About Free/Libre and Open Source Software...

Monday, October 31, 2005

My pleasure to introduce: Yash from Mauritius

Yash is a Systems Engineer with an entrepreneurial spirit based in Mauritius. He founded the first and only Ruby User Group locally -- Rubidius. It has its homepage here and its could-be-more-activemailing list here. Earlier this year he "predicted that the future of web apps will be based on Ruby on Rails."
Rails sustainable productivity for web-application development is a full-stack, open-source web framework in Ruby for writing real-world applications with joy and less code than most frameworks spend doing XML sit-ups

Says Yash: "My interests lie in Business, Free and Open Source Software, Optimizing Business Processes and Investments, Music and technology in general. Favourite GNU/Linux distro: Yoper. (Your Operating System, Y Operating System, YOS.) Favourite programming language: Ruby (you'd have guessed that). I started programming with an Oric Atmos using self-taught BASIC. Today I'm more interesting in the strategic management issues of I.S. and Business integration."

Check out Yashlabs here.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Booklets on FLOSS... from Bangkok

Free/Open Source Software: A General Introduction by Kenneth Wong and Phet Sayo is a 60-page booklet, part of the Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme's e-Primers series. What makes it interesting is not just that it is written in a simple and easily-accessible style, but also the fact that it is freely downloadable. (From www.iosn.net)

Its preface calls the Free and Open Source (FOSS) movement one of the "new technologies and ... new opportunities... that is playing out before us today". It also calls it many things at the same time. Including, a "revolutionary development process, disruptive technology, ideological movement, new knowledge and standards, and more".

This primer launched the series which is focussed on the FOSS movement. One would prefer the use of the term FLOSS, since the "libre" concept is obviously a crucial one here. But then, the power of the corporate world is such that they define concepts and one has little choice on whether it should be Linux (rather than GNU/Linux), Open Source rather than Free Software, and FOSS rather than FLOSS.

That apart, this book contains some useful material. It starts off with definitions: about the Free Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative, the FOSS development method (reduced
duplication of effort, building upon the work of others, better quality control, and reduced maintenance costs), and a brief history of FOSS.

Then we go to the meat of the issue: why FOSS?

Also: Is FOSS free? How large are the savings from FOSS? What are the benefits of using FOSS (security, reliability and stability, open standards and vendor independence, reduced reliance on imports, developing local software capacity, reduced 'piracy', localization possibilities, etc)?

There's the other side of the balance-sheet presented too: what are the shortcomings of FOSS?

This primer admits to the lack of business applications, hassles when it comes to inter-operability with some proprietary systems, and limitations on the availability of documentation and the 'polish' with which products are presented.

From there, we go to FOSS success stories. These are pointers to projects where large governments (or supra-governments like the European Union) took strongly pro-FOSS policies. There are studies from The German Bundestag servers, the city of Munich, the experiences in France, UK's policies on FOSS procurement, and the migration to FOSS in the city of Turku in Finland.

From the Americas success storiasia, es come from California, Texas and Oregon -- even if the pro-FOSS laws were still to be passed at the time of writing. Then, there's Peru, Brazil, and, in Asia, China, India, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan.

Wong and Phet, who obviously have a good overview of the subject they're writing about, shift to some successful FOSS projects. These include Bind (the DNS server, without which internet addresses such as yahoo.com or even microsoft.com would not function), the Apache web server, the Sendmail email server, the secure network administration tool OpenSSH, and the Open Office productivity suite.

Richard M Stallman, the father of the Free Software Movement and a guest of the International Open Source Network, would probably be happy with a section of this book(let) that explains the difference between the "Linux" buzzword, and the concepts like GNU/Linux. Newbies to this entire idea are told about where they can download GNU/Linux from -- don't try unless you have a fat pipe to the internet, it's just easier to very-legally make copies of a distro that someone else has. Issues like download time, installation and compiling time, quality assurance and learning time are also very briefly touched on.

With so much packed in a small book, you might just realise that we've still only reached half-way through the title. Quite rapidly, the authors shift to more complex issues -- licensing
arrangements, the GNU General Public License, BSD-style licenses, and issue like whether FOSS can be combined with proprietary software.

We move on to localisation ("the process of creating or adapting a product to a specific locale, i.e. to the language, cultural context, conventions and market requirements of a specific target 'market'), methods for localizing, and a case-studies of FOSS in government and education.

Having seen how some of this works on the ground, it might be risky to rely solely on the printed word to judge how things work in this field. For instance, a more thorough evaluation of the Goa Schools Computer Project (or, Goa Computers in Schools Project, as it has also been called) stills awaits being done. And it would be best done by someone who has empathy and appreciates the potential, without necessarily being a close observer-participant as this reviewer has been.

Finally, we end with a glossary... much-needed for a subject as geeky as this. There's also a list of interesting URLs of different GPL compatible and incompatible software licenses. As noted above, what makes this book different is not just that you are free to "copy, distribute and display" it, but also make derivative works from it and make commercial use of this work. Further, the authors are generous in crediting all the persons whose work, comments, feedback and copyedits went into creating this work. We are reminded at the end about the agendas of the two UNDP-linked institutions that brought it out (www.apdip.net and www.iosn.net).

