letter to the Brazilian government. “Free software is far better on the dimensions of cost, power and quality.”

Hmmmm. Pretty heavy on the buzzwords and zealotry, isn’t it?

A Power Struggle

Seems to me this is a battle between two commercial enterprises.

What are you talking about, many might ask? Only Windows charges, Linux is free!

No, it isn’t. Both systems demand money, just in different ways.

Microsoft is pretty upfront with the finances. You want something, you pay for it. You pay, and pay, and pay, and the whole purpose of the exercise is frankly to make money, a lot of money.

The Linux folks operate differently. They give away the razors, and charge you for the blades. The product is either free or at least gettable for free, and they make their money from supporting the product.

And just who makes (or would make) money supporting the product? Why, a good chunk of the people hollering about how free the software is.

Sounds more than a bit like bait and switch to me. The issue is not “to pay or not to pay.” It’s “whom and how do I pay.”

Many will say, “Well, you don’t have to pay for support,” and that’s technically true. If you don’t want to pay for support with cash, you can choose to pay for support with your time. Lots of your time.

Either way, Linux isn’t free, and anyone who says so isn’t being terribly honest about it.

It’s interesting to note that a cottage industry of “we’ll make installing and maintaining Linux easy” Linux distributors has emerged. Linspire is one, Xandros is another. They’re out to make installing and updating Linux just as easy to doing so in Windows, and for their deluxe versions, they charge just about as much as you’ll pay for an (OEM) copy of Windows XP Home in the US.

I grant you that Windows is generally more expensive than that elsewhere in the world. I’ll also grant you that the extra work being done to make life easy also extends to applications that you’re not paying for (but then that’s another ball of wax). I’m not knocking these companies; they’re providing necessary services that the ideologues . . . uhh . . . left out.

But free it isn’t.

Meet José Sixpack

The developed world is pretty much computered out, just about anyone who wants one has one. The percentage of first-time computers users was dwindled down to just the very young, and the very old. This means there isn’t going to be a lot of growth from these markets.

The next group of potential computer buyers comes from the upwardly mobile sections of what used to be called the Third World. Not the rich of these places, they already have them, but instead those who have above-average incomes in these places who already have the basic necessities and think that computers will help them and/or their kids to get even more above average.

Since Brazil is the subject of discussion, let’s call him José Sixpack (though such people exist throughout the whole developing world).

People in the developed world often have a very mistaken notion of what the developing world is like. They tend to think everyone in those countries lives in mud huts and have just begun experimenting with electricity.

That’s not true at all. Even in the poorest countries, there are some rich people, and some more who can afford reasonable modern amenities, and it’s rather better than that in most countries. Such folks may not constitute most or even a particular large share of the population, but they’re there.

Tomorrow’s future computer users are people who have a decent place to live, running water, utilities and likely a cellphone to boot (mobile phones have been spreading like wildfire even in very poor countries. We’re not talking about people who just learned how to read.

They have disposable income, but not a whole lot. Financing relatively big-ticket items tends to be the biggest problem in such places, credit is harder to obtain.

Odds are José has had some exposure to computers, probably at work. Perhaps his children have in school. On the whole, José is more-or-less about as ready for computers as Americans and Europeans were when they got their first computers in the eighties and nineties, except he has less money to play with in this field.

José is taking on some serious financial obligations with this new purchase. Since he needs a government subsidy to get one in the first place, financing a reduced-price company will be a bit of a strain. An Internet connection will add to this.

You might think under such circumstances, Linux is a no-brainer for him, but is it? Maybe in the ivory towers of MIT it is, but if they poked their heads out to see what is actually happening out there, they would see that it’s not going to be expensive Windows software vs. free Linux software; it’s going to be free pirated Windows software vs. free Linux software.

Let me put it this way: pirated software is already endemic in the developing countries (not that it’s exactly rare in the developed world, either). That situation is certainly not going to get better when you add poorer people to the mix.

So the choice isn’t between a $400 MS Office vs. a free OpenOffice. It will be between a $1 CD with MS Office on it, vs. OpenOffice. That certainly won’t make Redmond happy, but what are they going to do, nuke ’em?

We’re not in favor of pirated stuff, but thinking that situation is going to change anytime soon is like somebody who wants to walk from New York to London expecting that inconvenient pond in between is going to get drained soon.

What will decide people one way or the other on which to use is which is easier to use as is and does the things people want to do. If all the cool games are in Windows, guess what José’s kids will put on the system sooner or later?

When that becomes the measurement, guess which OS is going to win?

No support for pirated products, you say? Well, it really boils down to no support vs. no support if money is out of the picture, and which system needs less run-of-the-mill support for the average José and Company?

The challenge for Linux in the Third World is just the same as it is in the First World. “Free” is not good enough. It has to be not only free, but better than Windows the way José defines it, not the way Linus Torvalds or MIT or some command-line fanatic defines it.

It’s not that this can’t be done, but it’s going to take quite a shift in attitude for it to be done. If the Linux folks really wanted to present a real challenge in the Third World, they’d design a free robust Linux that even an AOLer would love. They’d have to say, “Sixpacks rule!” which is not what your average Linux geek wants to hear ideologically, much less the subset who has financial hopes and dreams about getting paid to support it.

Will they willingly program their way out of the picture? I think not.

Ed

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