24 September 2003

Nigeria: Experts Advocate Open Source for NEPAD to Realise Its ICT Objectives

AS the war drums of Open Source Software (OSS) continue to beat across the globe, African IT resource persons gathered at a recent Highway Africa conference in South Africa have advocated that African public and private institutions should go the way of Open Source to enable a fast-paced growth of IT in the continent.

The experts submitted that ICT is the fastest growing consumer-technology across the world but lamented that Africa is still far behind in the Information Technology race.

One of the ways that Africa can leapfrog into the mainstream of the Information Technology, according to the experts, is for the continent to leverage on the existing resources within the continent.

Dumisani Mtoba, a computer engineer for Sun Microsystems told participants at the conference that with Open Source software, the use of computers in Africa could be accelerated many fold.

This, he quickly added, should have to be a partnership between the government and industry, given the various roles which they play in ICT development.

Speaking in the same vein, Joris Komen, who runs Schoolnet in Namibia, said that one of the major advantages of Open Source for Africa is that the software fits the peculiar environment of Africa where access to the computer is poor.

He contended that the software can run effectively on refurbished computers which are currently playing major role in the efforts to increase access to Information Technology in the continent.

Open Source software is software that is freely available with the source code, to be used, changed and distributed by the end user. Linux is best known in Open Source.

On the other hand is proprietary software for which users have to pay heavily for licensing. Microsoft is synonymous with this market.

The experts contended that given the backwardness of Africa in ICT, and the paucity of financial resources, OSS remains the fastest avenue to bridge the digital divide between the developed and developing countries of Africa.

Jeffrey Cole, director of the UCLA Centre for Communication Policy in the United States said of OSS: "I am a great believer in open source software and WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) I think is one of the technologies that will create significant change because of its ability to connect anywhere". He was speaking on the best options available to Africa to rev up access to the Internet.

Accrding to him, only one out of every 118 Africans have access to the internet.

Already African countries like South Africa and Tanzania have started implementing it to save costs.

Uganda, Ghana and Zambia are also moving fast towards OSS.

In Nigeria, Prof. Gabriel Ajayi, Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA, says the intention of government is to build enough capacity with OSS before migration.

Indeed all around the world, Free and Open source software has been a major technology enabler in many markets where Microsoft's lock-in policies are either unwanted or uneconomical.

Numerous developing countries (whose economic growth rates dwarf those of the US, Europe and Japan) have found that only open source software, such as Linux, is compatible with their efficient growth model. The fact that Linux is the fastest-growing operating system in virtually all market segments, from enterprise to embedded, further demonstrates that it is helping to fuel the engine of growth in the Post-PC era.

While Microsoft's overall operating-system market leadership is by no means in jeopardy, Linux's continued gains make it harder for Microsoft to further its core plan for the future, Microsoft.Net. The plan is a software-as-a-service initiative similar to plans from competitors including Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems.

While Linux hasn't displaced Windows, it has made serious inroads. Linux accounted for 27 percent of new worldwide operating-system licenses in 2000, and Microsoft captured 41 percent of new licenses, according to IDC.

Microsoft is therefore already scared that Linux might make significant inroads into its market if it is not checked now.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this year, the company warned that the success of the open-source movement could hurt its sales, potentially forcing it to cut prices and sacrifice both revenue and profits.

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