Johannesburg—The announcement last week that Microsoft plans to donate free software to 32 000 schools in SA has caused a fair degree of debate in both industry and open source circles. Particularly considering the announcement followed just days after the National Advisory Council on Innovation (Naci), a state body, released a document warning against the threats of proprietary software and urging government to adopt open standards and open source software.
Not only does the announcement of the free software donation steal the wind from Naci's sails, but it also raises a number of questions on government's understanding of software, as well as the degree to which educational ICT efforts are co-ordinated within government. It also brings into question the motivations of a corporation as large as Microsoft, which is known to have monopolistic tendencies.
Unlike most of the media which quickly applauded the Microsoft announcement as the saviour of SA education, I still have a serious sense of unease that the result could well be Microsoft's absolute domination of the local software market, to the exclusion of all other alternatives.
To be fair though, Microsoft's donation of free software to schools is a significant step forward for local education initiatives. Particularly because it single-handedly removes one of the largest stumbling blocks to providing affordable ICT infrastructure in local schools: the substantial cost of software licences. This in itself is a notable achievement that shouldn't be taken lightly.
Response to the announcement has been particularly subdued—unless you count local open source mailing lists—and it is interesting to see that representatives of local open source projects have been very diplomatic in their response. And rightly so. After all, improving education in this country should not be about product wars, but rather about providing the best solutions at the most reasonable cost and as broadly as possible. If Microsoft makes this even slightly more achievable, then the company deserves the credit.
However, this does not negate the fact that there are alternatives to proprietary software that have both cost (at least until now) and technical advantages over many proprietary products. Clearly, documents such as Naci's indicate that the government of the day is starting to realise this and we can only hope that the donation announcement does not obfuscate the issue and blind the powers that be to the real opportunities that lie in open source software.
For open source advocates, the donation should be seen as a challenge rather than an onslaught by Microsoft. For too long now we have been arguing the cost and technical benefits of systems such as Linux over proprietary software. Now that the cost factor has thankfully been taken out of the equation, it is time that Linux advocates start proving the technical benefits of the operating system rather than just falling back on its cost benefits.
While credit should be given where due, it does not mean the country should head blindly down the Microsoft road. As many of its critics have pointed out, this is merely a start to the process. There is still a lot of work to be done, and if school administrators think their computer problems are over, they are in for a big shock. Software needs hardware, which is not cheap. And software needs support, patches and constant maintenance. And who are we going to blame when viruses and security holes play havoc with school records because of lack of understanding and support?
Let's take the donation in the spirit it was intended, but not see it as an end to the education battle. And certainly not allow ourselves to be blind to the available alternatives.