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Open source software
Free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) has become the preferred choice of many governments and companies in Asia Pacific. It is often referred to by the shorter term open source software or OSS. Countries in the region, from Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan to China, Vietnam and Malaysia, have all announced national policies that emphasize FLOSS as a strategic component of their national ICT plan. FLOSS is not new ICT. Organisations running the Internet infrastructure have relied on FLOSS to operate their servers and other equipment from the beginning.
The term open source refers to software in which the source code is freely available for others to view, amend and adapt. The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute and modify the source code for a program, the software evolves. People can also improve and adapt it.
FLOSS is considered more secure than commercial software partly because a large number of users are constantly upgrading it and partly because hackers target FLOSS far less than commercial products in their attacks. FLOSS is also significantly cheaper to obtain.
The “real” cost of commercial software to users is vividly illustrated when comparing the price of the Microsoft Windows XP operating system against the income levels of developed and developing countries. Ghosh (2004) carriedout a comparison and expressed the cost of Windows XP in GDP months, or the average number of months a user in a particular country will have to work in order to earn sufficient money to pay for the product. A comparison of the relative costs (in GDP months) for a small number of the countries studied reveals huge differences between developed and developing countries: USA 0.19, Japan 0.21, Singapore 0.32, Malaysia 1.82, Thailand 3.59, China 7.37, Solomon Islands 10.94, India 14.53, Vietnam 16.33, Bangladesh 19.19, and Laos 20.62.
The combination of low costs and superior security is strong enough reason for countries in the region to begin to seriously consider adopting FLOSS. But there is an additional reason that resonates with users in Asia Pacific. FLOSS offers users the opportunity and freedom to adapt and localise software to meet their specific language and operating requirements. This feature is one of the most valuable for many countries whose people are mostly unable to use English and the Latin font in operating computers.
The state of FLOSS deployment in Asia Pacific
FLOSS, such as Apache, is the most widely deployed type of software in networked servers and as applications for the Internet infrastructure. Feedback from countries in the region indicates that many ISPs use Apache to manage content mounted on the Web. These ISPs also use Linux distributions as their server operating system. Linux, apart from being almost free in terms of price, supports a wide range of hardware including obsolete servers and computers. There are many cases of Linux being used to operate equipment running on old Intel 486 chips that is deployed as servers for email, proxy, virus blocking and spam filtering. This is an important consideration for users who cannot afford new equipment. ISPs are also using MySQL, an open source database software that is usually applied together with PHP, a scripting language used to create dynamic webpages. PHP evolved from another open source programming language, PERL, which is now used for “writing” a range of functions that allow Internet users to customise the appearance of websites in their browsers, create photo albums for the Web, and manage searchable databases.
The popularity of these open source solutions in the region is in keeping with the global trend to deploy FLOSS to run ISP functions. This attractive blend of open source solutions across the Asia-Pacific Internet infrastructure has contributed to significant reduction in the set-up and operating costs of ISPs. The deployment of FLOSS is now spreading beyond ISPs to the general population of computer users, who are showing increasing interest in open source desktop products and local-language integration.
The interest in using FLOSS is often accompanied by the intention to adapt software to operate in the local languages of the users and to meet their particular needs. Many FLOSS user groups have been set up in recent years.
Three such groups will be presented to illustrate some of the national and regional efforts to promote and support the deployment of FLOSS in tandem with initiatives to localise the software deployed.
Bangla Innovation through Open Source
This group (http://whybios.blogspot.com) was formed as a non-profit trust in August 2002 to address the twin issues of accessibility and affordability of ICT. It comprises Bangladeshi ICT experts, graphic designers, economists, education researchers, students and teachers inside and outside Bangladesh who volunteer their time, resources, experience and knowledge to build a platform where interested ICT professionals and students can work together in building open source technology to bridge the digital divide, besides advocating the use of open source technology in Bangladesh.
Free Software Foundation of India
The foundation (http://fsf.org.in/philosophy/purpose.html) adopts a political interpretation for the word free in the term FLOSS: “Free software is a matter of freedom, not cost. It is a matter of liberty, not price. The word ‘free’ in free software has a similar meaning as in free speech, free people and free country and should not be confused with its other meaning associated with zero-cost. Think of free software as software which is free of encumbrances, not necessarily free of cost.”
The non-profit foundation was established to promote and propagate the use and development of FLOSS in India. Its work includes educating people about “software freedom”. It regards “non-free software as a problem to be solved, not as a solution to any problem”. The foundation also undertakes R&D in FLOSS. Additionally, it helps local policy makers to establish and maintain FLOSS standards and to develop quality assurance mechanisms for free software.
