Friday, September 26, 2003

The Value of Free Software

Microsoft frequently gives away software for education in $20-30 million dollar lots, and sometimes as much as $100 million.

Of course, the price of the giveaway is quoted in if-sold value, which is not what it costs Microsoft to make the donations. A software package that costs $399 at retail, say the standard version of Office XP, costs about $1 to manufacture, including CD-ROM, box, and printed material (bot no manual any more).

Linux vendors also give away software, but their if-sold value is pretty much $0. You can pay for Red Hat or any of the other distributions if you want to, but you can also download them for free. At best, a Linux vendor giving away on operating system and a thousand applications can claim something like $29 a copy as the selling price, or somewhat more for the enterprise version.

This is one of the reasons why Microsoft's donations are treated as big news in the media, while Linux donations are ignored. On the other hand, Microsoft is slashing prices for countries where the governments are thinking seriously about switching to Linux for education and other programs. Thailand has a deal for Microsoft Windows XP and office for $36 a set, combined. So what would happen if Microsoft donations were reported at those prices?

Let's also take a look at the value of a Microsoft or a Linux donation. With Microsoft, if you want to go on using later versions of the software, you have to pay. Maybe you have to pay first-world prices, and maybe you have to pay the new third-world prices, but you have to pay each time, for each program or suite. With Linux, you pay the same price for the OS and the thousand applications each time, whether that is $29 or $0.

What will it take to bring developing countries across the Digital Divide? Well, if you want to go the whole way, you need to provide a computer and software for each of four billion poor people. Why one per person, and not, say, one per family, or even less? First, because we are talking about doing away with the Digital Divide, not building a few narrow bridges here and there across it. So that means that everybody needs easy access. So let's say one in each home, a sufficiont number in every school and library, one for each worker on the job, a bunch of laptops and palmtops--actually we're going to end up at some point with more than one computing device per person.

Now you can spend $500 and up per computer and maybe $36 for Windows and Office. In round numbers, about $2 trillion at one unit per poor person, without talking about all the other software needed, which very quickly exceeds the cost of the hardware, amounting to trillions of dollars more. And that is only the first time. In a few years, you will have to buy the software all over again.

What if you do it with Linux? Well, you can run Linux on a $300 desktop or a $200 handheld, and the software is free. Let us arbitrarily say $250 per unit. Again in round numbers, $1 trillion.

That's the cost. What is the value? The return on investment (ROI) for education is quite astonishing (as Ireland and india have been demonstrating), as is the ROI for health. The ROI for the economic opportunities enabled by computers and communications is inculculable. Once the process gets under way, it creates a wonderful period of exponential growth, where new prosperity leads to further improvements in education, health, opportunity, and so on.

The developing countries will generate wealth enough to pay for the new ICT, whether they do it through commercial software or Free Software. But they will do it much sooner if they can save a few trillion dollars early in the process, when it will make the biggest difference.

Now there is more to the equation than this. I haven't discussed communications equipment and costs, for a start. But that doesn't change the principle.

So forget debt forgiveness for developing countries, which would be worth a few hundred billion dollars. Forget low-cost medicine (only a few billion, so far) and agricultural sibsidies (maybe a hundred billion annually). We're talking about real money here.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Puttin' on the Dog

Back in the mid-19th century the hot new communications technology was the telegraph. Jean was explaining to his friend Vaclav that the telegraph was like a dog with its head in Paris and its tail in Prague. When you pull on the dog's tail in Prague, it barks in Paris.

"Oh, yes, I see," said Vaclav, "But then how does it work the other way? Wait, don't tell me...You pat the dog on the head in Paris, and it wags its tail in Prague?"

Many years later, the wireless telegraph (radio) came in, and Ivan asked Vaclav about it. "Oh, that's easy," said Ivan. "You know how you explained the old telegraph to me, with the dog connecting Paris and Prague? Well, this wireless telegraph works exactly the same way, but without the dog."

So why do I bring this up? Because there was a question on the Simputer Development mailing list at Yahoo! Groups about Fidonet for developing countries. Fidonet was a way to do e-mail and file transfers before there was an Internet. People would set up their home computers to answer the phone and accept data transfers from other Fidonet computers, then call up another Fidonet computer and pass the data along. Almost all of the calls could be made for free as local calls, since local calling areas overlap.

Now if you have been following along here, you know that wireless communications technology for villages is the Next Big Thing in global development. See links at the right for more. In some areas, networking will start in the towns where electric power and telephone lines are available. Set up a wireless transceiver in a high place in the town, and another in a village within line-of-sight range. Then you can do it again from that village to villages further from the town, and so on. For villages too far from any other, put in satellite dishes. Mostly this will cost less than $1,000 per village for the wireless equipment and the first Simputer, and that one wireless link will support dozens of Simputers.

Now we have free wireless links in local languages from village to village, to towns, to other towns (over regular Internet connections), to other villages, and we can pass information from any point in the network to any other. So there you are. Free Fidonet, but without the dog.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Efficiency of e-government

E-government initiative moves forward

It takes a citizen an average of 3.5 visits – about nine hours – to a government office to complete any given transaction, like obtaining a driver’s license or applying for a building permit.

Do the same thing via the Internet, though, and the time and money saved are enormous, according to Ahmed Darwish, program director for the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology (MCIT)’s electronic government, or “E-government,” initiative. For every 100,000 government transactions performed on line, explained Darwish, the country saves £E 1 million.

Source: e-Government & Technology Middle East blog

Monday, September 01, 2003

The Burning Man

If you light a fire for your children, you keep them warm for an evening.

If you set fire to your children, you keep them warm for the rest of their lives.

What'll it be, folks? The fires of passion, aversion, and delusion, or the fires of compassion, inclusion, and truth?

(with thanks to Shakyamuni Buddha, Alfred Bester and Terry Pratchett)

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