Opening a can of source

Last week, close to 500 African journalists and information and communication technology (ICT) policy-makers gathered in Grahamstown at the annual Highway Africa conference.

They were there to discuss and learn about technology in the newsroom, the growing momentum behind the World Summit for Information Society and other issues, including open-source software (OSS).

In the run-up to the conference, I had the opportunity to teach two groups of mid-career journalists about the broader issues around reporting on OSS. I must admit, it was an eye-opener.

My class comprised a mix of people, ranging from small community publications in Lesotho to large Nigerian media conglomerates. For many of the journalists, it was the first time they had been introduced to the concept of an alternative to Microsoft.

After seeing how they interacted with Knoppix — a lightweight, easy-to-use distribution of Linux that boots from a CD-ROM — it became clear that most of them thought Windows was simply part of the computer.

It’s same the kind of brand power that led to the word “Omo” becoming the generic word for washing powder in some relatively new Asian pidgin language.

At the risk of sounding academic, the challenge was to de-hegemonise this space of power and help them develop a critical framework for this aspect of the ICT marketplace. But it also crystallised a couple of questions about OSS that had been floating around in my head over the past year, concerning issues that, if not properly addressed, will hinder the spread of OSS in Africa.

The first question concerns awareness. Given that a major push forward for OSS must come from those reporting on ICT in the mainstream media, I am seriously concerned that there is a general lack of awareness among African journalists about the implications and context of OSS.

Where you have, on the one hand, a powerful brand and marketing strategy from Microsoft in the desktop operating-system arena, you have a weak and decentralised message from the OSS community on the other.

This is changing in South Africa and, despite the efforts from the Shuttleworth Foundation and other organisations, it’s going to take years rather than months for this message to permeate the market and convince African journalists to write about OSS — especially when the editorial policies of their publications still dictate that political and economic stories are top priority.

The second question is about access. To Microsoft’s credit, it has made installing and using new software easy. As one of the privileged elite who use a computer for almost all of my daily work, I still struggle to install OSS on my machine.

Imagine what it’s like for someone who knows nothing about computers and who speaks English as a second or third language. Having to build your own install file or executable is simply unacceptable in this situation.

Think about what Apple has done with FreeBSD and how easy it is to use OS X — that’s where OSS needs to go before ordinary people are going to accept it completely.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

By the end of these training sessions, people were telling me they were excited about being able to obtain a free content-management system for their publications, that they liked the idea that software should be free, and that they wanted to know more about it and tell their respective constituencies about this amazing new thing they had discovered at the tip of Africa.

Most importantly, it gave them ideas about breaking a Western stranglehold on software supply and provision. Words such as “revolution” and “independence” were floating around and that, dear reader, is the spirit of open source.

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