Which is better for public use in the developing world: free/open source software or proprietary software? Even casual readers of WorldChanging should be able to guess where our opinions tend to fall, but it's always useful to have empirical evidence to back up (or refute!) subjective beliefs. While a good deal of work has been done about free/open software in the South American and South Asian settings, less research has been done about free/open software in Africa ("Black Star Ghana," which we linked to over a year ago, remains a high point in the field).
Bridges.org is a technology NGO that works with organizations such as the World Economic Forum (WEF), the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force), United Nations ICT Task Force, Glocal Forum, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to help promote socio-economic development using information and communications technologies. They have just published a report comparing the uses and utility of free/open source software and proprietary software in the African setting. The paper -- which can be downloaded directly from Bridges (PDF) -- does not take a zealous position on either side of the free/proprietary divide. Instead, it looks at the reality of computer use in economically developing areas, and illustrates the ways in which different approaches can achieve similar goals.
Some of the key observations and conclusions:
The thin-client model provides a reliable, cost-effective and popular solution for public-access computer labs in Africa. Software license costs for proprietary software are significant in principle, but in practice they are not borne by many of the public-access computer labs in Africa.
Training courses for PS are more widely available than for FOSS. The fact that FOSS makes source code available and encourages modifications is not exploited by the vast majority of public-access lab staff or users in Africa because they lack the necessary skills. However, it does offers an opportunity for local service providers to create customised applications.
Financial constraints are the key obstacle for African public-access labs, regardless of whether they are using free/open source or proprietary software. With only rare exceptions, the current models for public-access computer labs in Africa are not self-sustainable, regardless of whether they are using free/open source or proprietary software. Linking sustainability with the effective delivery of social services could make public-access labs worth subsidising over the long term.
The report also makes a number of useful recommendations to computer lab operators and policy makers:
To the greatest extent possible, provide software applications that are the most relevant in the local context.
Do not let persuasive sales pitches or strong advocacy make the choice of software seem like it has to be an either-or scenario: consider a mix of FOSS and PS if that best suits lab needs.
When making software choices, choose reliability and stability over functionality.
If you choose to promote FOSS solutions across society and the economy, focus on raising awareness about software use and benefits at all levels: decision-makers, community stakeholders, lab staff, and end users.
Encourage and support the development of locally-relevant applications that run on multiple operating systems. Use public funds to create software that can fill specific local needs and be considered a public good.
Make smart choices about accepting software (and related) donations and keep public-private partnerships transparent.
Support open standards (such as open document formats) to minimise the impact of a rapidly changing technology environment.
The entire report runs over 100 pages, and looks to be useful reading for anyone looking at striking the right balance between F/OSS and proprietary applications in a community setting.
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