When Linux fails

Recently I was able to visit the Ontario Linux Fest. I love shows like Ontario, as they're run by amateurs, not by professional show companies. Don't get me wrong, the professional shows have their place too, but I don't tend to listen to the other speakers at those shows as I've heard most of them before. I'm sure they've all heard my talks as well, so instead we tend to hang out in the speaker rooms trying to get the wireless network to work, and swapping airline travel horror stories.

I do listen to the talks at smaller shows. Amateur shows are a labor of love, and it shows. The line up of speakers at the Ontario show was fascinating. One talk in particular caught my eye, by Ian Howard, called "Free and Open Source Software in Africa - Emerging Opportunities for Linux". The slides from his talk are available here (pdf). The talk itself didn't disappoint, and it was quite shocking, at least to me. It was a positive and upbeat talk about his experiences in Africa promoting Linux and Open Source software. But what he was really teaching us was an understanding of how Linux can fail in places like Africa.

Ian had gone to Africa as part of an organization called Geekcorps, dedicated to promoting IT use in developing nations. He worked on a range of projects in Mali, a West African nation which like most African nations is very undeveloped as far as IT is concerned.

At first glance Free and Open Source software should be perfect for places like Mali. The local economy is poor, and average salaries make proprietary software an unimaginable expense for most people there. Yet the place is overrun with copies of Microsoft Windows. This is the toxic effect of what is called software "piracy" of course, although it bears little resemblance to what occurs off the coast of Somalia and is better called copyright infringement, as that's what it really is. Copyright infringement doesn't sound as threatening or scary as "piracy" though, does it ? The outcome of this rampant illegal software copying is that Windows is seen as "the first world standard" and any attempt to push a cheaper alternative is strongly resisted. They consider it trying to cheat local people out of getting the same quality of software that is used in the developed world, even though it's a legal way of getting quality software for free.

Ian's group first worked on a custom Linux distribution called "Kunnafonix", designed for local radio stations. Local radio stations are an incredibly important communication tool in Africa, and most of them run on proprietary systems imported from the West, ill suited for the temperature extremes and power requirements found in rural Africa. Kunnafonix was designed to be easy to use, install and repair, could be run as a live CD, and contained copies of the Wikipedia encyclopedia and the audacity audio processing software. Many problems in operation could be fixed by doing a simple one-click reinstall to reset the system into a known good state.

However, installation of Kunnafonix was resisted by many of the local organizations they had to work with. The local "computer support person" resented a solution that was so easy to use that it undermined the power and prestige they received by being the person to consult when a Windows computer had problems. It's amazing to see the myth that Linux is hard to use, install, and support still being propagated in much of the media here in the USA, when in reality it is resented by Windows administrators due to its ease of use and lesser requirements for professional support.

More successful was their project to extend the Internet into communities by wireless networking, creating innovative ways to extend the range of wireless networks. In the wonderful talk A New Way to look at Networking Van Jacobson, one of the creators of the modern TCP protocol said "the Internet reaches everywhere in the world, it's just that sometimes the latencies are really, really high". Everyone in the world has access to the Internet, it's just sometimes they get to it by bicycling to the next village to view content that someone has delivered to them by burning it onto a CD-ROM. Extending wireless networking to remote villages can cut that latency to the point where Internet access can make a positive difference to people's everyday lives. They can check the local commodity prices to discover if it's worth it before undergoing a day long trip to the market for example. This time they were able to teach local technicians to make and repair the wireless network infrastructure they were creating, which made a great difference.

In a region with no software development experience, even Open Source software isn't going to help bootstrap a computer support or software industry where there is nothing to start with. Even though you can see all of the source code inside a Linux distribution, without local expertise and knowledge to support and maintain it, it might as well be a closed source Windows installation. In fact, as knowledge of Windows is already widespread in such areas, even though it's due to illicit software copying, Windows may be a better choice until you can break through the network effects keeping it dominant.

What shone though clearly in Ian's talk was that unless you can partner with the local people, and most importantly help them make money with the new systems you're trying to get them to use, then you're just another well meaning interloper, trying to sell them something that probably won't work. Making money is the key. Without the opportunity of economic benefits, people in developing countries simply don't have the time to learn about Free and Open Source software, no matter how much it seems to fit their needs from an external point of view.

