Ubuntu founder advises SA on IT strategy

By   |  August 22, 2007

Speaking in a keynote address at the Govtech conference in Cape Town this morning, Mark Shuttleworth discussed strategies that government should take on in developing IT locally.

Key challenges that he addressed were those of skills development, the shift from software as a product to a service and the desperate need to address the high cost of telecommunications.

Following is a summary of his talk:

Sustainable growth

"Our goal should always be sustainable economic growth," he emphasised, saying that technology was an easy area of economic growth in which to ensure sustainability. He stressed the importance of wealth creation over mere job creation, saying that what must be focused on is those strategies that focus on wealth creation and improve people’s quality of life.

As he mentioned, South Africa spans both the first and emerging world in its level of development. A similar country that he gave as an example was Korea, which had managed to very successfully leap into the knowledge industry.

He said that the biggest thing happening at the moment was of the transfer of power from the East to the West. "To me it is very very clear that China runs the world," he said, describing it as the world’s anchor and likening its position to that of the US after World World 2.

As such, he said that South Africa’s strategic emphasis must be on dealing with countries such as India, China and also Brazil on economically fair terms.

Effective regulation and strong competition

He stressed the importance of having effective regulation – such as was done in Europe which allowed it to surpass the US in mobile communication technology.

He criticised the US approach of relying on the free market to sort out all problems, saying it was essential to have regulation that allowed for shared open [1]standards[/1] that encouraged strong competition, thereby pitting economic ambition against economic ambition.

"I am very concerned that that the world is swallowing the US’ intellectual property views without too much questioning," he stated, making reference to the fact that these views are being exported as annexures to free trade agreements. The problem he that said he had with this was that the US was in an unusual position in that it had the largest IP repository and a vastly competitive advantage. He argued that no other country could reach such a position.

In crafting its own strategy, South Africa should rather play to its own strengths and should not just copy other strategies that have worked in different economic circumstances, he argued.

Beyond the 90s

The nineties were about building the Internet, while this decade was about harnessing the power of the internet, said Shuttleworth, giving the example of Wikipedia, which was able to gather content from across the globe, accessing the world’s entire body of knowledge.

"If you understand Wikipedia, then you understand how the the world’s intellectual property businesses are changing," he said, adding that this could be translated to the way that the [2]open source[/2] software model was changing the face of software. The internet works because it uses shared infrastructure and is not controlled by any one country or company, he added.

On the issue of strengths and weaknesses, he made reference to the importance of differentiating between software producers and software consumers. Within South Africa there was very little in the way of software production and much more software consumption, he said, adding that South African policy and strategy should focus on promoting the software consumer.

Shift to services

On this note he described the shift from the offering of a product to the offering of services, arguing that services have always been a bigger part of the software industry than just the sales of licences.

"We are seeing a shift from software that one buys to software that allows access to a service," he said, giving examples such as Google, Amazon and Skype.

A key factor that he identified in developing software as a service was that of telecommunications. "In South Africa telecommunications costs are 20 times that of other comparable countries" and are in fact much higher than many countries that are far behind in their level of development, he said, adding that is was "becoming a matter of extreme urgency".

Skills development a priority

Returning to the open source versus proprietary software debate, he took a balanced view, saying that the number one thing was to choose the right tool for the job. To do this, the economy must understand the options available, something that he felt was limited within South Africa, where there was a very conservative stance that leaned heavily towards the tried and familiar.

He identified skills development as a major constraint, saying that it was essential to have the required skills to turn software into value. "Skills development is a priority."

Within education, he said that it was important to have open source tools that were industry specific, giving the example that the sooner one could get engineering tools into education, the better the engineers that would be produced.

Power of the community

Within open source he argued that it went beyond merely having access to the tools, stressing the importance of having access to the community. Using himself as an example, he said that it was the community that he came into contact with that set him on the trajectory that led to his success. He added that this had also been the case with the people behind Google.

Within any field, a school or university is limited by the teachers that it has. By opening to the larger community one is able to access a far greater depth of knowledge, he noted. "OSS allows the brightest and the best to connect."

As examples of successful implementations of OSS being used to provide a service, he mentioned eBay, Amazon, Google and Facebook, although he acknowledged exceptions such as Myspace.

Room for OSS and proprietary

Regarding proprietary software, Shuttleworth said that it will always be necessary to engage with it, but that there should be some balance. An example of complete disengagement that he gave was that of [4]Venezuela[/4], which he felt was on a bad track currently.

The effect that OSS would have would be to provide competition to proprietary software, which would drive down cost while improving functionality. It would force companies to price products according to the cost of production rather than monopolistically.

Back to bandwidth

Coming back to bandwidth, he once again stressed that it was essential to drive prices down. He asked those at the conference to do what they could to place pressure on the telecoms industry, saying "I cannot urge you enough."

The "handbrake", as he described it, was the mistake of looking at telecoms as one thing, rather than many, with situations differing across rural and urban regions. One cannot have a framework that "addresses in one breath" all the problems faced, he arued.

Government’s role

Asked about his view on government’s stated intention to transfer to open source, he said that it was well behind expectations. He likened it to a chicken and egg situation, where they want to go ahead, but are afraid of failing.

The high level statements around government’s intentions were encouraging to him, yet there was no well articulated plan on how to achieve the stated goals.

A positive open ending

Addressing the question about the high cost of services when implementing open source as a company, he described it as a function of supply and demand.

He took it as a positive note that the high cost meant that there was rapidly growing demand, adding that he found it encouraging that he could tell computer science students that they could make more money by working with open source.

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