The PAN Localization research project (http://www. panl10n.net/english/about-pan.htm) has four broad objectives:
The scope of the project includes the development of character code sets, collation and other language standards, fonts, lexicons, spelling and grammar checkers, search-and replace utilities, speech recognition systems, text-to-speech synthesis, and machine translation. The project will assess both Linux and Microsoft platforms for these specific applications. Different aspects of technology localisation will be addressed, including linguistic standardisation, computing applications, development platforms, content publishing and access, and the effective marketing and dissemination as well as strategies for protecting the intellectual property rights of the products developed. The project will also research into problems and solutions for local-language computing across Asia and will attempt to build an Asian network of researchers to share their experiences with FLOSS.
The countries (and languages) included in the project are Afghanistan (Pashto, Dari) Bangladesh (Bangla), Bhutan (Dzongkha), Cambodia (Khmer), Laos (Lao), Nepal (Nepali) and Sri Lanka (Sinhala, Tamil). The implementers of the project comprise ICT researchers, practitioners, linguists and policy makers from government agencies, universities and the private sector. Various institutions are participating in the project: BRAC University in Bangladesh; the Department of Information Technology of the Ministry of Information and Communications, the Dzongkha Development Authority of the Ministry of Education, and Sherubtse College in Bhutan; the National Committee for Standardisation of Khmer Script in Computers and the National Information Communications Technology Development Authority in Cambodia; the Science, Technology and Environment Agency and the National University of Lao PDR in Laos; Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya, the University of Kathmandu, and Tribhuvan University in Nepal; and the University of Colombo School of Computing in Sri Lanka. The project is coordinated by the Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing at the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences in Pakistan and supported by the Pan Asia Networking (PAN) Programme of IDRC of Canada.
We begin this brief review by looking at the efforts of three members of ASEAN to appreciate the different approaches they have adopted for promoting FLOSS in their countries. In the case of Vietnam and Thailand, we see two national projects initiated by their governments to trigger the countrywide adoption of FLOSS. Indonesia is an interesting case where users, rather than the government, are taking the lead in mainstreaming FLOSS across this vast archipelago. We complete this review with two examples of FLOSS being used in schools. The first is from Goa, India, where individuals have built computer labs with recycled computers running FLOSS in numerous schools across the state. The second case is from Thailand, where the government has initiated a state-sponsored educational network that is powered by FLOSS.
The Viet government approved in March 2004 the master plan for applying and developing OSS for the period 2004– 2008. The plan was drawn up in response to the concern that the high cost of commercial software is hindering the use of ICT to propel national development. Aside from its low cost, vendor independence, suitability for a wide range of low-cost computers, security and reliability compared to commercial software, FLOSS offers the flexibility for localisation and customisation to meet local needs. Moreover, as Vietnam prepares to join WTO and to fully implement its bilateral trade agreement with the USA, FLOSS has emerged as an important instrument to help it comply with the terms of the trade agreements requiring it to eradicate software piracy. In preparing the master plan, the Viet government was able to tap the experiences of China, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia.
The objectives of the master plan are to speed up the development and use of FLOSS, to train technicians who can deploy FLOSS creatively, to produce FLOSS that is localised to meet domestic conditions and requirements, and to promote the development of the country’s software industry.
Vietnam will experience immense difficulties and challenges in its efforts to promote and deploy FLOSS across the country because of various factors. Firstly, there is little copyright awareness and the use of illegal software remains the norm, resulting in a lack of motivation to switch to FLOSS. At the same time, the spending of ICT projects has not been closely monitored and any cost savings that could have been made from the use of FLOSS have not been maximised. Secondly, specialists who can install, operate, troubleshoot and develop FLOSS are lacking. Uncoordinated R&D efforts in OSS have failed to build up expertise in this area. Thirdly, the country is overdependent on the Microsoft platform. This undesirable dependency has been difficult to address because of the lack of expertise to develop suitable FLOSS and to help users migrate to open source platforms. Lastly, there is a shortage of FLOSS applications that have been localised and rendered suitable for mass deployment
Among the organisations in Vietnam with expertise in FLOSS are two companies that supply operating systems and office applications. One of them is the CMC Company, which develops Linux and applications based on localised Red Hat and OpenOffice. CMC was awarded a contract by the Ministry of Education and Training to supply 5,000 PCs installed with their open source operating system and office applications for more than 100 schools across the country.
The other company is the VietKey Group, which has developed fully localised Linux and OpenOffice under the brand Vietkey Linux. The group has signed agreements with Vietnamese PC makers such as Vietnam Electronic Informatics Corporation, Green Mekong, SingPC and Elead-FPT to install Vietkey Linux in their products. There were an estimated 100,000 PCs installed with Linux in 2003 across Vietnam.
Besides these two companies, there are several others dealing with FLOSS products and services. Nhat Vinh Company is one of them. It develops web and e-commerce applications. Another company, CDIT Centre, develops Internet applications. The Vietsoftware Company recently won a major contract to work on the Hanoi portal initiative. In the meanwhile, the Hanoi University of Technology, Cadpro Company, the Institute of Mathematics and the Institute of Mechanics are all developing high-performance computing applications.
