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.


jke said...

Word-up, m8te!

Also, what cheaper reason could there be if not threats like the Raila virus or other malware, imported via usb flash memory sticks?

One question though: how does a typical Debian installation behave under power failures - will it affect the filesystem?

Anonymous said...

As an IT professional, pray, tell, are you willing to provide your services for free?

Microsoft invests billions of dollars to make software. Do you expect them to dish it out freely?

Josiah said...


free software != free software services.

there are companies that are built around free and open source software (FOSS).

The problem I have with Microsoft is their tactics in promoting their software, and their poor standards support.

The primary aim of ICT is as a tool. I should not be spending 2 days a month (or more) trying looking for that elusive virus on my PC, or 10 minutes waiting for the (new) computer to start up. I should also expect my docs to open wherever I want to open them - that means a standard doc format.

B.K.Muthoga said...

Reply to jke
Thanks for your comments m8te. I am not conversant with Debian's durability and reliability when faced with recurrent power failures. OSS needs substantial improvement, that's an undisputed fact. However it's up to us to protect those filesystems by pooling our skills and improving OSS.

Reply to anonymous
Thanks for your comments anonymous. Please don't get me wrong. I am not espousing a digital socialist utopia where freebies abound at the expense of the worker bees. My problem is with the lock-in and obstructionist policies of Microsoft. Let the butcher make his money but please let him not obstruct my attempts at been veg!

Reply to Josiah
Thanks to your comments Josiah. Microsoft is not for affordable, accessible and universal standards. It's time we moved on.
free software != free software services = I concur.

Nicolas said...

I have developed an interest in FOSS of late and i must say your post couldn't have come at a better time. I hope the policy makers in the education/information ministries are reading this. As with any infrastructure, the cost of implementing ICT especially in developing countries can be a daunting task especially if you are using proprietary software. What better way than FOSS?

Nairobian Perspective said...

Good post! I totally agree with you that in order for us to develop IT wise at minimal costs African Governments should use open source software!