Developer world: Poor nations on front line of computer wars

Until two weeks ago, Vanusa Pereira had never used a computer. The uneducated, unmarried, and unemployed mother of two did not know a PC from a CD-ROM or a blaster worm from a Trojan horse.

Today, thanks to a government-sponsored course that has taught information-technology skills to more than 100,000 of São Paulo's poorest citizens, she knows how to write e-mail, surf the Internet, and create basic documents.

The fact that so many people like Ms. Pereira are taking the first tentative steps toward computer literacy is remarkable, but it is not the reason these classes are newsworthy. The unusual thing here is that the students are using Linux, an inexpensive, open-source software platform increasingly popular with governments, especially in the developing world, who see it as a cheaper, safer, and more flexible alternative to Microsoft Windows. Experts say countries from Brazil to Russia to China are shunning Bill Gates's proprietary operating system in favor of open source, mounting a major challenge to Microsoft's global dominance and making the executives in Redmond, Wash., sweat.

"In emerging countries people are using Linux to accelerate development," says Scott Handy, IBM's vice president for worldwide Linux. "[There's a] relatively similar model in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Korea. In those five countries, Linux is growing faster than the IT [information technology] market in general."

The growth of Linux, created by Finnish university student Linus Torvalds and released in 1991, is not restricted to the developing world - the cities of Florence and Munich, parts of the German and French governments, and even the US Department of Defense have all installed Linux systems recently. But its growth here is faster, experts say, due mainly to cost and control. Because the development code behind Windows applications is hidden, it can only be accessed by licensed Microsoft engineers. Linux code, meanwhile, is freely available and programmers can improve it, change it to suit their individual needs, and even give it to other people without infringing on copyright laws.

Brazilian officials hope this will help create a new generation of software engineers that will put the country in the forefront of computer development.

"In developing open-source software, all innovations are immediately shared with the community, thus allowing everyone to share in the improvements," says Sergio Amadeu, the head of Brazil's National Information Technology Institute. "The country goes from being one of mere consumers to one that develops solutions."

Brazil currently shells out $1.2 billion a year in royalties and licensing fees to foreign software manufacturers, according to Mr. Amadeu. If governments, businesses, and other institutional users all start sharing open software, the potential savings are huge. Since 2001, São Paulo has saved almost $10 million by ditching Microsoft and buying hardware that does not require nearly as much memory or such fast processors as required by systems running Windows. Officials also say they save on maintenance and security because Linux systems are less vulnerable to attacks from hackers and viruses.

The Linux systems being used in São Paulo were introduced by leftist Mayor Marta Suplicy as part of an overall revamp of the city's digital projects. Mr. Suplicy's first initiative was to reconfigure all the city's websites using Linux software, and the second was to establish Linux as the base platform for more than 100 Telecentros, cyber cafes-cum-IT schools set up in poor neighborhoods like this one on the edge of the city's rough north side.

Although the Telecentros were warmly welcomed by the 75 percent of São Paulinos who have no access to the Internet, however, the decision to ditch Windows provoked controversy. Some critics accused the left-of-center Workers' Party that governs both São Paulo and Brazil of waging a nationalist war against Microsoft, perhaps the biggest and most emblematic example of US cultural and commercial hegemony.

Amadeu, who aims to transfer 40 percent of the federal government's computers to Linux before the end of 2006, even compared Microsoft to drug traffickers. He says Microsoft's offer to provide Windows software to schools was like that of dealers offering children a first hit for free.

Although Microsoft would not comment on the repercussions of Linux's rapid development in Brazil (and the company says Amadeu did not respond to their requests for a clarification on his comments), industry experts say there are clearly big changes afoot. More and more governments and companies will either adopt Linux as a cheaper alternative or use it as leverage in negotiations with Microsoft.

"Brazil will do what a lot of other governments are doing, which is to put Microsoft under a lot of pressure to cut the price and increase the support," says Mike Gubbins, editor of Computing, Britain's bestselling technology magazine. "Microsoft said they would never give away their code, but as soon as China came in with a billion people, they were reasonably happy to do that because they haven't got much choice. Brazil is another developing country that is in a strong situation."

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