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The Intermediate Technology of the Information Age?
An Assessment of the Implications of Open Source (Free) Software for Development

David J. Grimshaw, Intermediate Technology Development Group
June 14, 2004


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Executive Summary
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 cost component.

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
525i car.

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.
  • Consider the adoption and use, where appropriate, of OSS/FS in its international development programmes.
  • Whenever ICT procurement decisions, throughout the Group, are made OSS/FS should be given consideration.
  • Develop programmes of work that explicitly make use of OSS/FS to help deliver the outcomes of the projects.
  • Explore 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 production.

Background and Context
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.

"Knowledge 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)

"To 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)

Although ICTs 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.

The purpose 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 information available.

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 time.

Information 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.

Definition 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:

"In the 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 interchangeably." (Wikepedia).

The next two paragraphs are extracts from the "open source" and "free software" web sites respectively.

"Open source 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." (OSI 2004).

"Free software 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 2).
  • 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 OSS/FS.

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