Open source high on agenda at ACT Summit

Published in Tectonic

Open source software is locally relevant, globally competitive and can make good business sense.

That was the message from some of South Africa’s top open source
pioneers at the African Computing & Telecommunications Summit in Johannesburg yesterday.

Head of the CSIR Open Source Centre, Nhlanhla Mabaso, highlighted major open source initiatives on the continent. He said projects such as the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA), the East African Centre for Open Source Software, Africa Source and LinuxChix Africa, were advancing the development of open source in Africa, but also warned of the challenges facing flagship projects that ”do not have all the elements of a sustainable approach”.

Mabaso expects increased momentum in the next 18 months. ”We’re going to do a lot of OSS projects,” he said. ”It’s no longer about whether [OSS] is good, bad or nice. It’s about doing something to help people.”

Looking at the business approach, MD of OpenLab International, Denis Brandjes, told delegates the open source revenue model ”has to be broader than just services”.

”It is not only about the technology … the application [of it] becomes the key,” he said.

OpenLab for instance, provides ”value packs” and specific customisations of its free Linux distribution, OpenLab 4, as part of its offering.

Brandjes also pointed to exciting developments in Africa, especially in Namibia. ”It’s one of those places where tables have been turned; where [open source] actually owns the market, particularly within the development space.”

Dwayne Bailey from said software needs to be made locally relevant. ”Localisation is making a piece of software work for you, or your locale, or your country, or your language,” he said.

Bailey said the translation of into all 11 official South African languages is nearing completion and web browser translations are also in the pipeline.

Bailey questioned society’s reverence towards technology. ”When we write emails, it is little different to picking up a pencil and writing a letter and posting it,” he said. ”Why should people have to learn English to learn how to use computers?”

He said Venda speakers, for instance, cannot write in their language because English keyboards do not support the Venda diacritic characters. Once software and hardware is localised, said Bailey, it can lower barriers to innovation.

He said open source advances in localising software are also forcing competitors like Microsoft into providing software in local languages. ”We’ve created a market differentiator that proprietary vendors will try to close.”

Developer of the recently-turned open source TurboCash accounting software, Philip Copeman, gave a refreshing perspective on open source on the Windows platform. He said open source on Microsoft Windows has an undeniable future, judging by the ”vast majority of products on Sourceforge” being Windows-based.

But he warned that if Windows itself does not become open source, it will eventually be destroyed by Linux. ”You heard it here first,” said Copeman.

He said consumers will switch to open source when they see that it ”is not only free, it’s better than the things you pay $1000 for”.

Tectonic Editor, Alastair Otter, chaired the open source forum. He wasn’t bad at it either.