Free software liberates

From Linux Today in 2000. 

Was it prophetic? Maybe, but the prophet wasn’t me. I interviewed Bob Bishop for a newspaper and wrote this for Linux Today.

The Australian Linux Today website linuxtoday.com.au no longer exists, but there’s this snippet at the parent Linux Today site.

Can Software Liberate Poor Countries?

By Bill Bennett, March 2000

During his press conference at Sydney’s Linux Open Source Expo, SGI chief executive Bob Bishop floated an interesting concept. He told journalists Linux is creating a huge amount on interest in countries like Russia, China and India.

Bishop says, “They are adopting Linux because it is open. The low-cost is important, but the openness is more important. People in these countries don’t like the idea of a uni-polar world. Linux is multi-polar.”

He could have added that users in these countries can’t afford the huge license fees demanded by first world software companies. This lesson was brought home to me personally some ten years ago when I met Computer Associates CEO Charles Wang in Wellington, New Zealand.

Piracy on Soviet mainframes

Wang told me he had just returned from the recently dissolved Soviet Union. There he had attended the first conference of Computer Associates users. Some fifty large Russian organisations had met to discuss various aspects of running CA’s software on their antediluvian mainframes.

Apart from their ability to snare the normally crowd-shy Wang to Leningrad there was one other remarkable thing about this meeting – no-one had paid for a software license.

This was odd because CA had annual licensing and the software was designed to stop working if fees were not paid. Because they had plenty of time, good skills but few resources, the Russian programmers found their way past security traps that stop western users from pirating the software.

Not locked in to proprietary software

This kind of ingenuity is likely to see users in these countries make huge progress in an Open Source world. In some cases they are starting with a clean slate. This means they are not already locked into the economics of proprietary software. It’s a situation many in the west might envy – if everything else about lives in those countries wasn’t so difficult.

Bishop says Linux will bring Russia and China back into the global software business. They certainly have world-class programmers. Developers in these countries are starting now on Linux applications – they are barely behind the west in terms of skills or experience. But even if they were, one of the key things about Open Source is that because the code is shared, it creates a much flatter playing field. It’s what Redhat CEO Bob Young describes as a real free market in software.

Open source has another big attraction to users from behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains – it means there are no secret back doors. Bishop says that they fear proprietary operating systems contain backdoors included at the insistence of the US government so that federal agents can snoop. He says, “When you’ve got the source code you can find any back doors and close them.”