\'Still major constraints to the adoption of FOSS in the developing world\'

By   |  March 26, 2004

This is an excert from the original article at Newsforge

Many people have called for the increased adoption of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in developing countries in general, and in Africa in particular. The reasons center around issues of affordability, ownership, and openness. Although the use of FOSS in developing countries is increasing, a number of constraints still stifle the growth of FOSS use in these countries. The constraints are many and varied, but can be grouped into five, namely: the nature of FOSS itself, an adverse policy environment, lack of marketing, inadequate technical support, and lack of trained personnel.

Background

The use of FOSS has, in the past decade or so, seen an explosive growth around the world, thanks to factors such as the increasing popularity of the GNU/Linux operating system, the growth of the Internet, and the availability of FOSS alternatives to proprietary applications.

The freedoms and associated affordability of FOSS makes it particularly attractive to people looking for alternatives to relatively expensive, restrictive, and insecure proprietary software. This is especially so for people in developing countries because they have few resources to spend on computers and software. For this reason, many developing countries such as Brazil, India, Vietnam, South Africa, Malaysia, and Thailand, to name a few, are increasingly leaning toward adopting FOSS.

In Brazil, for example, the Federal government has published its Free Software implementation guidelines, and aims for at least 80% of computers purchased by government in 2004 having FOSS. In the same vein, the Indian government has launched a Linux India Initiative to support resource centers and localization projects. Malaysia is launching OSS reference center to manage OSS implementation, and its Ministry of Finance has provided venture capital funds to Malaysian OSS companies.

In Africa, South Africa has taken the lead in the drive for greater adoption of FOSS. The South African government recently published a policy paper which called for using FOSS in preference to their proprietary equivalents if both types of software had comparable features. The South African FOSS community has launched Impi, its own Linux distribution. In addition, many educational institutions in South Africa use FOSS to increase access to computers and to the Internet, thereby helping bridge the digital divide that slows the pace of development and reduces the capacity of developing countries to effectively use development assistance.

Despite the obvious benefits of FOSS and its increasing popularity worldwide, there persist a number of problems that constrain its adoption and use in developing countries.

Nature of FOSS

To paraphrase the cartoon character Pogo, we have met the enemy of increased adoption and use of FOSS in developing countries, and the enemy is FOSS. The very nature of FOSS generally makes it inaccessible or difficult for many people to use. FOSS is generally not user-friendly, and require higher than average technical skills to make use of. It is perhaps for this reason that while Linux is a popular platform for servers, and workstations, it has yet to become as popular as Microsoft Windows as a desktop environment.

The reasons for the lack user-friendliness of FOSS are varied but center around greater reliance on a command line rather than a graphical user interface, and poor user-interface design. In consequence, FOSS applications generally require greater technical skills to use than the point-and-click menu-driven user interface on Windows.

Poor documentation is another major constraint to the adoption and use of FOSS in both developed and developing countries. End-user documentation is of critical importance to the user-friendliness of an application, and in this regard, FOSS has a long way to go. Most FOSS applications lack proper end-user documentation, if they have it all. OpenOffice.org, for example, a leading FOSS office productivity suite, has a Web site dedicated to its documentation, but the documentation is rather scanty. Although efforts are underway to address the situation, the problem certainly hinders the widespread adoption of OpenOffice.org.

Another problem with FOSS documentation is that although packages are translated into different languages, the translations are usually restricted to the menu items, commands, and user interfaces. Seldom are user manuals, if they exist at all, translated. In addition, while developers often know enough English to write computer programs, some of them cannot write useful end-user documentation, thus reducing the user-friendliness of the applications they develop, no matter how good they are.

Read more at: Newsforge

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