Dissenting opinions exist in the minds of software developers. There are those who believe that open source software is superior to the commercially available proprietary products, and those who do not. Those in favour base their arguments on the facts that open source products are free, flexible and unencumbered by ownership of any particular vendor. Those against, say a flaw with open source is a lack of concrete incentive to motivate developers to contribute to open source projects: “Simply throwing an open source party does not guarantee that any of the guests will arrive.” These are valid viewpoints and in economies where electronic equipment and bandwidth are both cheap, the benefits that access to free software and information can make in a less sophisticated environment are easily overlooked.
Developing countries desperately need to raise literacy levels but are hamstrung by a lack of ability to disseminate the needed information effectively. The problem is compounded by limited and often expensive access to bandwidth and the Internet, the primary method for distributing open source software in mature economies. Result – free open source software is not readily accessible to some of the communities that most stand to benefit from it.
I have no aspirations to join either debating team, what sparked my interest was an innovation from the Shuttleworth Foundation.
Designed initially to provide access to open source software at grass-roots levels, the Freedom Toaster is a computer kiosk that allows anyone to copy from its library of open source software and operating systems onto blank CDs – referred to as toasting in the Linux community. The concept proved so popular that the Foundation decided to make the operating design available for free in its quest to bridge the digital divide and provide ever present access to information. Locally the relatively high cost of computer equipment still proved a stumbling block and the organisation decided it needed to develop a sustainable business strategy to better meet the demand for toasters.
However, there was a constraint. The Freedom Toaster’s software had to remain a free source of knowledge for the community – a fundamental open source principle. The plan was ultimately a simple one. The kiosks would be sold to organisations pre-loaded with content pertinent to their needs. The University of South Africa saw the potential to follow the global trend of providing students with digital courseware, and has installed over 30 kiosks at registration centres around the country. After completing the registration process students simply select the appropriate study guides and they have their material available immediately. This is helping to bridge the divide for learners who do not have access to the Internet, or the bandwidth to download online.
The word has spread quickly and extensions of the idea are already in place to dispense other digital products, like music (the copyrighters will not like it?), photography and literature – for free. This must surely act as a catalyst for freedom acquired through knowledge and an enabler of technological integration.
Will Freedom Toasters one day be as accessible as cash machines? Who knows? What is for certain is that I will be following the evolution of what is fast becoming an ‘open source icon’ with interest in the future.
Andrew Ashton and I recently attended the press briefings on the opening day of Rockwell’s Automation University at Emperor’s Palace. Rockwell SA MD Sean Smith is clearly very excited about Incuity – Rockwell’s most recent acquisition. Doug Lawson founded Professional Technology Management in South Africa in 1991; the company was bought by Wonderware in 1995. Lawson then established DataWorks Systems, subsequently renamed Incuity, in 1998. Andrew relates the story and discusses Incuity’s enterpise manufacturing intelligence solution in his article in this issue.
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