February 14, 2007

Cuba and Venezuela – Unlikely Good Examples of Open Source Preference

A recent headline in my local paper, the San Jose Mercury News, attracted my attention: “Cuba moving to ditch Microsoft, its products” (http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/world/16721400.htm). While many would tend to chalk this up to anti-US security paranoia, in my opinion this would be the wrong conclusion.

During 2006 I had the opportunity of meeting with many government officials from around the world and uniformly they were all interested in one thing: saving money on their software license costs. While this was especially prevalent in Asia, this goal was not unique to developing countries. Even the most developed of nations such as Japan is aggressively exploring ways to make better use of open source software and reduce their dependency on Microsoft.

Government users, particularly those in the defense sector have always harbored a distrust of commercial software for sensitive applications. The cry of “Commercial Off the Shelf” (COTS) or “Government Off The Shelf” (GOTS) does not echo as loudly as the crescendo of less budget dollars going out the door. Many organizations will likely be able to increase their size through the promise of reduced software purchasing and support costs.

The article mentions China, Brazil and Norway as countries that have encouraged the development of Linux and the move from Microsoft. They are by no means alone and it would follow that the Cuban model of mobilizing university students to develop open source products is a model that could be easily emulated by many nations. In fact, once upon a time (1997) in a far off land called Bosnia I suggested to the US trade officials that the country’s universities would be ideal places to check Y2K code. Engineering students and graduates had been trained in the old Soviet mainframe mold and could easily adapt to the tasks inherent in riding any code of a potential Y2K problem. Alas, no one thought this was such a good idea.

When I look at this open source movement from a geographical perspective, it strikes me that the big winners in open source product trade are likely to be China, Brazil and India.

In the case of open source the innovator’s dilemma may be more of how to make a profit than to make a usable product.

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