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Intermediate Technology of the Information Age?
An Assessment of the Implications of Open Source (Free) Software
J. Grimshaw, Intermediate Technology Development Group
June 14, 2004
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This paper reviews the role that open source or free software (here
referred to as OSS/FS) can play in developing countries. After a
review of the definitions and histories of both the free software
and open software movements, the paper considers the main issues
of OSS as they impact on development.
In the economies
of the North, where labour costs are high the costs of software
support, customization and integration are high (reflecting the
labour intensity of these components) relative to the licence fee
for software. Therefore when the total cost of ownership (TCO) is
calculated the cost of the licence fee is not a crucial component.
However, in developing countries, where labour costs are low the
cost of the software licence becomes a relatively more important
This can be
illustrated by using GDP per capita, as a proxy for average income
to illustrate that in developing countries the price of proprietary
software (in this case Windows XP together with Office XP as representing
the minimum general business office requirement) is high in purchasing
power terms. As an example, in Kenya the price of Office XP is the
equivalent of 18.12 months of GDP per capita. This is the equivalent
of charging a single licence fee in the UK of £31,342, and
for that price anyone in the UK can buy a new BMW
The case for
a developing country to adopt an open source software driven ICT
strategy is compelling when the above argument is combined with
the ability of open source software to encourage local skills and
for local languages to be used.
For ITDG one
of the key issues is "how can new technology be consistent
with the concept of intermediate technology?" According to
six criteria, used by Schumacher to define intermediate technology,
our analysis shows that OSS/FS can be viewed as an intermediate
technology. It can be produced by the masses, it is conducive to
decentralization and it makes use of modern knowledge.
In summary (a
detailed schedule is given in section 9.1) the action points that
ITDG should take in relation to open source software are:
- Engage as
a civil society organisation in the debates about open source
software. Appropriate venues might include WSIS in Tunis in 2005,
and continued involvement in the Free and Open Source Software
Foundation for Africa.
the adoption and use, where appropriate, of OSS/FS in its international
ICT procurement decisions, throughout the Group, are made OSS/FS
should be given consideration.
programmes of work that explicitly make use of OSS/FS to help
deliver the outcomes of the projects.
the open source model of production of knowledge.
The paper concludes
with some speculation that open source may become a generic model
for the production of knowledge. Given the discussion about OSS/FS
as an intermediate technology in this paper a key issue for ITDG
is about developing a tenable advocacy position around open source
and not simply limiting this debate to the confines of software
The international business plan for IA4 identifies six top level
priorities for programmes of work. Open source software, identified
in the current work plan within the policy and advocacy programme,
is recognised as a strategic part of the overall programme portfolio.
The ITDG Group
Strategy recognises the influence and impact that knowledge can
have on the lives of poor people. It goes on to specifically say
that there is a need to regain control of the ways in which new
technologies are developed and used.
and communications-based industries are transforming the global
economy, causing a 'knowledge divide' between the
information rich and the information poor. There is an urgent
need to regain control of the ways new technologies are developed
and used." Group Strategy 2003/07, ITDG (2003:p11)
enable poor people to assess and respond to the challenges of
new technologies and to develop and adopt applications that improve
their livelihoods." Group Strategy 2003/07, ITDG (2003:p11)
have the potential to supply and distribute information to the poor
in practice there is growing evidence that many technologies, such
as the Internet does not reach the very poor. For example, the DFID
(2002) report on "The significance of ICTs for reducing poverty"
highlighted the importance of helping poor people address their
information needs. ICTs have the potential to provide that information
yet paradoxically they may also not reach the very poor. Instead,
such technologies as the Internet may "stop short" of
reaching the very poor. The Internet may thus contribute to a widening
gap between rich and poor within developing countries.
of this paper is to brief everyone in ITDG about the significance
that one particular technology (OSS/FS) could have in reducing poverty.
This paper explores how open source software can be seen as a technology
that enables control to be regained. It traces the history of open
source to cast light on the overall motivations for the movement.
