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Free and open source software (FOSS) is well-known for promoting new development methods. Now, a European nonprofit organization known as FOSS Bridge hopes that FOSS can be equally innovative in promoting cooperation between companies and in fostering investment in developing nations. The organization is currently working to help pair European and Vietnamese companies for joint development and business ventures.
In many ways, FOSS Bridge is a natural extension of existing policies. On one hand, the European Union has long had a policy of encouraging greater economic cooperation with Asia. For instance, a report of the Asia-Europe Meeting in 1994 advocates the "use of economic cooperation to promote European trade and investment." In particular, the report singles out once centrally managed economies such as Vietnam's as an opportunity for EU companies to build new relations.
On the other hand, in 2004, the Vietnamese government began implementing a strategy for the adaptation of open source software in order to promote "the development of Vietnam's information technology in general and software industry in particular," creating a pool of open source experts in the country, and creating products "that respond particularly to domestic conditions and practical needs of OSS development."
In 2005, these interests met at the COSGov Conference and Expo in Hanoi. This conference was organized by Internationale Weiterbildung und Entwicklung gGmbH (Capacity Building International, or InWEnt for short) in Germany; l'Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control, or INRIA for short) in France, and the Institute of Information Technology (IOIT) in Vietnam.
"It came up during the conference that many Vietnamese companies would like to use FOSS," says Mario Behling of FOSS Bridge, "but do not know how to get into the FOSS ecosystem and take part in international FOSS development." To overcome this difficulty, conference organizers received support from IT-FOSS, a German federal program for promoting FOSS in southeast Asia, and the European Union's Asia Invest Programme, to produce FOSS Bridge, which was unveiled at the 2007 CEBIT conference in Germany.
"FOSS Bridge is not intended to be profitable," Behling says. "It is a development and exchange programme between the EU and Vietnam. The goal is to bring together companies with the aim to increase their competitiveness and growth. Cooperation of companies using and developing free and open source software is a perfect way to achieve these goals."
To participate in FOSS Bridge, European companies must be actively developing FOSS products, and have an interest in expanding into the Vietnamese market. In addition, they should have a minimum of five FOSS developers or experts in the company, as well as experience in online collaboration. "Consortia of freelance developers are also welcome," Behling says, but all participants must share a commitment to the FOSS philosophy and international cooperation in business.
European participants in FOSS Bridge will be twinned with suitable companies in Vietnam. The role of the European participants will be to introduce their partners to FOSS development and business models, and to work with them on joint business projects. In addition, Behling says, they will be expected to help foster Vietnamese intermediaries, such as user and business groups, and "promote FOSS as a public good and develop joint strategies for increasing the usage of free and open source software and practices in Vietnam."
This policy, Behling notes, is not completely altruistic, but is a form of enlightened self-interest, since the Vietnamese economy, with an average 7.5% growth rate, is an attractive market for investment. In return for their efforts, European participants can benefit from the local expertise of their Vietnamese partners, reducing their risk in entering a new market.
FOSS Bridge is currently developing the details of the twinning process. "From the European side, we are working with several networks who support us to find suitable companies," Behling says. "A list of such networking partners will be online soon.
"On the Vietnamese side, FOSS Bridge aims at supporting intermediaries by offering training and information on technical regulations to intermediaries and subject matter experts in the field of FOSS in Vietnam. The focus lies in establishing innovative business models for potential use in Vietnam, [and] providing crucial knowledge on regulations and requirements to access the European marketplace."
Some of the organizations that FOSS Bridge is working with in Vietnam include the Hochiminh City Association of Science-Technology and Management Consultants (HASTEMAC), the Ministry of Science's Vietnamese Open Source Software Resource Center, and several user groups.
European and Vietnamese companies will be twinned based on database matches followed by exchanges via mail forums and email, and, finally, by in-person meetings, with FOSS Bridge acting as matchmaker. The organization has been focused primarily on finding European partners, and so far has more than 65 applications, more than 40 of which have been approved, according to Behling. The first face-to-face meetings of potential partners is scheduled to occur in Hanoi November 12-16.
Currently, FOSS Bridge is scheduled to run until March 2009 as part of IT-FOSS. Beyond that, the program's existence depends on renewed funding from its sponsors.
However, organizers are optimistic about the unique program having a lasting effect. "This is part of our mission to foster sustainable development and reduce poverty," Behling says.
Similarly, Balthas Seibold, senior project manager at InWEnt, says, "For us, FOSS Bridge EU-Vietnam is not only about innovative collaboration between Europe and Asia or business through FOSS, it is also a way to achieve a virtuous circle of mutual learning and international capacity-building -- which is what InWEnt is all about.
"In a way, free and open source software is a perfect tool for sustainable human development, which is the main goal of our sponsors, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the European Union. FOSS allows for local empowerment, participation, and sharing of knowledge -- which are at the same time main drivers for sustainable social and economic development anywhere."