South Africans told: ‘Go Open’

17 February 2005

The Go Open Source campaign is an R18-million investment by Hewlett-Packard, the Shuttleworth Foundation and the CSIR to promote the use of open source software among South African home users, scholars and small businesses.

IT entrepreneur and “afronaut” Mark Shuttleworth has sponsored a number of projects to promote South African awareness, uptake and growth of open source (OS), a model of software development that challenges traditional forms of copyright and intellectual property.

The drive behind the campaign is to make OS software easily available to all users that want it, irrespective of where they live or work.

Shuttleworth built his company Thawte using OS software. His foundation nows sponsors a range of educational projects, including Go Open Source and Translate.org.za.

The most visible aspect of this campaign is the world’s first television series devoted to open source software. “go_open” is a 13-episode series that highlights the benefits of OS techology for home users with features like “On the Web” and “Geek of the Week”.

According to Go Open Source, South Africans spend R6-billion a year on software licences, and 80% of that leaves the country.

To encourage the use of OS software at home, Go Open Source offers free copies of the OpenCD on its website. This CD contains a number of OS programmes that are useful for the desktop user, including OpenOffice and the graphics programme GIMP. These are full products containing all the features one would expect from expensive, proprietary programmes.

‘Free, as in freedom’
The term “open source” (OS) refers to software for which the source code is publicly available. Generally, the software is distributed free with the source code.

Not all OS software is free, however, and advocates often qualify the term by saying: “Free, as in freedom”. With OS, the user has the freedom to view the source code, the freedom to make changes, and the freedom to distribute the software.

OS refers to the ability to view the source code, which allows developers to improve, make changes or translate the programme. These improvements can then be added to the original programme, to the benefit of all users.

For popular OS programmes, this means that there may be hundreds of thousands of developers contributing to and improving the programme, in a collaborative manner.

This model of software development challenges traditional forms of copyright and intellectual property.

One of the primary benefits that OS software development offers is the ability to translate programmes into whichever language is required with relative ease.

Since its release in November 2004, the OS browser Firefox has already been translated into Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, seSotho and seSotho sa Leboa – all translations facilitated by non-profit organisation Translate.org.za.

Southern Smile
Governments, including South Africa’s, are driving much of the interest in OS software around the world. For developing nations particularly, OS may offer many advantages over traditional proprietary software. The most obvious of these is cost, but OS also offers increased flexibility and reduced dependence on software vendors.

This uptake of OS software in the Southern Hemisphere has been dubbed the “Southern Smile”.

The SA Government Information Technology Officers’ Council has committed itself to exploring the possibilities of OS use, and to making software procurement choices based on merit, “giving OS software and proprietary software equal opportunities to be selected”.

The council also recognised that “OS software offers significant indirect advantages”.

Although South Africa is widely recognised as a vocal advocate of OS, the country has yet to match Brazil in terms of adoption of OS technology.

In 2003, Brazilian president Lula da Silva committed the largest economy in South America to the adoption of OS software, with the head of that country’s IT Institute saying that paying software licensing fees was economically unsustainable.

It is no coincidence that governmental OS use is being pioneered in the same southern nations that have called for compulsory licensing of patented medicines. In both cases, it is felt that the intellectual property rights of multi-national corporations are priviledged over the needs of developing nations.

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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