Goes on to assess the market position, with a particular focus on
the countries and regions where ITDG has operations. Concluding
with assessments of the role open source can have in development.
Reference sections are included to illustrate the wealth of further
The next section
defines "open source software". However, before that discussion
there is a need to explore some key features of software and the
impact they have on the open source software debate. Software can
be defined as, "the programs, routines, and symbolic languages
that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation"
(American Heritage Dictionary, 2000). As such, software is an information
intensive product. Thus it shares many of the features of information.
Of particular relevance here is the feature that the consumption
of information by one person does not reduce the quantity of that
information. It may be simultaneously consumed by an infinite number
of people at the same time. Information is costly to produce but
cheap to reproduce, or as an economist would put it, information
has a high fixed cost and low marginal cost. The following analogy
illustrates these points.
If I make a
meal of chicken and rice and then you eat it (without being invited
to do so) I would be justifiably upset because I would go hungry.
The consumption of resources (such as a meal) requires compensation
for the resources used. This analogy is often used to justify the
payment for software, which is subject to copyright laws. However,
if I produce some software and you copy it we are both able to use
it. Your consumption of the product does not impede my consumption.
Information, as a product has a zero marginal cost and it is sharable
by an infinite (in theory at least) number of people at the same
intensive goods and services make up an increasing proportion of
the worlds trade, so the impact of policy influence can be high.
For example, in the 1950's 80% of the value added in the US
economy was in manufacturing and 20% in knowledge goods; by the
1990's the proportion contributed by knowledge had risen to
70% (Stewart 1997). The most significant resource in the economy
then switches to become intellectual capital.
of "Open Source Software"
There is a need to distinguish between "open source" and
"free software". On the Internet there are many sources
of information about the distinction between these concepts. The
clearest discussion is from Wikipedia (which is itself an example
of an open source encyclopedia), reproduced below:
strict definition, the term "open source" is distinct
from "free software," and it should only be applied to
software that meets the terms of the Open Source Definition (see
also the Free Software Foundation's (FSF) Free software definition).
The decision to adopt the term "open source", suggested
by Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute, was based partly
on the confusion caused by the dual meaning of the word "free";
the FSF intended the word to mean "free speech, not free beer,"
but nevertheless, free software came to be associated with zero
cost, a problem which was exacerbated by the fact that a great deal
of it is, in fact, free of charge. It was hoped that the usage of
the newer term "open source" would eliminate such ambiguity,
and would also be easier to "market" to business users
(who might mistakenly associate "free software" with anti-commercialism).
Since its introduction, however, the "open source" label
has been criticized for fostering an ambiguity of a different kind:
that of confusing it for mere availability of the source, rather
than the freedom to use, modify, and redistribute it.
The Free Software
Definition is slightly more restrictive than the Open Source Definition;
as a consequence of this, free software is open source, but open
source software may or may not be "free." In practice,
nearly all open-source licenses also satisfy the FSF's freesoftware
definition, and the difference is more a matter of philosophical
emphasis. (One of the few counter-examples was an early version
of the Apple Public Source License, which was considered open source
but not free because it did not allow private modified versions;
this restriction was later removed.) For instance, software distributed
under both the GPL and BSD licenses are considered both free and
open source (the original BSD License had terms legally incompatible
with the GPL, but this practical difficulty is a
separate issue from its free-ness). Confusion about the distinctions
between free and open source software is the source of some misunderstanding,
particularly in the mass media where the two terms are often applied
The next two
paragraphs are extracts from the "open source" and "free
software" web sites respectively.
promotes software reliability and quality by supporting independent
peer review and rapid evolution of source code. To be OSI certified,
the software must be distributed under a license that guarantees
the right to read, redistribute, modify, and use the software freely."
is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study,
change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four
kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:
- The freedom
to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom
to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom
1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom
to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom
- The freedom
to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public,
so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the
source code is a precondition for this." (GNU Project)
The rest of
this paper will take a pragmatic stance, on the basis that OSS and
FS have so much in common in terms of how they can and should impact
on development in poor countries, to abbreviate all references to
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