Some organisations have begun to use FLOSS throughout their operations. They include the Informatic Francophonie Institute, the Mathematics Faculty of Ho Chi Minh National University, and the Management Board of ICT Projects of Ho Chi Minh City. The Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Police are also running FLOSS. Most servers in the country operate on FLOSS.
The Thai government has also been working to eliminate software piracy by encouraging the use of legal software while enforcing its Copyright Law. Although most large businesses in Thailand use licensed software, a large percentage of educational and home users cannot afford the high licensing fees. These users are therefore potential adopters of FLOSS.
NECTEC initiated a research project in 1995 to develop a Thai-language operating system and office suite based on open source technology. In addition, it set out to create awareness among users about software copyright and to build local expertise and businesses to support the development and adoption of FLOSS.
As part of this initiative, NECTEC developed FLOSS for schools participating in SchoolNet. The collection of Thai-language software that was eventually distributed for this purpose included the Linux SIS (School Internet Server) operating system for the main Internet servers in schools and Linux TLE (Thai Language Extension) and OpenOffice TLE for desktop PCs. This bundle of software is easy to use, and its quality is comparable to that of the more expensive commercial products. More than 100,000 sets of the software package have been distributed.
Indonesian websites run by Linux magazines such as InfoLinux (http://www.infolinux.web.id and http://www. infolinux.co.id) and Neotek (http://www.neotek.co.id) are popular sources on Linux. Hundreds of books on Linux, the Internet and ICT have been written by Indonesian authors.
User polls conducted by websites (http://www. linux.web.id, http://www.infolinux.co.id and http://Jakarta.linux.or.id) show that Red Hat, Mandrake, Slackware and SuSE are favourite Linux distributions in Indonesia. MySQL is the favourite database software among Indonesian Linux users, while their most popular user interface or window manager is KDE.
The open source movement has led to other collective efforts. In October 2003, a group of users got together and launched Groups.or.id, a free mailing-list discussion platform. It has grown rapidly since then. The first mailing-list server was a computer with a 600-MHz Pentium III processor bought with funds contributed by many people; no one owns the initiative – it truly belongs to the Indonesian people. Other servers are being set up for the open source community, including a free webmail/popmail server and a development server. Three additional servers have been installed since the first mailing-list server was commissioned.
Goa School Computer Project
There are many interesting cases from South Asia of the use of affordable localised open source applications bundled with low-cost hardware to support educational programmes and to enable access to ICT in rural areas. Such efforts by committed individuals in Goa, India, is a useful case to review. These individuals created the School Computer Project, which began as an informal effort by Goans and other Indians living in the USA to help facilitate access to computers by students and other people living in the vicinity of rural schools. They collected used PCs and shipped them to Goa, where the computers were refurbished, loaded with FLOSS and distributed to schools. Teachers at these schools were provided with training on Linux. A local Linux user group was formed to support the initiative. The project proves that affordable computer labs can be established in rural schools using old PCs and FLOSS. Many of the computer labs are open to villagers after school hours for sending email and downloading information from the Web.
The process of setting up such labs usually involves first creating a local organisation to undertake the task. The extent of ICT penetration in the schools in the target area is then assessed. Arrangement has to be made with the local education department to ensure customs duty on hardware is waived. Schools that should be included in the programme are identified. Following that, help in building the infrastructure is given, and teacher training and curriculum development are arranged. Used computers are then sourced and shipped, and provision is made for maintenance of equipment. Finally, the facility is also opened to the villagers after school hours, providing them with useful applications (Indian Express, 2002).
SchoolNet was a pilot infrastructure project to link 5,000 schools in Thailand to the Internet. The aims are to use ICTs, particularly the Internet, to improve the quality of education for the youth, to reduce the gap in the availability of quality education between urban and rural areas, and to promote educational activities on the Internet. The network also serves as a communication tool to facilitate the exchange of information between teachers in the participating schools, between teachers and students, and among the students themselves. It is also designed to encourage youths to search for information, including employment opportunities, on their own using ICT.
SchoolNet was launched in 1995 by NECTEC as a component of the national ICT policy IT 2000. Its development was undertaken in four stages:
Most of the schools continue to depend on the 1509 dial¬up service for access. A small number of leading schools are connected through leased lines. All the schools use the Thai version of Linux SIS to run web, mail proxy, cache and domain name system servers. A Thai-language web administration tool is available for maintaining the server without advanced knowledge of Linux. NECTEC also provides schools with a digital library that can serve as a model for developing school libraries. The digital library is an interactive learning medium for teachers and students nationwide, and it encourages schools to link their websites with other schools’ in the country through SchoolNet.