Friday, 31 October 2008

Does open source software hold the future?

Over the past few years, the open source movement has made sturdy progress on the global stage as a strong contender to traditional proprietary software. Characteristic of this trend has been the rise of the Mozilla Firefox browser and the apache server software.

As an active participant in the global scheme of things, Africa has not been left out of the open source party. There are many indications to prove the above assertion. Firstly, it is on record that the West African nation of Mali is completely inundated with the Linux operating system. Secondly, there are not only African consumers, but also content providers. The name of Mark Shuttleworth, originator of the Linux-based Ubuntu project readily comes to mind. Finally, the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) leads a pack of local advocates who are continually spreading the gospel of the open source movement. I was at one of such fora last Wednesday 22nd October at the AITI-KACE here in Accra. The proceedings at that gathering put some few thoughts into my mind and is the inspiration for this entry.

I realised, first and foremost as an aspiring developer, the enormous tools that open source software has put at my disposal. The mere availability of the source code and the community behind the entire movement are metaphoric of petals and nectar in flowers, thus drawing many to accept the open source gospel. Pro-open source people think that their choice of software is a right and that they must be allowed to enjoy those rights just as any other right. They therefore see restrictions put on proprietary software as violations of their rights.

In addition, open source software gives aspiring young business people free or inexpensive software to run their business operations without running the risk of using cracked software. Issues have also been raised with small size of documents saved in the .odt format(openoffice writer) as against .doc format (microsoft word).

However, what has been seen as the key advantage of open source software as advanced by their evangelists, is the comparative low cost that they offer. This means that if African governments and business organisations should adopt open source, they would save scarce financial resources that can be expended on other pressing needs.

Contrary to the above arguments, pundits who argue for proprietary software also have strong reasons for which this switch will not happen overnight. Firstly, they argue that the quality of open source software does not stand up to that of proprietary software. Secondly, they say that the overall cost of open source, in terms of waste of time and inconvenience, is more than that of proprietary. What has been their trump card is the fact that people are so used to their software that they would not wish to change. Remember shifting to a new type of software will mean retraining all staff which has serious cost implications.

Both sides have strong arguments, which means that any future government and organisational-level decisions in this direction must be well thought through.

In summary, I have touched on the strides of the open source movement, especially in Africa, their quest for widespread adoption of their software, and the response of the proprietary software world. The debate continues......

Friday, 17 October 2008

Africa Too Has a Story to Tell

In many fields of human endeavour, African names are missing on the list of top achievers. This often creates the impression that the African has nothing, or at best very little, to offer to the world. The above misconception has continually been perpetuated such that anything that is good must necessarily be of western or eastern origin -or at least so they say. In the world of software development, on the global landscape, hardly are African names mentioned as active participants.

Does this mean that there are no African participants in this industry? Answer, NO! Although there are relatively few African players at the global level, there is a significant number of them out there worth mentioning. These people are playing key trendsetting roles and therefore demonstrating to aspiring African software industry players that indeed their dream is a feasible one.

There are three reasons why the stories of successful African software entrepreneurs do not catch fire. One is the fact that the very nature of most African cultures has restrained them from projecting their images in the public domain, lest they appear to be showing off. Secondly, the level of technology on the mother continent is so low that there are few African praise singers who will bring the stories of these heroes of ours to the fore. The third reason, which is the one that holds more weight, is that global media organisations are so preoccupied with reporting killings, wars, diseases and poverty in Africa that the speedy pace of technological advancements on the continent has been left uncommented on.

During the last few weeks I and my colleagues at MEST were tasked to investigate the success stories of successful African software entrepreneurs. The many names that came up were amazing and most revealing to me. This is because i had no idea that there were so many Africans making giant strides in the global software space. These were no Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but they were Vinny Lingham, Joe Jackson, Harriet Somuah and Mark Shuttleworth in their own rights. I and my former group mates, Edward and Nii Nai, had a date with Mr Joe Jackson, CEO of theSOFTtribe, Nigeria, and this was really exciting.

My encounter with Mr Jackson was not only educative, as it allowed me to learn first hand the goings on of an industry in which i intend to become an active player, but also very deep in the sense that it afforded me the opportunity to reflect on the realities of the global software industry. I discovered that the internet was far more powerful than i thought and that to become successful in the web industry one must aim global.

But what was more intriguing about our interaction was the story Mr Jackson had to tell. The story was about how he and his partner, Mr Chinery-Hesse, started theSOFTtribe from a bedroom. It was about how the organisation grew to become a leader in West Africa and to have about 30% penetration into Ghana Club 100(group of 100 most successful Ghanaian companies). His story painted a vivid picture of the ingenuity of SOFT as they tasked themselves with the duty of providing African businesses with "tropically tolerant" software. Through the interaction we also discovered the difficulties SOFT is facing in the advent of the globalised world and the strategies that they are employing to overcome these challenges. Specifically, the company had to change its business model because the cascading effects of globalisation ensured that the world became a smaller place. Therefore major business decisions that were hitherto localised, such as decision to purchase software, were now shifted to USA, Europe or South Africa. The end result is that local software companies started losing out on business because the mother branches of most multinational firms were calling the shots. This situation was aggravated by the fact that Ghanaian companies that had foreign partners sarted shunning SOFT's products, even though they agree that they were of superior quality in the Ghanaian environment.

So the company had to give up its long term vision of building Enterprise Resource Planning Applications (ERPs) for West-African businesses. Instead they entered into a strategic partnership with Microsoft, where the software giant allowed them access to the source code of their Dynamics NAV software(formerly known as navision). This way the company brought knowledge of the local terrain to the table while microsoft brought international credibility. This ground-breaking deal turned out to be a win-win situation for both parties. The good news is that this has gone a long way to boost the business standing of theSOFTtribe.

To put everything together, there is massive evidence that Africans are active participants in the global order, specifically the software industry. The story of Mr Joe Jackson and theSOFTtribe is testimony that African companies experience the same forces that shape the business of organsations worldwide. It is also very important for young Africans to draw inspiration from these trailblazers and take a massive shot at their destinies by engaging in entrepreneurial pursuits. Finally, we can all acknowledge that indeed the african too has a story to tell!