I read an interesting, well-written, well-researched article this morning by IDG news analyst Owen Fletcher. Posted on ComputerWorld’s site, the article describes the difficulties open-source software has in reaching the Chinese market, principally because (pirated) proprietary software there is cheap enough to be considered free, thus erasing one of the major benefits—cost—that open source brings to enterprises. Fletcher quotes several folks, and has obviously done his job well.
He almost had me believing it.
I am sad to report that, as an open-source “insider”, I don’t agree with two of his conclusions.
The first is that open-source has failed to make serious tracks in China because of the cost issue. Mr. Fletcher describes that The main reason for this is that there are places in the Western sphere where it has also failed to gain traction, including the desktop, and the reason is definitely not cost. Despite some of the great advantages Linux has on the desktop, for example, it has never taken off, despite the fact that you can get it for free and Windows is a large (to my mind) percentage of the cost of a new computer. So for user-oriented systems, cost isn’t the primary issue. If it were, it would be here as well, and it isn’t. Windows has cultural traction, business traction, and excellent marketing, while open-source advocates tend to be their own worst enemies in that regard.
The second issue I have is that Mr. Fletcher seems to equate “success” with (a) a percentage of total installations, and (b) on servers and on the desktop, understandable given that he works for IDG and it is their business to follow those trends. I would suspect both of those definitions. China has certainly embraced open-source software in the embedded space, where market share for embedded Linux in particular is growing astronomically, and in terms of numbers, the potential for embedded systems far outshines what is available for desktops and servers. The Chinese businessman with two Linux-based cell phones, a Linux-based netbook, and a desktop machine running pirated Windows already is using open source software at a ratio of 3:1, and that’s not counting the Linux that runs his coffee maker, the train system he rides to work in the morning, the NordicTrac he uses to work out with in the afternoon, or the digital TV he watches in the evening. The modern world—and the developing world, too—surrounds people with automated systems, and a large number of those systems run open-source software in one form or another.
I am very glad to see that China and other (quickly) developing countries are embracing open-source software as much as they are. For China in particular, I see open source as a key that will enable them to get beyond what seems to be a cultural acceptance of intellectual property piracy. Embracing open-source software will enable them to save face in the marketplace, but it won’t happen overnight for them nor for us. In capitalist countries especially, I think the western mind is suspicious of anything that is available for free because we equate cost with value, and the developing-society minds are taking cues from the West as they “grow up” technologically. This is true for Africa as well.
I would go so far as to say that the “post-developed” world could provide benefit both to ourselves and our friends in developing countries by continuing our trend of adapting open-source solutions, not just for saving face but for the opportunity to help them join in the global communities that form naturally around open-source projects. The true value in open-source solutions is in the development of real community, where you help your friend make a buck because he’s your friend, not because you plan to get something else out of it. We can move beyond the false dichotomies of capitalism and socialism and into a future of—dare I say it—communitocracy.
Disagree with me? I hope so, as that is how we learn. Please feel free to tell me so in the comments.