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UNU International Institute for Software Technology director Mike Reed explains that because the cost of a Windows system equates to a year and a half of salary in such areas, the proprietary software model is not sustainable. Indeed, as much of 90 percent of the proprietary software in use in these developing countries consists of pirated copies.
Although UNU estimates 70 to 80 percent of open source software use comes from developing countries, only 2 percent of FOSS community developers are from these countries, according to Reed. "We're trying to train people so they can become producers, not just consumers," he says, referring to the Global Desktop Project, an initiative to enlist open source developers in East Asia that involves 19 partners from industry, government and other fields. "We're looking to teach and train, but in doing so, we're creating a community of open source developers."
Open source may not be the answer
Some doubt that open source, even though it is maturing and spreading to more applications, is the ideal solution for those at an economic disadvantage.
"Open source is not the poor man's Windows," says Mukul Krishna, a senior analyst with industry researcher Frost & Sullivan. "That is a mindset that should be discouraged from being advocated."
Krishna says that open source software is valuable and necessary for developing nations. "It is a cheaper way for developing nations that have limited resources to help reduce the digital divide," he says, adding open source also helps countries avoid proprietary monopolies, which remain a threat in developing nations.
Still, Krishna stresses that limiting prospects to only open source solutions and development may deprive these nations of access to other resources, which might include proprietary solutions, companies, and their money. "A lot of people argue there are more opportunities from proprietary solutions, and they might not get it if they are so open source oriented," he says. "The proper course of action is not to be tied to one or get into any religious wars. You want everyone to work with you. The good thing now is there are a lot of choices."
Krishna also points to incentives and offers from proprietary vendors, arguing much of the opportunity, and possible employment, in developing nations lies with these large, proprietary companies.
UNU's Reed also highlights the need to involve corporate giants, and said companies such as IBM, Intel, and Sun Microsystems are among the Global Desktop Project partners. He indicates other large companies, such as Microsoft, have been forced to adjust their own strategies because of open source, the example being Microsoft's opening of code to some government customers to offset security fears.
Reed says the open source opportunities for developing countries do not preclude their use of proprietary solutions or assistance. "We're not fighting a battle," he says. "We're trying to avoid the 'us and them.'"
Nevertheless, Reed believes the best way to get more developing world production in open source and overall is to give people a chance to create. "We're looking to create real projects people can use in the real world," he says, referring specifically to Brazil and Southeast Asia.
Krishna blames the lack of software developers from these developing nations on lack of time, as most people have to work other jobs to support themselves and their families.
Still, the analyst says software is an area of technology where the barriers to entry are "minuscule."
"What could impede it is education," Krishna says. "That's something where the nations have to help themselves."
Krishna says open source software may be among the drivers of success in places such as China and India. He decries the lack of attention and focus on sub-Saharan Africa, which he describes as "truly lost right now" in terms of technology and economic development
Reed, who says the Global Desktop Project effort has succeeded somewhat in China, Southeast Asia, and Brazil, agrees that Africa does not show up on the map in terms of IT development and economic opportunity. But open source, which helps fuel development and economic activity in Northern Europe, has the potential to bring along developing regions, including Africa, according to Reed.
"There's almost nothing else like it," he says. "Once you get in that community, it's a more level playing field. We're trying to teach people how to get into that community."