About Free/Libre and Open Source Software...

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


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