Jon "Maddog" Hall's keynote talk at the Ontario Linux Fest also made this point in a very powerful way. Jon is a wonderfully entertaining speaker, and not afraid of controversy. Showing a picture of a child in the African bush holding a "One Laptop per Child" laptop he said "I don't care about this kid". The audience drew a shocked breath. "He's screwed," continued Jon. "Five hundred miles of bush behind him, five hundred miles of bush in front of him. There's nothing I can do to help here". Jon flipped the slide to show a Brazilian "favela", or slum city, with an incredibly dense population, seeming to cling to the side of a nearby hill. He said, "This is where I can help. These kids have electricity. They can get a network connection. I can do something with Open Source and Free Software here".

Jon isn't a callous person. He's just decided to focus his resources on somewhere he knows he can help today. It's hard to find fault with him for that.

Ian aimed higher, and when you aim higher you have further to fall when you miss. He's recently completed an MBA, and is concentrating more on the business side of things than the technical. I learned a very valuable lesson from his talk though. Something I, like many Free and Open Source software geeks, often forget whilst concentrating on the technical side of the software we love. Sometimes, technical excellence isn't enough. Linux, and Open Source software can fail badly in the real world not because of technical issues, but because of economic. We have to remember the lesson learned in the US election of 1992, and again in 2008. Sometimes, "It's the economy, stupid!"

Jeremy Allison
Samba Team.
San Jose, California.
6th December 2008.


Thank you

Fascinating read, thank you!

You're so right

I'm writing this from Chad, also an emerging (what a nice name) country in Africa. I'm here for nearly three years now, and the points you relay are really important:

- people want to eat (make money)
- if it's Windows that makes them eat, so what?

I have an extremely hard time getting them to think about the long term, as most of them struggle to survive in the short term! But over these last three years I got to know some people who DO care - and they're glad to know Linux, also beacause some of the telecom-companies here are using it...

ineiti at markas-al-nour ddoott org

Missing link?

It seems that the link to "Free and Open Source Software in Africa - Emerging Opportunities for Linux" is missing in the second paragraph.

Re: Missing Link?

You were right. Fixed now.

"...resented by Windows

"...resented by Windows administrators due to its ease of use and lesser requirements for professional support."

Linux first gained acceptance in the server room because it made possible new uses for old hardware. It's not going to do the same in a radio station because the support for multimedia hardware is superior in Windows.

I know that if I were the Windows admin/on-site hardware technician at a radio station, and I did not have the means to download, patch, burn, test, update or upgrade a Linux system, I would be highly resistant to changing something that's working.

For example. What happens when the technician replaces a sound card? Will it still work automatically?

Here, their job is to run a radio station. You need to sell linux *too* them, not despite them. Given that you're not selling it for money, and they're not asking for a fix, the software is a solution to a problem which doesn't exist.

. . . resented . . .

Didn't you read the simple way that particular distro had been made? Perhaps your response is exactly what the writer had meant since you're automatically resisting without checking out the Linux system.

Replace a sound card in Windows with a different type and you'll need to find drivers and install them. In all the Linux systems I've used over the past 2 years, EACH AND EVERY sound card has worked. In fact, my systems have booted up after changing motherboards with different chipsets in them - Windows would require a repair-install.

Embrace change and you'll learn new things much more quickly.

Fat Pop Do Wop

A solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

There is going to be that tiny problem of a cash-strapped Microsoft, starting a piracy crackdown this year.

Same in Vietnam

I love Ian's point of view. Vietnam should come up as the one on top of software piracy list, and during my first 20 years there, Microsoft OS was the only desktop OS everybody know (except Novel Netware). I grew up with DOS 6.2 through Windows 2000.

It's ironic that the knowledge I acquired with "pirated" software turned me into an expert in MS products (very fluent in MS-Windows and MS-Office), comparing to most of the techs I work with here in the US. When I introduce Ubuntu to my friends in VN, none of them was excited (you can buy Windows for $0.20 anywhere there).

But fear not, even I can be converted when introduced to the idea of software freedom. We just need to be patient and go slow with a good plan.

It's not the software that's free; it's you.