Clearly, there's no reason why this needs to be read by both those gung-ho and those skeptical about the potential of FOSS. You can't claim that the costs (there's none) or lack of access (it's just a URL away) kept you from reading it. -- Frederick Noronha

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Fighting disaster... FLOSS style

Chamindra de Silva informs that Sahana phase I is currently being deployed in Pakistan together with the support of NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority) of Pakistan, IBM Crisis Response Team and IBM Pakistan. NADRA has a comprehensive people database as they build and maintain the central system that maintains the registration of people (identity card, passport, etc). In Pakistan, however the system is not web based and under tight security controls. Thus Sahana fills the gap of making the data accessible to the other organizations involved in the relief effort such as the NGOs. Apart from that NADRA does not have the equivalent of the request management system and organization registry which is built into phase 1. This is what the integrated system should look like.

This is the deployment model presented by them, in PDF format.

Chamindra is keeping notes and lessons learned on this deployment at the Reliefsource wiki

* * * * * * * * * *

Shahzad Ahmad writes: "Just sharing this news item. The Tsunami fame, [Free/Libre and] Open Source Software product SAHANA is already almost deployed by Chamindra de Silva with support from the IBM crisis response team and NADRA (National Database Registry of Pakistan). PSEB was also extending support to them I remember. The difference here... SAHANA yet has to hit the media while Microsoft is already getting coverage."

Microsoft offers technological assistance in quake-affected areas
Representative hands over monetary assistance to PM and MKRF By Schezee Zaidi, The News, 21/10/2005 http://jang.com.pk/thenews/oct2005-daily/21-10-2005/main/main6.htm

* * * * * * * * * *

Irfan Khan says: For updates on the deployment of
Sahana in Pakistan, check recent entries in

Sanjiva Weerawarana's Blog


Geek with an attitude (Buddhika Siddhisena's Blog)

Friday, October 28, 2005

Big names for a Bangalore event...

Atul Chitnis announces that the overseas speakers for the foss.in event to be held in Bangalore in end-November will include: Jonathan Corbet, co-author of "Linux Device Drivers", and editor of LWN.NET, aka "Linux Weekly News"; Andrew Cowie of Linux Australia; Harald Welte, who's chairman of the netfilter/iptables project, and the man behind GPL-violations.org; "Mr.Wizards-of-OS" Volker Grassmuck; the man behind the
Apache project, COLLAB.NET's Brian Behlendorf; "Mr.PHP" Rasmus Lerdorf; the Diva of Open Source, Danese Cooper; Yahoo!'s Jeremy Zawodny; the man behind Linux Sound and Audio Dave Phillips; and the legendary hacker Alan Cox.
FOSS.IN/2005 is a major Free/Libre & Open Source Software Event being held from Nov 29 to Dec 2, 2005 Bangalore Palace. See http:// foss.in/2005 and the blogs of techies and others associated with the event.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Battleground of ideas... FLOSS vs proprietary

APC member BytesForAll's mailing list[1] recently played host to a strong, and at times polemical, debate on proprietary-versus-FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software). In this debate, there were these couple of great posts here [2] and here [3], that put things neatly in perspective -- thanks to David Geilhufe who is co-founder of the SocialSourceFoundation.org [4] and Sunil Abraham of Mahiti.org [5].

This debate threw up a range of issues about the role of FLOSS in the 'developing' countries, its role in localisation, how it competes with proprietorial software, why its benefits haven't yet reached regions like Africa, and how diverse approaches to software could actually make a difference in the real world. BytesForAll is a South Asian voluntary network, founded along the free software principles of volunteering, but focussing on information -- and how information and communication technologies could be more relevant to the common(wo)man, specially in South Asia.

It all started with a rather critical-of-FLOSS post by University of Manchester's Dr Richard Heeks [6] offering a
link to an eDevelopment Briefing titled "Free and Open Source Software: A Blind Alley for Developing Countries?" [7].

It calls the 1980s shareware "FOSS forerunner" to have had "zero" impact, says data from Africa shows only five percent of computers "in developing countries" have any open source software running on them, and notes that proprietorial software dominates "even in Cuba... where the US embargo should make conditions highly propitious".

Besides, the briefing says that "piracy" and the "limited size of initial purchase price within total cost of software
ownership" there is actually no "evidence of FOSS delivering cost savings".

Says the briefing: "In particular, proprietary software may not be open source but it is certainly free for the great
majority of developing country users, thanks to piracy." It points to the lack of awareness of FOSS in Africa, and the lack of international links needed to be part of an "active, global community of like-minded developers".

One early response to this brief text came from BytesForAll co-founder Frederick "FN" Noronha and is here for viewing [8]. Noronha, who goes by the initials of FN, argues, "The "5% of computer systems" overlooks the role played by FLOSS in servers, in keeping the Internet running, in giving unprecedented access to developers of the Third World to take part in a global movement, and more." This study, argues this post, overlooks the potential of FLOSS in large 'developing' countries like India, China, Brazil and South Africa. It points to another study -- from Finland -- which it says is more open to the benefits of FLOSS in the "developing" world. See the report here at this Maailma site.

