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Free Software in Africa and RULE, Part 1

(Marco’s note, oct. 2010: I have to confess that I don’t remember how this and the other article about Free SW and RULE for Africa came to be written. I seem to have lost all notes and email that would show who sent to me the information below, and what was the original purpose for these articles. One source was probably V. Munthe of FAIR, but I’m not sure. One of these articles was sent to an Eritrean ICT magazine, but I don’t remember which one. Anyway, since they are interesting, here they are)

As computer become more common the percentage of the new ones on the total shrinks. The machines used by SW developers remain in a minority. The current view that noboy should care to maximize efficiency in public utility software because the Moores’ law will mask it is fundamentally broken, childish and short sighted. In the real world most people must still work months to afford any new PC: have many, many more sensible ways to use their hard earned money; must use portable, less powerful devices more and more often. Another reason to optimize efficiency is pollution. Computers pollute a lot both when made and when dumped: very recently nobody less than the University of United Nations recommended to extend the life of computers for this very reason: the book recommends that “useful lives of personal computers must be extended to lighten the burden they put on Earth’s air, land, water and human health”.

There are therefore plenty of reasons to keep older PCs doing useful tasks. At the same time, Free Software is presented as a solution: no license costs and less resource hungry than proprietary products. It often turns out that only the first part is true. The real problem is not in the distribution, and choosing an older one because lighter is useless and dangerous. No modern desktop functionality, null online support because nobody runs it anymore, plenty of security holes….

Software usage situation in Africa

All this is all the more important in Africa. In almost all Africa is currently very difficult to get the software (no CDs available anywhere, very slow internet connections, hence no advantage in OSS freely available on the Internet), and to find support and likeminded people. RULE network! Good advertising opportunity. The average annual income is 108 USD. When we visited Addis, a taxi driver earned 130 Birr (about 13 Euro) per day. In 2004, there is still only one Internet provider, the governmental owned Telecom Ethiopia. About 50,000 ethiopians are online. Open Source Software being free of cost was no advantage, as most of the software in use is either provided by development aid or pirate copies. Developing Open Source Software voluntarily in one’s spare time would find no supporters, as the need for paid work is overwhelming. But: OSS also makes it possible to develop software locally and professionally.

Also unique to Africa and other developing countries is the oopportunity, no need, to use digital technologies to save cultural heritage. The first thing to do with the first computer in every village should not connect to the Internet. It should be to save history, language, music, recipes, medical traditions, everything that was never previously recorded on paper or silicon, before it disappears.

Couple all this with another advantage of OSS: it is highly adaptable to local needs, an amharic translation is much more easily acquired than relying on Microsoft’s feeble interest in an amharic Windows version.

Different approaches: thin clients and RULE

The most common real solution, although applicable only in certain cases, is a “thin client” architecture. Thin client: very limited computer, possibly without hard disk, through which every program is run remotely on a common server, or loaded from it.

RULE PC: (very) limited computer, with a real Red Hat Linux system, full networking, and at least the basic applications installed to be run locally
My general “vision”, if you will, about what RULE must become is: a method to always install the *current* Fedora Core (now that RH Linux ceased to exist) which:

  1. uses as much as possible official FC packages
  2. can install on everything (for Red Hat 9 it means a 386 and 12/16 MB RAM)
  3. uses as little disk space as possible (base at 200/250 MB)
  4. doesn’t give up functionality (yes to IMAP, gnupg, the next kdrive, fontconfig…) if the bare minimum ram and Hd are there
  5. makes it easy/teaches how to tweak and configure apps for maximum performance
  6. can also give you a nice, fast and safe server, but is primarily focused on desktop for home, student, schools, NGO, SME
  7. contributes, by giving new life to old computers for the users above, to reduce pollution and digital divide
  8. supports, giving a baseline product, people working in the field to bring Free SW and in general equal opportunities to the users above

RULE could be also used for hospitals and lab workstations. RULE proper is then the foundation on which to build all such projects, and provide by itself some kind of english desktop for students/one man businesses. Starting from there, VUM, and all other groups are welcome to build their semiautomatic “ISO customization process”.

The RULE minimum target is a moving one, and it is really pragmatic. 386, 12/16 are not mystical numbers to defend blindly. They basically mean “what is the oldest, more limited and crappiest hw still working and being donated that, with a reasonable amount of effort, common sense and good will can be reactivated, to delay expense and pollution?”.

RULE = Run Up to Date Linux Everywhere
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