Is open source the saviour?

Open-source software (OSS) has had a lot of publicity recently, the most noticeable of which was the launch of the Mark Shuttleworth-backed Go Open Source campaign earlier this month. Everybody, it seems, from the government to private corporations, NGOs and home users, is hailing open source as the saviour of the IT industry in South Africa.

OSS has been developed in such a way that the “source code” can be seen by other people, and altered as necessary. OSS is not necessarily free of charge to users, but it often is, and it is software that falls into this category that the campaign aims to promote.

Companies that develop open-source applications can make money from providing support services and training, rather than from selling the software itself. Probably the most famous open-source application is Linux, the free operating system that is often touted as an alternative to Microsoft Windows.

But operating systems are not the only area where OSS is providing competition to commercial software. There are open-source word processors, accounting applications, graphics and multimedia editing tools and games, all available for free under the Gnu Public Licence, the agreement that makes open source what it is.

So, if it’s all free, why are so few people using it?

“Open source has not been marketed properly,” says Thomas Black, open-source programme manager for the Shuttleworth Foundation. This is the gap that the Go Open Source campaign hopes to fill, by publicising OSS and making it available to the public.

Alastair Otter, of Tectonic, a South African open-source information site, agrees that lack of awareness is a problem and says that he thinks the campaign is “fantastic”, because it will educate South Africans about the availability of alternatives to proprietary commercial software. He says that for small businesses, in particular, the cost of software can be prohibitive, and that the use of OSS will remove that financial burden.

He also believes the campaign will have a beneficial effect on the software development community in Southern Africa, a sentiment echoed by software developer Andre Coetzee, who has been involved in developing Impi, a South African open-source operating system, and Cubit, an accounting package (both freely available). Coetzee feels that “any marketing is beneficial to the open-source community”.

Adi Attar, of the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Open Source Centre, says the use of OSS will have a number of beneficial effects on the economy. She says that a lot of money is spent on software that is manufactured outside the country; migrating to open source means that companies will save money on commercial software licences and spend more on technical support, training and maintenance. This, in turn, will stimulate local IT development and build capacity in South Africa, she says.

All well and good, but OSS is seldom as simple to use as the better-known proprietary software, often having a steep learning curve. The Go Open Source campaign says it will address this by making training materials available to the public, but it is telling that it is not distributing an operating system as part of its OSS collection. It is hoping to do this, but as anyone who has ever tried to install a Linux-based operating system on a home computer will tell you, this can be a nightmarish task.

Because OSS is not standardised, you may find yourself having to manually download and install drivers for every piece of hardware you own, from video display card to modem and mouse. For home and small-business users, the learning curve may well prove too steep and the costs of employing an expert too high to warrant the move. But for larger companies looking to save money on software licensing, OSS may well be a boon, and for anyone looking to move into the IT field, it looks like OSS support may well be the way to go.

The Go Open Source campaign is releasing a CD of software that users can have posted to them by sending their name, address and contact number to go@go-opensource.org.za. This CD contains desktop application software for the Windows operating system, including office applications, image- and audio-editing tools, games and utilities.

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