Open Source: A case for developing countries

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh (Rishab@dxm.org)
MERIT/Infonomics, University of Maastricht

South Centre Briefing to WIPO delegates
Geneva, November 3, 2003

Open source, or free software as it was originally called, has become in recent years one of the most talked about phenomena in the ICT world. This is remarkable, not only for the usual reasons – that open source has been around for many years as a volunteer driven success story before being discovered by big business and now government – but also because free software has largely developed quietly on its own without the headline coverage and glare of international attention that it now receives.

This in turn makes it more attractive to governments and policy makers – what is the special value of open source, and how can it be harnessed? The Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) study, which I coordinated with the support of the European Commission in 2002, the most comprehensive study of developers and users, showed that the most important reason for developers to participate in open source communities was to learn new skills – for free. These skills are valuable, help developers get jobs and help create and sustain small businesses. Meanwhile, the most important reasons given by users of open source software were not the lower costs but the higher security and better performance as compared to proprietary software – so the open source method of development is clearly seen as being innovative and providing the same or better quality.

The FLOSS survey also showed that while 30% of all developers earn income directly from their support, development or administration of open source software, a further 20% earn income indirectly, including being given job because of their experience developing open source software. This finding was also supported by the FLOSS survey of user organisations. To a considerable degree, therefore, the open source software community must be regarded as an informal and “costless” skills development environment that provides good training and competitive advantages on the labour market. It is “costless” in that the costs for training are not explicitly borne, in monetary terms, by any of the parties benefiting from the new skills made available in the market. Universities are not paying for this training and nor are companies, it is the individual developers themselves who are contributing their time and effort to learn and teach others in an informal “apprenticeship” system. This is particularly valuable for small businesses and for less wealthy regions and economies, where the high direct costs of training ICT professionals may otherwise hinder the development of a local information economy, and where open source community participation can help offset such costs. Moreover, such skills development extends to the creation of new, local businesses, which are able to provide commercial support for and build upon open source software thanks to its low entry barriers, in a way that would not be possible with proprietary software.

This effect is heightened by any public support of the open source software sector. For example, the take-up by the Extremadura Region in Spain of open source through its support for the LinEx project (a localised, Spanish-language version of the GNU/Linux operating environment) has led to an economic regeneration in a relatively poor region of the EU. This has not just allowed the implementation of activities for a lower price, but activities especially in education and training which were simply not possible with proprietary software; it has also led to the growth of a number of small businesses to provide commercial support, since with open source there is no need to approach one sole vendor for support – approaching local entrepreneurs is possible and an obvious choice.

Inexpensive skills development is an important reason for developing countries to promote open source software. But, in contrast to the situation in richer countries, another reason is simply cost. Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) studies show varying results in rich countries, where labour costs are high and the relative low license fees of open source software need not necessarily reduce total costs of using and maintaining systems. But in developing countries, even after software price discounts, the price tag for proprietary software is enormous in purchasing power parity terms. The $560 price of Windows + Office XP in the US is, adjusting relative to GDP/capita, $7541 in South Africa and $48011 in Vietnam, which is clearly unaffordable (see table).

ICTs are supposed to be an “enabler” for growth in developing countries. Such growth cannot spread much beyond a very small elite if the basic “enabling” infrastructure requires the investment of several months’ worth of GDP on software license fees. In the interest of sustainable, long-term and widespread economic growth and ICT development, developing countries must adopt and promote open source software in order to develop local skills and businesses, and to avoid unnecessary expenditure.

More information: FLOSS Project pages at www.flossproject.org