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......


Keep comments and insights coming to get the discussion going!