Free and Open Source Software - Missed Opportunity?

"There are many examples of companies and countries that have improved their competitiveness and efficiency by adopting open source strategies. The creation of skills through all levels is of fundamental importance to both companies and countries. " -- Mark Shuttleworth

Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, these are the giants of the “new economy era”, they are amongst the most admired and hated (in some quarters) of corporates. The ones every company wishes they could be like: Innovative, Nimble, Smart and Successful.

Embracing Free & Open Source Software

Beside these enviable characteristics there is something else they all share in common, they have embraced free and open source software and methodologies as a key component of their success.

Admittedly one can debate the degree of their commitment to the ideals and spirit of free and open source software versus their commitment to making money, and lots of it, but there can be little doubt that free and open source software is one of the ingredients that makes them successful.

Given the ubiquity of these household names and the general admiration for their products, services and corporate cultures its a strange world where one finds oneself having to convince corporates and government policy makers and bureaucrats in South Africa of the benefits of free and open source software and the wisdom of adopting open source methodologies and ways of working.

In South Africa, it is relatively fair to say that corporate and government policy are still entrenched in old-ways of thinking, trapped in a stagnant yet still financially beneficial ecosystems and unwilling to move from their proprietary enterprise software and infrastructure comfort zones.

This cognitive dissonance, idolising the successful internet size companies of the 21st century, whilst at the same time resisting the adoption of a key element that has made them successful, is difficult to fathom. Mission statements, strategic reviews and assessments are all part of the daily life of corporate SA. MBAs and CIOs abound but one can only assume that groupthink has an iron grip and management in South Africa prefers to follow rather than lead.

Technology Education

Some companies, such as First National Bank, have started to adopt open source, are already stealing a march on their competitors and are developing, or have developed, a reputation as being innovative and smart.

The advent of cloud computing, another example of how open source and free software is driving the change in the world, and making money for companies smart enough to embrace it, is increasing the pressure for change. If Corporate SA wishes to remain competitive and be able to respond quickly to changes in their business environment the current approach to ICT will have to change too.

But as South African companies adopted cloud computing in greater numbers, they are going to find it difficult to acquire resources with the required skills needed to manage their new infrastructure as few tertiary institutions equip their students with the necessary skills. Driven by corporate spend FET colleges and other tertiary institutions churn out candidates each year who are only skilled in a single or specific vendor's products and services.

Their course designers sadly lacking the foresight to create qualifications that can equip students with skills they will need in the future . A focus on labour intensive, low skilled work by government, its low quality education system and a failure by industry to play a more active role in training and education is foolhardy. Of course if a more active role is taken, it would require the correct strategic visions to be successful.

Whilst corporate South Africa and government policy makers and bureaucrats,prevaricate and turn a blind eye to the benefits of free and open source software the rest of Africa has no such qualms. West and East Africa have young well educated populations who have embraced open source and free software and their corporates have none of the reticence of South African companies when it comes to home grown solutions built on free software.

Their startup sectors are vibrant. Innovation hubs and entrepreneurial start-up incubators are springing up like green shoot after the first summer high-veld thunderstorms. The adoption of open source and government policy is creating a culture of learning and innovation which will spur their continued economic growth. I have no doubt we will soon see further technology success stories, such as the world-renowned M-Pesa, coming from these regions.

It is not by chance that the governments of other members of the BRICS nations, are adopting pro- free and open source software policies. The pro-growth, pro-developmental benefits of such policies means greater influence over their own destinies and unlinks their economies from shifting economic power structures.

With the ongoing litany of revelations regarding the NSA activities by whistle blower Edwin Snowden, sovereignty and security is something that should make any government place the adoption of free and open source software high on its agenda. How can a nation's government and economy compete fairly in international trade negotiations or compete fairly for lucrative international contracts such as power stations, dams and telecoms rolls outs when one of the competing players has access to your plans and strategies?Only a naïve person would think spying is for non-economic benefits only.

If the the current widespread use of closed sources routers and operating systems from vendors, under the influence of foreign government, with known back-door access, continues without even a pause for reflection by government departments and institutions; one can only guess why. If national security issues are not enough to convince bureaucrats of the benefits of a pro-open source policy, maybe the economic benefits will. Government has the opportunity to build a sustainable technology industry that can export products and services to Africa and the world.

A technology industry could also be built on top of proprietary vendor solutions and technology but this will leave decisions about the future direction of that industry in the hands of foreign vendors whose interests, local environment and conditions may differ widely from those of South Africa.

Its like trying to build a house on foundations that some-one else has set. Additionally there is the obvious economic benefit of building a local technology industry on open source, that significant amounts of money are not repatriated but circulate within the local economy.

Open source and free software has important implications for education too. Besides the costs saving to parents of students and the department of education, the freedom to hack on open source projects and code allows inquisitive minds to learn and understand more than is possible with closed source solutions which block any attempt to understand the internals of their products and services.

On paper the South African government has a mandate to use and encourage the adoption of open source. But the commitmentto is worth less than the paper the mandate was written on. Constantly government departments make an IT purchase decision or change policy is a way which is contradictory to this mandate. A recent such example was the Department of Basic Educations decision to drop Java , an open source language from schools and to standardise on Delphi instead,a closed source language and platform. An excuse is always found to abrogate the mandate and go with a propriety solution.

The most common excuse is that implementing a Open Source solution would be more costly than goingwith a propriety solution or that there is no localsupport for open source solutions. The most common excuse is that implementing a Open Source solution would be more costly than goingwith a propriety solution or that there is no local support for open source solutions.

Ubuntu Linux

Besides the fact that arguments about total cost of ownership are likely to prove futile with either side backing up its claims an impress list of reports, it is simply untrue to claim there is no local support or skills base for open source products and services. What this argument really asserts is that there are no JSE enterprise size companies backed by even larger international vendors in South Africa but only small to medium sized business with limited capacity. This is simple not true as many of these same companies have open source and free software capabilities its just not in their interest to push them.

But lets assume the argument is valid. Government economic policy supports the development of strategic sectors of the South African economy. Billions, up to 32 billion since 2000 according to reports, have been spent to support the local motor vehicle manufacturing capacity in South Africa.

Government would argue that the benefit gained outweighs the costs, so why not a similar undertaking to build the local IT industry? Where some see a problem others see a solution. We have high youth unemployment and a shortage of IT skills. A pro-open source industry policy which would favour the growth of small and medium sized business would seemingly address multiple issues at once.

In one policy government could address youth unemployment, the skills shortage, boost small and medium business sector which is widely acknowledged as the employment and growth engine for any economy. An independent technology industry with a culture of innovation and creativity would be created and all government has to do is redirect it current spending.

This lack of vision by South African industry and government, with it its apparent inability to plan for the strategic long-term requirements for the economy will mean the South African economy will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future.

Cover Image Credit: Blek

Image Credit: Massimo Barbieri