Originally Published: Monday, 6 September 1999 Author: Sam Ockman
Published to: corp_features/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Technology Redistribution & Linux

This article discusses what Linux has to do with technology redistribution.

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There's more stuff in the United States than anywhere else in the world. We've got good things like computers, medicine and food; we've got OK stuff like television, guns and giant corporations; we've got bad things like air pollution, cigarettes and lobbyists for both. We've just got more stuff.

In Africa, for example, there are several hundred million people with yearly incomes of less than the price of a new Palm Pilot. There are more computers sprawled around my office than there are in entire regions of Asia and South America.

I don't have a perfect explanation for how this happened but I do know that there is a strong moral justification for some sort of redistribution of this stuff from the U.S. to the rest of the world--particularly in ways in which we can give away the good stuff without the bad. I also know that we in the Linux community are in a perfect position to contribute to this positive redistribution. If we work hard to bring Linux to the developing world, we will not only be helping those less fortunate than us in a very important way, we also will be doing ourselves some good.

There isn't going to be a computer running Linux on the desk of every Cambodian in two years--if every Cambodian simply had a desk in five years, I would be more than elated--however, there are several reasons why the developing world should and will be extremely interested in Linux.

First of all, Linux is free; and free means a lot more when you don't have much money. IT managers in the United States often don't really care how much money they spend and they might even prefer to spend more because, like bloated government agencies, they know that the more that they spend, the more they'll get next year. If you were told that your next meal would only be as big as your last, you'd overeat too. However, in the developing world, money really matters. I can assure you that there is not a single IT manager in Cambodia who is not watching every penny (or Reil).

Secondly, there's the familiarity issue. Many of us in the Linux community like to pretend that Linux will win out eventually because it's better. But better often doesn't cut the mustard. Think about the QWERTY keyboard that almost everyone in the world uses (I don't use it; but, then again, I also use Linux). The layout of the keys doesn't make any sense and there are keyboard that are much faster and more efficient. In fact, according to whichever fable you believe, this computer was either institutionalized as the standard keyboard in the late 19th century because of a bizarre bet and typing contest, in the early 20th century by managers hoping to slow down and flummox their typists, or by similar managers who thought the typing machines would jam if used too quickly. In any event, they weren't chosen because they were the best and the reason that we have kept this qwerty keyboard is that it is a hassle to switch over to something else.

The same is true even within our community. Think about the people who argue that BSD is better than Linux. I am willing to bet that 90% of these people just started out on BSD and are now more familiar with the operating system and hesitant to make a switch. The same is true throughout the economy. Amazon.com is familiar and, because they moved first, they have name recognition, market share and customers to drown their competitors. Familiarity doesn't mean everything but it does mean a lot and it continues to be the main obstacle to the spread of Linux throughout the United States and Western Europe. Most Americans grew up on Windows and they want to stay there. If Windows makes it to the developing world first, they will probably be the computing choice for the long term and billions more people will be saddled with an inferior operating system.

What I would like to see is the beginning of a movement within the Linux community to start sharing our technology with the rest of the world. We should be translating commands and manuals both within Linux and in the boxes and products we ship. At Penguin Computing we offer technical support in 16 languages (including Cambodian) but this is not nearly enough. As a community, we need to be looking at other opportunities for networking and for communication with organizations the world over. We need to look at the world and see billions of potential customers--not just a few million people in the United States.

Bill Gates has said that he wants there to be a computer on every desktop throughout the world and I can assure that, if Gates has his way, these computers will not be running Linux. I can also assure that morality influences Microsoft about as much as Tolstoy influences the average hedgehog. Of course, I would prefer a world in which everyone uses Windows to a world without computers, but I would much prefer a world where people are able to spend much less to use something better. And, if that's going to happen, we in the Linux community need to start now to bring Linux to the world.

It makes sense and it is the right thing to do.

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