FN also adds, "By saying 'proprietorial software is free' for the bulk of the 'developing' world, the study is guilty of
both tolerating/encouraging the illegally copying of software ('piracy' is a loaded term, unfortunately accepted by
academia too) and missing the essence of what Free Software is all about (offering the freedom to be used, copied, studied, modified and redistributed). We are not fighting just for the right to remain 'pirates'...."

Richard "RMS" Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation joining in the debate with these comments. [9].

There was a longish debate on benchmarking FLOSS. Javier Sola, a Spanish-Chilean working on Khmer language localisation in Cambodia, added some interesting points [10].

Javier, who works with APC member the Open Forum of Cambodia, argues: "Academics should make sure that they look at all factors when they write something like this. In this case the author has not come even close to it. He has, among others, completelly ignored the power of localisation, diminished as "techies and amateurs" some of the people that have clearer ideas of what is needed for real migration and used anectdotal data for his conclusions."

Sunil Abraham argues how proprietorial software could kill -- no exaggeration, due to its delays and restrictions -- in a post-Tsunami situation. He also argues that "because Sahana (a Free/Libre and Open Source Software project to cope with disasters) is FOSS, the earthquake stricken people from Pakistan and India don't have to spend money earmarked for food on software." Then, in an almost tongue-in-cheek Sunish manner, he argues that FLOSS "increases the responsiveness of an organisation. This is important whether it is peoples lives or greater profits." [11 ]

David Geilhufe has this very interesting response to argue that FLOSS offers "viral diffusion" (to enable its uncontrolled spread, of course in a positive way), local control and lower barriers to entry. Well put, and very well argued.

Here's [12] what David argues eloquently: "There is no religious war here, but I think the staunch defenders of
proprietary code get stuck on analyzing the software... this isn't the important part. One needs to analyze the innovation and use of software... that, I believe, is where the real ICT impact lies."

David's Social Source Foundation [13] is here. It is "a nonproft organization that exists to create open source,
mission-focused technology for the nonprofit and NGO sector."

Another link is the OpenNGO.org [14] network. OpenNGO calls itself "an open source project to create a set of web-based tools designed to meet the needs of small U.S. nonprofit organizations and non-governmental organizations across the globe."

Meanwhile, another strong debate continued at the Global Knowledge for Development mailing-list, visible at the archives here [15]. Some supported Heeks views, while others said academia was missing the point on FLOSS.

Said Mark Davies: "As an African business, and as an African software development business, I still don't get it. There's so much enthusiasm for FOSS, there's so much conference mind-share spent on this topic, and yet I don't see an illuminating discussion about the opportunities for risk/reward for people like us." [16 ]

After facing a lot of counterpoints, Heeks responded: "You can read this message in two ways: either that FOSS will never deliver; or that the FOSS community needs to rethink its strategies. Or, of course, if you've devoted months or years to FOSS and don't like the message, you'll try to denigrate the writer, deny the data, and so forth." [17]

Klaus Stoll the president of Fundacion Chasquinet [18] in Quito, Ecuador also swam against the tide. He wrote: "...yes, my organization Chasquinet Foundation works with Microsoft and yes it is the same organization that produced and published the open source tollbox for Telecenters in Latin America [19] and yes we have as a policy in our organization that people should have a right to choose. What counts for us here at the grassroots are real ICT tools for Development, be they open source or otherwise, what counts is if they make a real positive impact in improving peoples lives."

African NGO Kaibassa argued here[20]: "We at Kabissa have a very practical orientation and don't really push open source in our trainings or through our services and Web site unless it's just staring in our faces as just plain better. Open source content management systems and other server-based tools and desktop applications like Firefox and Thunderbird spring straight to mind. In the meantime, I hope you and other software developers in Africa are aware of and considering attending Africa Source II."

But one key perspective came from Richard "RMS" Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation [21]. He commented: "The choice between free (freedom-respecting) and proprietary (user-subjugating) software is not a technical choice. It is an ethical and political issue about people's freedom. To be neutral on issues that merely concern technology is fine. To be neutral on ethical and political issues about freedom is nothing to be proud of."

[1] BytesForAll mailing list
[2] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/6855
[3] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/6849
[4] http://www.socialsourcefoundation.org
[5] http://www.mahiti.org/
[6] Richard Heeks
[8] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/6769
[9] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/6794
[10] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/6775
[11] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/6848
[12] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/6855
[13] http://www.socialsourcefoundation.org/
[14] http://www.openngo.org
[15] http://www.edc.org/GLG/gkd/2005/Oct/"
[16] http://www.edc.org/GLG/gkd/2005/Oct/0321.html
[17] http://www.edc.org/GLG/gkd/2005/Oct/0319.html
[18] http://www.chasquinet.org
[19] http://tele-centros.org/tc-toolkit2.0/
[20] http://www.edc.org/GLG/gkd/2005/Oct/0334.html
[21] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/6837