The Codebreakers: Conclusion defeats facts

I watched this morning my DVD copy of the video material entitled “The Codebreakers”, which I got during the Asia Commons Conference this June. With the title sounding controversial as it has come right in time when the Da Vinci Code film has generated mixed reactions from the global public, there is no way the material has something to do with the Holy Grail.

The 38-minute documentary is about the inroads having been made by Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) as far as crossing the digital divide is concerned.

The video takes off from the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis last year, which was concerned about how to bridge the growing digital gap between the rich and poor countries.

The first quote in the film is a major plus for FOSS advocacy.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab and chair of One Laptop Per Child project: “We have chosen free and open (source) software because it’s better, and it means that children can actually participate in making the software better over time. We believe completely in community developed software and content.”

And Microsoft has this to say in reaction:

Jonathan Murray (Microsoft Europe): “It reminds Microsoft that customers have choice. It reminds us to go back to work and listen to the customers. We have to invest six billion dollars in ways that meet the needs of the customers.”

Do you have an analogy for FOSS for it to be understood by a common folk? Here’s one:

Kenneth Cukier (Economist): “Open source software may be likened to generic drugs – it costs less.”

And what is the videogram without a quote from the father of free software movement?

Richard Stallman: “Freedom 0 means you run the program as you wish. Freedom 1 means you help yourself, to study the source code and change it as you wish. Freedom 2 means you help your neighbor, to make copies and distribute to others when you wish. And Freedom 3 means you help your commmunity, to publish or distribute modified versions of the program as you wish. If you have these four freedoms, then it’s free software.”

And then came Bruce Perens, one of the thinkers of Open Source, who had this to say:

Bruce Perens: “Open Source (Initiative) takes Free Software and promotes it to business people. When we say free, it does not mean freedom but it means cheap and that indeed would play too well with business people.”

And thanks to the duo of the Stallman and Linus Torvalds, there are already 29 million users of Linux worldwide. Firefox enjoys 20% of userbase in Europe; 14% of the US. Apache as web server is used by more than 60% of the world’s web servers.

The main component of the documentary is its featuring several FOSS initiatives, namely:

  1. SchoolNet in Namibia, concerned in teaching children how to assemble computers and run and modify FOSS applications.
  2. Brazil government’s efforts “to use FOSS in government procedures and support FOSS as a tool for society.” So far, around 150 million dollars have been saved each year, which is used to invest in hardware in previously technologically impoverished areas.
  3. Digital Doorway (Meraka Institute, Africa), which aims to provide ‘minimally invasive education’ for the poor in Africa.
  4. Computer Buses (Central India). This is a project wherein a bus containing 24 computers and teaching facility takes a round of rural communities to teach schoolchildren how to use computers using FOSS.
  5. Sahana, FOSS Disaster Management Software (Sri Lanka). Aside from FOSS’s investment benefits, the software has been deemed as “sidestepping red tape” in government’s providing relief and rehab assistance to disaster-affected communities, like in Sri Lanka in the wake of tsunami two years ago.
  6. Agri Bazaar (MIMOS, Malaysia), for online trading of agricultural products.
  7. Spain’s initiative to connect its depressed region Extremadura, wherein 100,000 computers were connected to the Internet using FOSS. It generated savings of about 20 million euros.

Major IT companies like Intel, Hewlett Packard and IBM bow to the growing pressure of considering open source in their business. They all agree that customers’ tastes are changing, which include preference over FOSS. Their strategies must be reviewed accordingly. IBM, for instance, has deployed over 100 FOSS projects and hired over 700 FOSS developers.

Microsoft agrees on the contribution made by FOSS in computer innovation and providing access to technology. It sees partnership with FOSS in that regard.

While watching the video, I was already wondering how it would be concluded. I had an inkling that the BBC must have been pressured by IT giants like the Microsoft to act in accordance with their interests.

Here’s the documentary’s conclusion:

FOSS has been selected as software of choice in poor and developing countries because:

  1. There is no upfront cost and temptation to distribute pirated softwares.
  2. Geeks and non-geeks can create virtual communities to invent software.
  3. For developing countries where labor is cheap, high service charges are no problem.
  4. Software can be localized.

Does that mean FOSS could be the bridge to cross the digital divide? No one can say for certain. But what is certain is that the evangelists will not stop seeing its places.

What a way to end the story! Doesn’t it sound foolish? After all the presentation of great inroads by FOSS, here’s a BBC documentary that does not even claim that FOSS has indeed on its way to bridging the digital gap. Instead, it puts the fate of FOSS to its bunch of personality champions.

On the bright side of it (though I still think the conclusion sucks), I think the BBC video puts forward the twin challenges of:

  1. How to increase the tribe of FOSS advocates and practitioners to make governments, businesses and communities FOSS-aware;
  2. How to document success stories or best practices on FOSS as ‘proofs of concept,’ so that even the BBC will courageously say that FOSS is indeed bridging the digital gap.

Before watching the docu, I thought it would pass as a great sequel to Revolution OS, which tells how hackers rebelled against the proprietary software and Microsoft and formed the GNU/Linux community.

To conclude, let me compare the two films metaphorically: “Revolution OS” is “free software” while “The Codebreakers” is “open-source.” And here’s hoping that there will be a sequel to the latter with a title something like “The Code Broken”.

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