February 5, 2003 3:50 PM PST

South Africa considers open source

Joining a growing trend, a South African government council recommended an official policy that promotes the use of open-source software--but stops short of jettisoning proprietary applications.

The recommended policy for Africa's wealthiest nation expresses a preference for open-source applications when proprietary alternatives don't offer a compelling advantage. Other nations have taken more extreme positions, mandating the use of open-source software unless no other practical alternatives exist.

"The primary criteria for selecting software solutions will remain the improvement of efficiency, effectiveness and economy of service delivery by (the) government to its citizens," reads the policy, which was drafted last month and published Monday in a final version. "OSS (open-source software) offers significant indirect advantages. Where the direct advantages and disadvantages of OSS and PS (proprietary software) are equally strong, and where circumstances in the specific situation do not render it inappropriate, opting for OSS will be preferable."

The policy is the work of Government Information Technology Officers Council (GITOC) working group on Open Source in Government. The working group, composed primarily of government agency representatives, holds the primary responsibility for formulating the government's open source policy, said one of its members.

The recommended policy would pledge the government to promote "fair and impartial treatment" of open-source software in procurement, create "opportunities for trial use," and take advantage of "the opportunities presented by the OSS movement to promote access to information for citizens."

Behind the comparatively moderate policy lie serious grievances with the way the proprietary software development and marketing model has treated South Africa and countries like it.

By and large, South Africa imports its proprietary software and finds itself with comparatively little influence on how that software develops. The government expects that open-source software, by contrast, will provide more flexibility.

"In the case of many open-source solutions, it may still be a case that the original development was not done specifically with the South African environment in mind, but in this paradigm we are in a position to take action...further by adapting/extending it to our unique needs," said Sibusiso Sibisi, chief executive of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. CSIR is a South African science and technology group that claims credit for 10 percent of all research and development work done on the African continent, and has the only non-government on the GITOC working group.

"It is when a country or community is at the mercy of a technology provider, and powerless to determine or shape its own fate, that the situation becomes problematic and an intervention is required," Sibisi added.

The government is the largest single buyer of computer technology in South Africa, so its actions are watched closely by both open-source advocates and proprietary software venders, particularly Microsoft.

Government policies favoring or mandating the use of open-source software have become one of the most important open-source fires Microsoft has strived to put out over the past few years. Such policies have proliferated in the developing world, where state budgets are particularly limited. But the legislative movement in favor of open source has also made inroads within the United States. Microsoft has lobbied strenuously against the trend.

"All customers--including government customers--should make decisions about which type of software to implement based upon a careful analysis of the long-term value that the software provides," said Alex Mercer, a Microsoft spokeswoman. "We agree with this view and do work with industry partners and organizations...to encourage governments to keep their software options open by adhering to policies that do not favor one software development model over another."

Mercer cited the United Kingdom's open-source policy, which reads in part, "There is a need to always procure a solution that gives value for money. This may be an OSS solution, or proprietary one, or a mixture of both. Decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis."

Microsoft has taken a keen interest in the developing African information technology market, but the open-source movement has already stymied its efforts there.

In November, SchoolNet Namibia, an organization providing computing resources to the million-person nation, publicly rejected Microsoft's offer to put the Windows operating system in its schools and decided to keep its existing open-source Linux systems.

Microsoft's recent donation to South African schools of more than 30,000 software licenses, by contrast, was better-received.

"This was generally welcomed, because the donation did not force any exclusivity and allows open-source solutions to be developed and deployed on the computing infrastructure rollout that might have been accelerated by the Microsoft donation," Sibisi said. "When choices are limited, it becomes problematic."

 

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