By Ina Fried
Staff writer, CNET News
August 28, 2008, 4:00 a.m. PDT
Editors' note: This is part of a series exploring computing in Latin America.
SAO PAULO, Brazil--Walk into the Ponto Frio electronics store here, which proudly displays a penguin-shaped logo, and you will find a healthy supply of Linux PCs alongside the usual Windows machines.
The store's Linux love is indicative of Brazil's deep ties to open-source software. Visit the country's universities and you'll hear about many projects using open-source software in new ways. Step into the Brazilian data centers of some of the world's most advanced financial institutions and you will see they depend on the open-source software for many key tasks.
One of the biggest backers of Linux has been Brazil's federal government, which has a stated preference for open-source software and has mandated its use in the program that helps subsidize financing for low-cost PCs.
"What interests the government is to give options, to give alternatives to the proprietary--to the almost monopolistic domain," said Augusto Cesar Gadelha, secretary general of Brazil's ministry of science and technology.
Many of the country's technology leaders are more pragmatic than ideological."Open Source is an interesting way to share knowledge, but 93 or 94 percent of the computers in the world run Microsoft software," says Rodrigo Baggio, the founder of CDI, a group that has established scores of digital inclusion projects in Brazil and a half-dozen other countries.
Although Microsoft is a partner of his, he says he is not preaching Windows either. He just doesn't like the current system in which the federal government meets "in a very beautiful room in the capital and everyone needs to follow their decision."
"I believe in the power of local people to decide what kind of software they will use," Baggio said.
Gadelha said the country's stance is pragmatic.
"There are examples (of) open software which have been quite successful," Gadelha said. "In other areas, we still rely on proprietary software. If we have alternatives that prove themselves to be quite equivalent we give preference to open software model because that would allow for future developments that would allow for future betterment of the software."
And it's not just Brazil's federal government that has adopted Linux.
The mayor of Serrana has spearheaded an effort to create a Linux-based tabletop computer for students--sort of like Microsoft's Surface crossed with the XO laptop from Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child.
The digital desks, as they are called, are aimed to be an intensely Brazilian effort. The tablet computer display at its heart was developed by Victor Mammana, a Brazilian physicist who works in the country's ministry of science and technology. The desks themselves are being outfitted in Serrana, a midsize city three hours from here.
The idea is to take the desks already used by the city's 7,000 school kids and turn them into computers.
"The idea is not to make a business out of that, but more like a social franchise," Mammana told CNET News earlier this year. "It's interesting, this idea of providing a local solution for a local problem."
But, while there is an unquestionable open-source allegiance that exists in many parts of this vast country, Linux use on consumer PCs might be somewhat illusory.
For example, a huge percentage of those Linux PCs end up with Windows shortly after they leave the store.
"We see, based on third-party researchers, that 85 percent of the computers that are sold with open source are transformed to Windows in the first 30 days (and) another 10 percent in next 30 days," said Jorge Salles, general manager of Microsoft's Unlimited Potential unit, which focuses on emerging markets.
Still, Microsoft knows it has a fierce competitor in Brazil.
"Linux, we are seeing, has some room in the market," Salles said. "It's good that it has some room because it forces us to be better. If we are inefficient in our distribution, we need to improve that. It's really good to see a sort of new competitor in the marketplace."
Salles said that Microsoft has stepped up to the challenge, adding new efforts to sell to high schools and colleges as well as with its low-end Windows XP Starter Edition and Windows Vista Starter operating systems.
Of all the countries where Microsoft sells its starter editions of XP and Vista, Brazil is, by far, the country where the most copies are sold.
At Ponto Frio, for example, its least expensive advertised system in one newspaper was a PC advertised for $61 (99 reais) a month, when financed over a year. A Vista Starter system with a slightly larger monitor and similar processor cost just $67 a month, with similar financing.
Day 1: Inside Brazil's slums
Paraisopolis, one of Brazil's slums, has a computer lab connected to a health clinic and community center.
Day 2: Empowering youth
One project has transformed a crime-ridden area with a neighborhood-wide learning center.
Day 3: Improving accessibility
Some of the most striking nonprofits in Brazil help people with disabilities connect to the Net and jobs.
Day 4: Up close and one-to-one
Here's a look at a school that is home to one of the largest one-to-one computing projects in Latin America.
Exploring tech in South America
CNET News' Ina Fried sits down with Kara Tsuboi to discuss her special report on computing in Latin America.
A 'Social Silicon Valley'
Journalist Gilberto Dimenstein transformed a Sao Paulo neighborhood filled with crime to one filled with learning.
The real power of the PC
Entrepreneur Rodrigo Baggio turned his attention to tech as a path to economic empowerment for the underprivileged.
Opportunities, obstacles in Brazil
IBM's Claudia Fan Munce, who grew up in Brazil, discusses open source, VC, and other tech forces in the country.
Up close with one-to-one computing
The Bradesco Foundation school is home to one of Latin America's largest one-to-one computing projects.
Intel's Classmate PC enrolls
Brazil: Free software's biggest and best friend
The New York Times
Brazil or bust: The great computer race
Brazil falls in love with Linux
Editors: Mike Ricciuti, Desiree Everts
Design: Susan Dove
Production: Kenny Ash