JOHANNESBURG (01/19/2004) - There is an old saying: "The best things in life are free, but the free things cost the most". This was the subtext of the Idlelo Conference held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in Belville last week.
Idlelo, from the Xhosa/Zulu word meaning common land that anyone can use to graze their livestock, is the first conference of its kind in Africa, aiming to promote the use of Free and Open Source Software (OSS) on this continent, as well as to discuss policies, development models, legal issues and education needs.
A varied group of speakers from around the world included some luminaries of the ICT world, most notably Richard Stallman, the über-guru of free software, who founded the Gnu Project to write a free version of Unix. Gnu (http://www.gnu.org) was used as a basis for Linus Torvalds to write the Linux kernel, and Gnu underpins most of the "Linux" software around today. Other speakers came from First Monday (the highly respected online journal), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) - the US-based EFF is the champion of victims of the abuses of big business, big government and others. Global software companies such as Sun and Oracle were also there to support the event, and to tout their wares.
One of the major themes of the conference was finding ways to educate government, business, education and other organizations in Africa on the benefits of Free and Open Source Software. The benefits in most cases are compelling: Open Source Software gives users complete control over the source code - they can study it, adapt it, maintain it, ensure security (through global peer review, as well as ensuring that there are no sneaky back-doors left by closed-source software vendors), without ever being at the mercy of some vendor. Free and Open Source Software can be downloaded for free, and a great attraction is that there are no initial or ongoing licensing costs.
This is where organizations such as FOSSFA come in: the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa, led at this conference by its Kenya-based coordinator, Bildad Kagai, is working to help Africa to understand that freedom comes at a cost.
"We are trying to advocate (Free and Open Source Software) to governments in Africa. In many cases governments do not understand that free software is free in terms of freedom, not that it costs nothing," explained Kagai. Even if an organization no longer has to pay licensing fees to a Microsoft or an IBM or an Oracle, it needs to invest money in training and skills development. What they lose in the "plug and play" simplicity of commercial closed software, they gain in the fundamental benefits of OSS (mentioned above), plus developing urgently needed skills and a local ICT services sector. More important, users of Free Software keep their hard-earned money in this country, and do not put it in the pockets of multinational megacorporations.
Professor Derek Keats, UWC executive director of information and communications services, and the main driver of the event, believes that, if organizations and governments in Africa understand the real, long-term and fundamental benefits of Open Source, everyone benefits. "If a government department in SA takes a piece of software, tweaks it and improves it, and then re-releases it under the GPL licence, then Botswana can take it, maybe make additional improvements or add features and re-release it - then SA can benefit as well."
Governments already do this to an extent: most governments develop and publish their policies and studies for all to read - and software is in many cases simply an automation and formalization of policies.
One very real outcome of this conference, say Keats and Kagai, is the virtual infrastructure that has been set up - online portals and communities for developers, policymakers and educationalists (see http://www.fossfa.org), as well as the creation of networks of people that can make a difference. The plan is to continue holding this conference every two years.