Something pretty revolutionary is going down in a dusty patch of Limpopo province. It involves billionaire and Africa’s first Astronaut Mark Shuttleworth, a multi-national technology company and the government.
Shuttleworth is so passionate about it, he says it could rocket South Africa into the future: “We are on the cusp of a new era. This is the future of IT.”
He’s talking about Open source software — a revolutionary movement and philosophy that stands up to the likes of Microsoft to ensure computer programmes, such as word processors or spreadsheets, can be used by you, shared by you with others, and even modified by you at no cost.
It’s the vision of the world and technology that the original founders of the Internet had. In fact, the Internet — unlike the software on your computers, bought from companies such as Microsoft — is one big, free open source project.
At the launch of the Open Source Centre at the Mogalakwena HP i-community centre in Limpopo province on Thursday, Shuttleworth emphasised that if South Africa is to become a world leader, improve the lives of its people and focus on skills development, then open source is the key.
He says open source software is critical to the development of Africa and other developing countries because the flow of information and knowledge is not limited by software you can afford.
The R18-million funding, earmarked to promote use of open source is a collaborative effort between the CSIR, international IT company HP and Shuttleworth’s own Shuttleworth Foundation
“I think open source is one of the best kept secrets in the IT world — no-one is marketing their open source programmes. And the mission of this coalition is to take the message to South Africans and provide them with access to technology,” he says.
Shuttleworth says developing countries have a huge advantage over the developed world because they are not burdened by the legacy of old infrastructure: “One of the hardest things to do is to replace one set of tools, with another”.
Furthermore, developing countries using open source software have the ability to change the programmes they use on their desktop PCs to suit local conditions. This is because they have access to change the inner workings of the programmes, known as the source code.
A web browser with instructions in Sepedi and Afrikaans goes a long way to making technology accessible and relevant to local communities. If a programme is in a local language, for example, there is a greater chance others in the local community will understand it, and then pass on knowledge.
The result is the creation of thousands of high-quality software programmes than can lower costs, provide greater reliability and security and be adapted quickly to local needs.
It appears the South African government and Shuttleworth are reading from the same word processor. The government agrees with Shuttleworth to such an extent that it has formulated a policy ensuring that open source software is the preferred option for government. The government has recognised the pivotal role that open source plays in economic development and skills creation in the country.
But Shuttleworth warns that South Africa is starting to fall behind countries like Brazil, which is rapidly embracing the benefits of open source. He says he is encouraged by some local successes, such as the city of Durban pioneering its own open source projects.
All over the world, the open source movement is taking shape. The French government is making open source software the default for all its applications. The city of Munich in Germany recently converted its systems to the most famous of the open source examples, Linux – the competing operating system to Windows that is making Microsoft shiver.
Shuttleworth predicts that more and more individual PC users will move their desktops over to open source as the benefits become apparent. open source Software already has a significant chunk of the world’s server market, between 26%-35%, but at the moment has only a small share of the desktop market, the home user or office user.
But Shuttleworth thinks this is all set to change.
Matthew Buckland is the editor of the Mail & Guardian Online
He wryly quips that he was relieved the Soyuz capsule, the Russian jalopy-cum-spaceship, didn’t run on open source software, but very old, tried and tested software.