Open-Source – in Asia, and Theory

Business Week writes about Asia’s love affair with Linux and other open-source software, driven by cost, adaptability, and security concerns :

Discontent with Windows — and enthusiasm for Linux — are increasingly common in Asia these days. Although Microsoft still rules the desktop and racks up healthy server operating-system sales, open-source software is winning fans across the region. Government officials see Linux as a means of cutting costs — systems using it run as much as 70% cheaper than Windows — and priming their local software industries. China, Japan, and South Korea, for instance, are working to develop an operating system more attuned to their character-based languages that will likely be modeled after Linux. And policymakers in other countries, especially Thailand and India, are backing Linux development. “Promotion of Linux is very important,” says Li Wuqiang, a deputy director at China’s Science & Technology Ministry. “Government should give it a hard push.”

Linux is getting a boost as governments start to crack down on piracy and look for ways to make technology more accessible to the masses. The number of Linux servers in Asia will grow some 30% annually through 2008, to 10.5% of the total market, from 1% today, estimates researcher IDC.

The operating system is making inroads in domains well beyond servers. Some Chinese PC manufacturers are now selling machines with Linux already installed. And companies including Korean giant Samsung Electronics Co. and Shanghai startup E28 have recently unveiled cell phones that use the operating system. One reason: Programmers can more easily adapt Linux-based phones to consumers’ needs, says Roger Kung, CEO and founder of E28. Linux is “the best choice.” has an interview with “Walt Scacchi, a senior research scientist at the University of California at Irvine’s Institute for Software Research, [who] has been looking at open-source projects from an analytical perspective, studying the open-source model in an ongoing, 10-year project.” His comments:

One thing we find with respect to participation is that in a couple of other surveys, 60 percent of open-source software developers who show up as core contributors tend to be contributors to two to 10 other projects. Once you’ve established a reputation of expertise in a certain area, you can take that to another project, or conversely, people seek out your expertise, because you know how to do certain kinds of things. The overall dynamic that starts to emerge is that there’s a social mechanism for the creation of critical mass that lets these projects coalesce and come together, so systems can grow and evolve at rates that far exceed what’s predicted by good software practice. Software engineering predicts that projects grow by the inverse square law, meaning that initial growth is fast. It then slows down, and then, with a project shift, you get steady growth.

But in the more successful open-source projects, you get a hockey stick (curved line) on your graph–a longer period of slow growth, then critical mass starts to kick in, and the growth curve starts to shoot up in a greater-than-linear growth rate.

There’s an open-source community in architecture, working in developed countries, of people who will contribute their designs in developing or emerging countries, where hiring an architect to do something is prohibitively expensive. There’s open-source education [like at MIT].

That’s at the college level, but also in grade schools and high schools globally. People in the United States and Europe are contributing content for math and science classes for their own countries and developing countries, where purchasing textbooks is prohibitively expensive. In the visual-arts community, there’s a movement to explore what it means to do works of art for sharing, or building upon works of art of other people. People are breaking away from the tradition of the individual artist, saying there’s another way to build upon the work of others.

And in the area of government, a number of European and Third World countries are looking to adopt open-source systems for reasons of perceived cost or low cost, but at the same time they bring in the open-source systems, they also embrace the ideology of openness, which in turn may be a revitalization of what it means to be an open, democratic nation or government. So the process becomes open source so that citizens can better understand how their governments work and how a corporate provider of information technology is serving its own interest in selling systems to its government or if it’s helping the people.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.