Saturday, March 22, 2008


The other day I was pleasantly surprised to walk into my favourite cyber café and discover they had converted to open source software (OSS), mainly Ubuntu and Mozilla Firefox. OSS is often referred to as free and open software e.g. Apache, Linux, Perl etc. Why the sudden conversion, one may ask. I heard that the local anti-piracy crusaders have been resurrected by a huge injection of dollars from Uncle Sam. This re-invigoration has seen many firms on the wrong side of Tom Mboya Street raided. Up market firms have not been spared either.

Alas the incentive is suddenly present and now is the time we encouraged ICT users to unshackle themselves from the Microsoft monopoly. As the biggest user of ICT, the Kenyan government has to take a leadership role on this issue. The South African government, for instance, has joined other countries such as Brazil, India and Uganda in implementing OSS in most government departments. The Chinese government has been a strong advocate of OSS platforms for years and has adopted Linux as a standard. Obtaining low-cost computing capacity for a billion-plus people cannot be attained by using locked programs that come with expensive licences.

Open source politics has at times been touchy. In 2004, the head of the Brazilian National Institute of Technology compared Microsoft to a drug pusher. Microsoft duly sued. The Chinese government believes that Microsoft is an agent of the American government in its quest for world domination. Despite the politics of OSS it is worth appreciating one crucial point. The primary purpose of any program (open source or otherwise) should be about meeting or solving an ICT need in the most effective way. OSS has acquitted itself quite well. The Internet could not exist were it not for OSS. Apache runs in more than 58 % web servers thereby making it the most popular web server. Microsoft’s Internet Information Server is second with less than 21% of the web servers running it. We must therefore objectively state the pervading objective(s) of adopting this software.

As a developing country we must seize the strategic advantage of open source. The digital divide is a reality and OSS provides us with an opportunity of not only surmounting this chasm but also leap-frogging the developed countries. By using and deploying software at a lower cost, right from the start, we would avoid a costly experience with proprietary software. Internet applications, basic operating/telecommunications systems and Linux based server platforms are good starting points. Windows is held in a vise-like grip by Microsoft. To develop for Windows you need access to Windows’ application program interfaces (APIs) which are rarely granted by Microsoft and only under strict (and expensive) conditions. Secondly, the endless Microsoft lock-in of costly upgrades has stifled the development of our ICT sector. This has resulted in access to ICT been enjoyed by an urban (corporate and home) elite that can “afford” the highly priced software. Even as we tout ICT as one of the engines of development in the 2030 Vision, we must comprehend that this objective is unattainable if ICT is accessed by an exclusive group. It is therefore imperative to note a fundamental fact. If Kenya is to transform itself into a knowledge economy we must use OSS strategically to reduce the digital divide.

Another point I would like to stress is the moral argument. We have a right to the source code that we can use to build a digital infrastructure that underpins our national civilization. OSS is free from two perspectives, cost and freedom. If we are to sustain and protect our ICT sector it is imperative that we don’t outsource our digital sovereignty to other nations. The open source movement propagates the concept that the user should have the freedom to read, redistribute, modify, and use the source code without the limitations of cost, access or ownership. As a developing nation we should look beyond the present demands of building our technological infrastructure and contemplate the digital future. Any nation that will achieve (and retain) dominance in the coming global knowledge economy will need to have in place digital systems and mechanisms that protect its intellectual capital/resource. How competitive will Kenya be if we use non-indigenous software sourced from other countries? It is therefore imperative we use the right to the source code of OSS and propagate it as a base to develop our own Kenyan digital civilization.