In emerging markets, pirated Windows wins over Linux

Mandriva’s CEO François Bancilhon is livid that the Nigerian government has decided to replace Mandriva Linux with Windows from Microsoft Corp. on Classmate PCs. See his open letter to Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, where he blames the Redmond, Washington software giant for queering the pitch for Mandriva.

Emerging markets, because they are poor and are just beginning to adopt computers, are seen by many Linux advocates as a natural market for open source software. After all it gives developing countries cheaper software, and yes the freedom to play around with the source code.

However neither the governments nor the people in emerging markets can afford to be dogmatic on these issues. If Microsoft offers to donate software to a country, and promises to train teachers on Microsoft’s technologies, as they did in India, who are the governments to argue. Their priority is to take computing to as many people as possible.

Taking a position on the open source versus proprietary debate is a luxury emerging markets cannot afford.

For students, knowledge of Microsoft products is considered important as familiarity with Office and Windows is required for most clerical jobs. Most corporations still use Windows and related applications on the desktop. Until that changes dramatically, students too are likely to be keen on using and being trained on Microsoft’s products rather than on open-source technologies.

Governments in emerging markets cannot afford to interfere with this decision by forcing students to work on Linux and open source.

In many emerging markets, Linux is in fact being pushed by PC hardware vendors, as it helps them keep their prices low. In private, some of these vendors will tell you that they are offering Linux just because they have to be seen to be offering an operating system on their computers. Except for some die-hard Linux users, most of the others remove Linux from the hardware, and load a cheap, pirated version of Windows. The vendors’ resellers often oblige by doing it for the user before he takes delivery of the computer.

Why do folks use the pirated Windows instead of the legal Linux ? Because everyone else does it. This illustrates how deeply Windows is entrenched in the users’ psyche in emerging markets. It also illustrates the ecosystem of mentoring and sharing that has over the years got built in emerging countries around Windows. If Windows doesn’t work too well on your computer, go across to a friend or a dealer who will help you find your way out. If you need some other software to run on your computer, the reseller will give you a CD-ROM with a pirated version of the software.

That kind of ecosystem is as yet not available for Linux and other open source software. Open source in emerging markets is a preserve of the geeks. Some of them are with open source primarily because they think it is chic to be seen to support open source.

Purchase decisions in emerging markets are based on purely utilitarian considerations rather than ideology. Users violate copyright laws – and I don’t think they are doing that to spite Bill Gates. They are doing it because it is convenient, and Linux does not as yet qualify as a convenient choice.

Related articles:

Throwing computers at the digital divide won’t help
A little more tolerance Mr. Stallman !

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