Friday, April 20, 2012

Open Source software in Latin America

Open source software matches the spirit of the Latin American desire for freedom, self reliance, free thinking, and the open sharing of ideas.  The open source software movement started in a computer lab in America when someone named Richard Stallman found out that the printer drivers that had always had source with them in the UNIX operating system suddenly did not, and he could not fix a bug with his print out.  Stallman decided to write a complete operating system from scratch, and to ensure that the source code, the “DNA” of a computer program, was always available to all the users of the software for them to do what they like with it.  The users are free to modify, use, or give it away to anyone they like.  Stallman used copyright in a form of legal “kung foo”  (foo is a general computer geek term for “thing”) in order to create what is called a “copyleft.”  
    Stallman eventually created his complete system and it is available for free to anyone that wants it.  But in order to build his utopian dream he had to create a series of tools, to turn source code into computer executables, and all the little programs that make an operating system command line.  Many people all around the world began using his tools to create their own systems.  The most popular of these was Linux, written by a Finnish graduate student named Linus Torvalds.    At the same time many businesses began using Linux and the free tools that Stallman had written and a realization quickly found that the “copyleft” license was not seen to be very business friendly.  So a middle ground was found and this middle ground was called “Open Source Software.”  This was a mix of free and closed source that businesses or individuals could use to release software and charge money for that privilege.  There are still distributions of software that contain only free software for the purist to use.
    Many people in the developing world noticed this new software phenomenon and quickly saw how the principles embodied in free and open source software fit their own political and personal views of how things in the world “ought” to happen.  With commercial software sharing a copy with a friend is a crime.  With open source software sharing with a friend is a good thing and is highly encouraged.  There is no way for countries in South America to compete with American software giants such as Microsoft, IBM, or Apple.  These companies dominate the world.  The only way to compete is to give a great product away for free and then to get paid to customize or support the software for specific organizations.    Plus a developer is able to have a day job and then work on something that they like at nights and release that as open source.  Organizations such as hospitals or governments could band together, have developers develop something for them and release to everyone as open source.
And the cost for software and support  from America is prohibitively high.  It costs $125 for a license to run Windows, and another $500 for a full version of MS Office.   The ever increasing bloat of this commercial software forces users to have the latest hardware.  You can download Ubuntu and put it on an older machine and have 95% of the capability of someone running the best and newest versions of all the popular commercial software packages.  And that 5% is not a limitation, it is an encouragement to get out there and join in and develop software to fill the small gaps left
    South America is really stepping up to fill these remaining gaps. Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil are all leaders in the open source movement, almost matching North America and the European Union in participation on software projects.  Buenos Aires, Argentina has a third of the population of the country in one massive New York sized city.  The government of Argentina has mandated the use of open source software in all government offices and the use of free document formats such as the Open Document Format.  
    There are many open source gathers in Buenos Aires where thousands of developers and people who wish to be informed can get together and learn what everyone is doing.  Not to mention that there are many online resources that people share to communicate.  There are Spanish only chat rooms where the developers for a project can jump into the room online and share with others on the project.  In addition there are many other resources for Spanish speaking developers to use.
    This open learning and sharing, the very fundamental principle of the scientific method, is lacking in proprietary software.  You cannot see the source code to learn how things are done.  You cannot share what you know with others, because if a commercial software company does show you code, you have to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) promising to not share any knowledge.  Open source software guarantees that someone can become interested in writing software and be able to learn by looking at what others have done.  To be able to take an existing project and just make a single change in it to make it fit their needs.  And that small change that they made can open the doors to learning more and more until someone could have a career in computers without ever going to a class.  They could learn by doing.
There are many Spanish web sites and organizations that promote open source software as an alternative to pirating commercial software.  Pirating software can lead to massive fines that developing nations and the companies in those countries cannot afford to pay.  There is a real movement among governments to cut the ties to America corporate interests whenever possible, not only for economic, but also security reasons.  It is more than likely that Microsoft has a deal with American intelligence agencies that allow them to enter any Windows computer as if they had an account on the box.
Because people value independence and freedom so much they would rather do it themselves and with open source software they can be assured that they can do so today, and next year, and that their children will be able to still use software and formats used today.  That knowledge won’t be lost because a company stops supporting an old file format.  That knowledge won’t be locked behind corporate paywalls that only the rich will be able to afford to enter.  And that liberty and the free exchange of knowledge will continue with your friends and neighbors. 

 ((  Need a section that talks about how open source security software can be used to get around government censorship in dictatorships. ))

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