It was my brother who first introduced me to the world of the ‘feasible alternative’. One summer, he came back with a brand new laptop loaded with Firefox (Mozilla Firefox now), replacing the all time favorite Internet Explorer. Even though he advocated its being an ‘open source’ software with the philosophy of knowledge as a public good, what I saw from Firefox then was its new (thus inconvenient) interface and the messed-up (thus not functional) website views since many of websites didn’t support Firefox at that time. And that was my first encounter to the open source; agreeing on the idea but questioning the practical impact.
Last week, I was participating in a forum in Bangkok organized by Asian Women in Co-Operative Development Forum (AWCF) on ICT application in enterprise development. There was a guest speaker from the International Open Source Network (IOSN) at UNDP-APDIP, to introduce and promote open source software as an affordable solution to serve co-op members, most of them helping micro/small-size entrepreneurs. It was a very interesting presentation including the news that they are currently on the way developing an open source software package for small and medium enterprises called ‘SME in a Box’, the second version of which will be released by the end of this year.
As most of the open source movements, the key behind it is to provide a viable alternative to propriety solutions, furnishing equal functionality at a lower cost, without paying a bulk money for annual, scale-based licensing fee. Why the bootleg software market is so flourishing in many developing countries? In part, it may be due to the people not considering the intangible product as something as valuable as their rickshaws, or to those too weak and soft responses from the government regulating the violation of intellectual property law. However, amid the discussions of protecting the Intellectual Property and promoting innovation through IP protection, another important point doesn’t receive enough spotlight; that maybe, they really can not afford the official product – the price of innovation and creativity, a.k.a. licensing fee, is simply to high for them to start innovating on their own.
I’m not going to argue the immorality of [some] intellectual property law here. But you may agree, that it is near nonsense to refer to words like ‘productivity’ or ‘efficiency’ today without equipping your (small) business with a word processing program or an excel sheet to record and keep track of your transactions. But what if you cannot afford it? Would you enter the informal bootleg market?
Most of the participants in the Forum were representatives from small and medium Co-operative organizations in South East Asian countries, and the level of attention was quite high, reflecting their interest. And most agreed that developing such a package surely seems like a promising first step, but at the same time, going open source is not a panacea to actually let them leapfrog.
One of the participants, a co-op from Indonesia shared her own first exposure to open source software. She had received a free open-source software CD a while ago, but she didn’t try it twice after realizing that it’s different from what she’d been using and there was no one to teach her; and that to use it, she should start learning anew by herself and until she becomes proficient, she would remain ICT-illiterate again for a while. (But she promised to try and learn it now that she had understood how nice the open source movement was)
Just as she mentioned, open source has not yet gained wider ground in many developing countries, where large propriety companies comprise the mainstream. As a matter of fact, for many SMEs, applying ICT is not just about the availability of product per se but rather about the availability of support and guidance, the existence of rich support network where they can turn to whenever they face small and large, serious and not so serious problems as they go. And being in South significantly reduces the opportunity to benefit from this support they need.
Our guest speaker at the forum, concluding his presentation, mentioned the training of the trainers to serve as a support network for open source movement for development. This was in fact one of the next steps where more attention should be paid (and not necessarily ‘is’ paid currently). Compared to the vivid presence of CDs he distributed after the presentation, those words sounded somewhat too much like a ‘recommendation’ section decorating the end of any random research paper.
It’s been six years since I first tried out my Firefox. Now, I don’t find any difficulty browsing most North-based websites and many South-based sites with it. It takes time to gain a critical mass, which would eventually lead people to start paying more attention to the movement and providing support and resources. I just saw SME in a Box taking off with great idea behind it. It will take time, but I really hope my next encounter with it would be also with promising applications to many SMEs out there.
*Many thanks to Dr. Francis for the presentation
Posted By Julia Zoo
Posted Aug 8th, 2007