How Brazil Cannot Afford Microsoft
On the good reasons for using Open Source Software in the public sector.
Recently, I heard a ridiculous statement. When I lauded Brazil's efforts to shift to Open Source Software, an acquaintance responded that they made the decision "just because they can't afford Microsoft." A sucker punch to the gut. After I caught my breath, I realized that he was exactly right. Or at the very least, I would use the same words to express Brazil's position with respect to proprietary software.
To the question "why does Brazil want to shift to Open Source Software", this fellow and I would both respond "because they can't afford Microsoft". But he answered with a razzing pooh-pooh sneer, punctuated with just. "Just because they can't afford it." They're poor, aren't they? They're third world. They are not up to the speed of the rest of us. They call football the wrong thing and trample each other in stadiums. And they speak some weird Spanish dialect or something.
Ahh, if only they had the moolah to pony up for Microsoft licenses, then maybe they'd start developing as a nation. (They're on the way though: at least they consume more energy than they produce.)
Brazil is fast becoming a front runner of Latin American digital technology. Their "Digital Inclusion Program" aims to expand that reputation. In an effort to inspire innovation, the Ministry of Science and Technology has set up programs to encourage software development for the government. At the same time this will afford broader access to information technology, because the program pushes the merits of free software — in this case, Linux.
Brazil gets it. They understand the significance of free software in the "freedom of speech" sense, as well as in the "free beer" sense. They clearly recognize that there are corners to cut with respect to licensing, and that innovation is inspired by open source products.
Brazil spends on the order of $1 billion per year in software licensing costs. That does not make them a big player in the world market, but it does represent a significant amount in their economy. "Free beer" software will reduce that economic burden.
20,000 students finish their technical education every year in Brazil. "Free speech" software is something with which they can work and develop. Generally, even US universities adopt operating systems like Linux as teaching tools, since it is possible to get under the hood and fiddle around. Indeed, Linux was inspired by a venerable teaching tool: Minix.
For a country looking to develop an IT culture and provide greater access to information among its citizenry, Open Source Software is the wisest choice.
Microsoft's products do not offer the positive cultural side effects that Brazil desires. With Microsoft products comes proprietary lock-in. For example, documents stored in their proprietary formats are designed to work on their proprietary systems — though conversions might be necessary as users are encouraged to upgrade every 30 or so months.
Proprietary lock-in leads to the need to upgrade products and services as legacy support wanes. Since this happens roughly every 30 months, those locked-in need to figure the costs of a switch into their budgets. These costs include acquisition, testing, possible downtime, retraining and conversions. Neither a growing economy nor a developing technology culture can economically afford such sanctions.
Security is a world-class concern. For reasons of design, not popularity, Microsoft products inevitably contain gaping security holes. The fact of the holes is well-documented enough to not bear repeating. The significant point is that for a country looking to develop its IT infrastructure, Linux is a platform on which one can learn the inner workings of security, for the inner workings of the operating system are there for everyone to see.
Perhaps the most important considerations in the move to Open Source Software are choice and flexibility. One can be said to have made a choice when one investigates the alternatives that the market offers, then favors one over another. Extraordinarily few Microsoft users have ever done this sort of thing. It is often the case that Microsoft users have not developed a capacity to make such choices, for proprietary lock-in dictates that Microsoft products are the yardstick in evaluating software. Brazil will not suffer this deficiency.
Consequently, I agree that Brazil cannot afford Microsoft products. I mean this in the same sense that we cannot afford to ignore increases in the rate of heart disease or obesity. That is, we cannot allow public health issues to go unnoticed.
Similarly, Brazil cannot allow themselves to get locked into proprietary digital technologies. To use Microsoft's operating systems and software would undermine the cultural development they seek, and would necessarily exclude a wide economic swath of the population.
It is our responsibility to take Brazil's decision seriously and use them as a looking glass. We need to reflect as deeply on our digital culture and determine whether our technology infrastructure can survive monopolistic lock-in.
© 2004 Sorrell