"you can buy Windows for

"you can buy Windows for $0.20 anywhere there"

I believe that was another point in John "Maddog" Hall's talk at Ontario LinuxFest. He mentioned that Red Hat was three times as expensive as windows -- three blank cds vs one

Still not correct actually

what about the blank cd's for Office, Anti-Spyware, Anti-Virus?

Actually that was my talk :-)

But I won't blame you for mis-remembering. Jon's talk was really good :-).


Who can we help?

Interesting read.

I have to agree with Maddog about not being able to help the kid in the African bush. We can write software, we can build servers and workstations and we can show people how to use them. We can't, however, build the basic infrastructure that is needed to power and connect this stuff when the country itself has nothing. Maddog's comment about "not caring" is pragmatic, not callous. Each of us has a limited amount of time on this planet to accomplish something. Fretting over that which you cannot fix is a waste of that time.

BTW, thank you, Jeremy and your colleagues, for Samba. I recall when I first ran across it around 1997. It took a while to get it working (on SCO OSR5 in those days—compiling it was no simple matter in that environment), but the efforts to have a UNIX filesystem magically appear on a Windows box have borne fruit many times over. With Samba, I've been able to oust numerous Windows servers at various and sundry clients and replace them with much more reliable UNIX/Linux boxes. :-)

The GPL isn't gonna help

This a Linux blog and I don't think I'll get published, but I'll give it a try.

I think the GPL is never gonna do it for people in the developing world. There's not a huge ecosystem that truly supports diversity, there are no Red Hats.

Promoting Linux is a hopeless situation. Any fledgling software house will get crushed under the GPL - there's just no way giving code away, without the cover of proprietary protection is gonna promote a healthy ecosystem.

Unfortunately, Linux is promoted in these places, instead of, say, FreeBSD or the new user friendly PC-BSD. The BSD license would give the small software houses the technology transfer they badly need while protecting them from predatory plundering from the competition.

We've had Linux for a long time now and I think it's pretty clear there's now a healthy ecosystem of small software houses, like there's in Windows (and now the Mac). This proves there aren't many suicidal people who would code apps with the GPL, virally contaminating everything they touch.

It's too bad that all this energy for open source promotion is channeled in the wrong direction (Linux). Linux is largely simply an add-on for hardware corporations. As long as they support this huge PR (Maddog), we will continue on this useless path.

To sum it up: BSD, not Linux is the way forward. Just do away with the GPL. It's not helping. It's only helping IBM and its peddlers, like John Maddog, it's not helping the people, it's doing NOTHING to empower them to run a business of their own. At the very best, they'll become employees for American companies, that's all.

The GPL helps

Tut tut.

The GPL has clearly proved itself more friendly than BSD licenses, to both the developer and the business - and protects the integrity and freedom of the code.

In all seriousness, this argument fizzled out quite a few years ago.

Here's an article that states the case quite clearly:


>>> Unfortunately, Linux is

>>> Unfortunately, Linux is promoted in these places, instead of, say, FreeBSD or the new user friendly PC-BSD. The BSD license would give the small software houses the technology transfer they badly need while protecting them from predatory plundering from the competition.

Wait, a major point of the article is piracy causes software to be worth nothing. Instead the money is in support. In that case BSD, GPL, whatever, it doesn't matter- the buck is made off of support. And this is the model that the Enterprise distros take.

The only way to introduce

The only way to introduce linux is indirectly. When I ran a small IT support company in Lagos, our core operating system that we installed was Windows Small Business Server. However, all our firewalls were based on Linux and running on Intel boxes that we built ourselves. Another area I am sure will work, although we did not actively pursue it would be linux-based (asterix) PBX boxes. It's not a question of either/or.


keeping Linux Alive

Please donate your old boxes to a church-group or some needy student in these hard times! To comply with the law, and with Microsoft's leasing policy, you can now replace Microsoft OS with the free (download from the net) Ubuntu OS, which can be set to erase the hard drive of all traces of the “illegal to give away ” Microsoft system and your private information, before donation! Now, explain to your lucky recipient that all the manuals they will ever need are available for free on the internet! Just ask for them in Google! OpenOffice, which is installed already is plenty adequate for homework assignments and with a little exploring, everything else can work well too! Happy computing!

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