What is perhaps one of the most important but unseen pillars of the technology revolution, seems to finally be coming out of the shadows. Much of the technology we use most often today is either itself or is based on what is termed ‘free/open-source software’.
But what exactly is ‘free software’? The simplest explanation is that free software is not any particular program or piece of code but is rather an ideology. It is one which proclaims that software which is developed should be created in an open manner which allows anyone else to examine and make changes to the source code.
Free software is governed by a public license that ensures it is legal for anyone to use, modify and distribute such software. The direct opposite of this is proprietary software (e.g. Microsoft Windows or Apple’s iOS). This is software whose code is not publicly available and which is shielded by patents which would make copying or modifying the software illegal. There are two main aspects, most believe, to the free software movement:
‘Free’ As in Price
Free software need not necessarily be free in terms of price. However it is the, ‘free as in price’ nature of much of free software that has increased its popularity and brought ordinary people around the world to work on and improve the various forms of free software out there.
The poster child of free software is Linux, the free operating system kernel developed by Linus Torvalds. Linus first released his free operating system kernel as a university student in 1991 and made encouraged others to join him in its development. Today, the Linux kernel is in continuous development and has been worked on by over 8,000 developers who volunteer their time across the world. Linux is today drives varying systems including cars, fridges and smartphones alongside traditional computers. As a testament to the power and efficiency of this free software, Linux today runs 9/10 of the world’s super-computers.
Linus Torvalds was not backed by any company when he first released his kernel but the simple fact that he made it free (in terms of price and code) meant that he has been able to marshal an army of volunteers from around the world that have, in a collaborative effort, created one of the most functional, impressive and important pieces of technology in the world today. This would not have been possible if these developers had had to pay to access the kernel or if the kernel had been protected by a wall of copyrights and patents.
Free as in Open-Source
The collaborative aspect of free software is perhaps its most important feature. As stated before, those who abide by the free software mentality believe that the best value is gained when software is opened up to others to allow for critical review, improvements and to allow others to modify the software for their own purposes.
This collaborative culture that has grown around free software has allowed software developers across the world to come together both formally and informally to develop applications that serve a variety of purposes and that benefit millions of people around the world. If you have a smartphone there’s a very good chance that it’s running on free software. The Android operating system, though sponsored and mainly developed by Google, is actually free software that is worked on by millions of people around the world. This collaborative effort is referred to as the Android Open Source Project.
The Internet especially is very much built on the pillars of free software. The majority of web servers run Linux or other forms of free software. You may even be openly using free software now if you’re reading this article online. The two most popular and best-performing browsers in the world, Firefox and Chrome, are free software and are developed in a collaborative manner. Chrome is derived by Google directly from the Chromium Project, a collaborative effort aimed at building a fast, safe, and stable web browser. Firefox is managed by the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit that brings developers together from around the world to create a powerful, free web browser.
So why do I say Free Software can transform Africa?
- Price Matters
- On our continent, where few countries enjoy substantial prosperity, price matters. In this vein free software is the key to granting technology access to millions of people who could not otherwise afford to do so. Take computers as an example. Basic hardware prices have generally fallen due to the availability of cheap supple from places such as China. But what really drives up the price of computers are licensing costs, most commonly to Microsoft for Windows.
- The only way to legally distribute computers or laptops with Windows (and MS Office) pre-installed would involve paying large licensing fees to Microsoft. These costs are almost always passed on to customers resulting in high prices for computers. The cheaper option would be to source applicable and cheap hardware and pair it with free software.
- This is exactly the model the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Project has adopted to ensure equitable access to technology for people around the world. This model can be copied by technology vendors around the world who must understand that it doesn’t need to be expensive to grant people access to necessary technology.
2. There’s No Need To Re-Invent the Wheel
- One of the benefits of free software is that it has established, in a number of areas, the foundation technologies that other services use and build upon. These technologies: from programming languages, to application stacks, to specific software can be a critical advantage to developers working in Ghana and Africa.
- There is no need for local developers to specifically create each and every single component of their proposed software. There are tried, tested, and usually free technologies out there that developers can modify and build on top of to create and run their product or service.
- Instagram, the photo-sharing service recently sold to Facebook for $1 Billion, was able to build and manage a service with millions of users, with a team of only three(3) engineers. They did this by building on top of quality, free technology which reduced development needs and time. There is no reason a local developer here in Ghana cannot do the same and enjoy similar levels of success.
3. Modify and Develop Specifically for Africa
- Finally, the open availability of source code under free-software licenses allows and promotes people to modify the code for their specific intents and purposes. This can prove especially important in our African context where we frequently complain about having to use technology that was not built with the African context in mind. These modifications can take the form of simple language localization all the way up to large widespread changes.
- With this is mind there is no reason for example that a group of developers couldn’t work on translating a Linux distribution (operating system) and specific applications that work in Twi, Ewe, Dagbani, etc. This could, for example, be distributed on top of RLG’s computer hardware in the laptop distribution project. Thus assuring our people of computing access in a language they are already familiar with.
- Free/Open-Source Software is making waves around the world. It has long-established itself as a credible, quality alternative to proprietary software. This particular point must be continuously touted, especially in our culture where there is an impression that free things are often not quality. If you think Android smartphones are good, if you find the Chrome or Firefox browser to be fast and excellent you are appreciating the quality and value of free software.
Free and Open-Source Software bodes especially well for Africa as it will allow our people, irrespective of cost, to access and partake in the technology revolution in the world. It is time we acted to seize this opportunity.
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