South America warms to Open Source
The trend to Open Source in South America seems to be stronger than it is anywhere else. Almost all governments there seem to be setting an Open Source agenda.
Brazil, with 170 million or so citizens and by far the largest South American economy (the economy of Sao Paolo on its own is roughly as big as the economy of Mexico), is leading the way.
Brazil's President, Luiz Inacio da Silva, is keen to bridge what he perceives to be a huge technology gap between Brazil and more advanced economies, and sees Open Source as an important means of doing so. He appointed Sergio Amadeu, a former economics professor and Open Source enthusiast, to head Brazil's National Information Technology Institute, after taking office last year. Amadeu wants Open Source to permeate government software usage, educational software usage and home computer usage.
Amadeu is a crusader of a kind, having written a book entitled "Digital Exclusion: Misery in the Information Era", which argues that technology broadens the gap between the wealthy (the digitally enabled) and the needy (the digital paupers). He gained fame in Brazil through launching a network of 86 free computer centers running Open Source software in Sao Paulo. In Brazil only about 10 per cent of the population have home computers. Brazil's Open Source leanings may become a role model for other Latin American countries, but most need little encouragement.
Argentina, having recently undergone an economic collapse, is also a lover of Open Source. The enthusiasm for it there has engulfed much of the private sector, where according to a 2004 survey from Argentina-based Trends Consulting, 42 per cent of Argentine companies use Linux and many of these are planning to use Open Source for all new applications.
In Chile, Open Source is being deployed extensively in schools through the government's high school internet access network, Enlaces, which now implements the Edulinux system. This is server–based with PCs (including old PCs) primarily acting as terminals. The PCs run OpenOffice and the Mozilla browser, FireFox. Chile hopes to use this to increase the pupil-to-PC ratio to 30 to 1.
In Venezuela, President Chavez issued a decree, in December 2004, mandating Venezuela's public administration to switch to Open Source in the course of the next two years. All ministries are required to come up with migration plans to meet the target date.
Most interesting of all, perhaps, is Peru, where the government recently introduced a bill mandating the use of Open Source software by the state. It is an interesting development because the emphasis within the bill is specifically on the idea of openness. In Peru, Open Source in government is being viewed as a citizen's right – in order to deliver:
* Free access to public information for the citizen
* A permanent record of public data
* Security, both for the State and its citizens
The bill clearly classifies software as "information" of a kind. Thus the bill specifically does not:
* forbid the production or sale of proprietary software
* mandate the use of any specific software
* mandate in favour of or against any named supplier (local or foreign)
* limit software license terms in any way other than that the source must be open
Not surprisingly, Microsoft is lobbying hard against the passing of this bill, but it looks as though the bill won't be stopped by anything short of a coup. A translation of an interesting letter from Peruvian congressman Dr Edgar David Villanueva Nunez to Microsoft's Peruvian general manager, Señor Juan Alberto Gonzalez, can be found on this website.
It is a long letter, but well worth a read. Here are a few quotes from it:
For software to be acceptable for the state it is not enough that it is technically capable of fulfilling a task, but that further, the contractual conditions must satisfy a series of requirements regarding the license, without which the State cannot guarantee the citizen adequate processing of his data, watching over its integrity, confidentiality, and accessibility throughout time, as these are very critical aspects for its normal functioning.
Nothing in the text of the Bill would prevent your company [Microsoft] offering the State bodies an office 'suite', under the conditions defined in the Bill and setting the price that you consider satisfactory. If you did not, it would not be due to restrictions imposed by the law, but to business decisions relative to the method of commercializing your products, decisions with which the State is not involved.
Relative to the security of the software itself, it is well known that all software (whether proprietary or free) contains errors or "bugs" (in programmers' slang). But it is also well known that the bugs in free software are fewer, and are fixed much more quickly, than in proprietary software.
In South American countries, as in most other areas of the world, the government is by far the biggest purchaser of software. Thus the Open Source trend that is now established in the government sector across the continent will doubtless spur Open Source adoption in the private sector.
There are a variety of motives for Open Source adoption in play in there, from the reduction in software costs to the desire to provide a "leg-up" to the local software industry.
However, the motivation of the Peruvian government is unique in that the Peruvian supporters of the bill see "Open Source" as a citizen's right. The ownership and responsibility for the use of data and software have become a political issue in Peru.
This is an idea that is unlikely to go away.