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OS Wars: The African Theatre
November 12, 2008 3:14 AM   Subscribe

Microsoft and Linux have been battling for dominance in Africa for some time now. In South Africa, Linux elicited the help of a former Microsoft executive, to which Windows countered with a massive free software giveaway. A more recent front has been in Nigeria, where Mandriva looked set to secure a government contract, until Microsoft allegedly paid $400,000 to have that contract dumped. Microsoft, for its part, has denied the allegations.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (40 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dear sir, I am writing on behalf of the government of Nigeria in order to transfer two million dollars worth of black market windows license keys...
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:18 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm sure the $75M worth of software given to South Africa will impress the hell out of the Chinese. Maybe not in the way Microsoft would like, though.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:59 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting the story MStPT.

Just some points:
* A better description of the two camps would have been 'Microsoft and FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software'. Linux is an operating system kernel. As such it does not encompass Mozilla Firefox, Open Office.org, Sugar (the OLPC user interface) and much other software under a FLOSS license. FLOSS does and also, of course, includes the Linux kernel.

* It also would have been better to have written 'to which Microsoft countered with a massive software giveaway'. The software that Microsoft is giving away may be free of cost but it is not free in the other sense of meaning unencumbered by restrictions (as in the phrase 'free speech'). It is better to refer to proprietary software which can be obtained without cost as gratis. Free Software is a term used by the community which develops FLOSS software to mean software released under licenses which respect the freedom of the user (and requires anyone who takes the software and extends it in a public release to give the extensions back to the community).

My points may seem pedantic but they are referring to key philosophical points upon which the FLOSS movement was founded and which have nurtured and protected the community and its software through 25 years of development.
posted by Sitegeist at 4:01 AM on November 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


It's difficult to compete with free, but MS badly need to create the expectation that all systems run on Windows as the African IT market expands. Almost all of the major markets are fully tapped for them, but developing markets are increasing dubious about running Windows. How do you justify the P/E ratio without that aggressive expansion?
posted by jaduncan at 4:05 AM on November 12, 2008


Analysts claim that as the price of a computer reaches $250, Microsoft's business model no longer works. I don't know if that's true, but "netbooks" are selling (in the millions of units) for $300 and prices are dropping while Microsoft charges between $100 and $250 for Vista and between $40 and $50 for XP. That's a pretty big percentage of the system cost. That might lead one to conclude that for Microsoft to further extend their monopoly they'll need to start paying OEMs to install Windows.

I had no idea Richard Stallman had a Metafilter account. Welcome, Sitegeist.
posted by sdodd at 4:26 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Micros~1 continues to prove that the only reason to use their crap is a) lock-in and/or b) bribery. I'm glad I escaped years ago.

Ubuntu
posted by DU at 4:32 AM on November 12, 2008


Thanks for the welcome sdodd. As a site geist I am prone to temporary possession by various other wandering spirits. RMS's spirit is indeed strong, and I am relieved to report I have now returned to my usual phantasmagoric self.
posted by Sitegeist at 4:36 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Micros~1 continues to prove that the only reason to use their crap is a) lock-in and/or b) bribery

Micros~1 continues to prove that the only reason to use their crap is a) lock-in and/or b) bribery. I'm glad I escaped years ago.

Ubuntu


I'd agree with you but I am still trying to get my wireless adapter to w
posted by srboisvert at 4:49 AM on November 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


Thank you, Sitegeist, it's a pleasure to have a pioneer in this thread. Your clarifications are most appreciated. By way of explanation, the South Africa story concerns Novell's efforts to spread SuSE Linux, and the Nigeria concerns the Linux distro Mandriva - so for simplicity's sake, I went with "Linux". Also, with regards to Windows' "free software giveaway", I suppose I took it for granted that most people know that Windows = proprietory-ware; I didn't at all mean to imply that Microsoft has embraced open source for Africa's sake, just that their closed-source software was given gratis. Rather than simple pedantics, I think your point is an important one. I've been wholly open source for nearly two years now and have been very happy with the experience, thanks largely in part to trailblazers like yourself.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:51 AM on November 12, 2008


Except for Flash (which is closed source and therefore really proves rather than disproves my point), I haven't had a single problem with any Ubuntu system I've set up. Which is....3, although I've had multiple upgrades on each also with no problems.
posted by DU at 6:19 AM on November 12, 2008


srboisvert, I favorited that because it was funny, but it's much less true than it used to be. I believe all of the major manufacturers of wireless gear have now released tech specs, so it's likely that this Ubuntu will probably work on whatever hardware you have. It has worked for a long time on Intel wireless, and I found it easier than getting it running with Windows. (seriously!)

Laptops used to be absolutely the worst place for Linux, and in some ways they still are, but they've improved enormously over the last eighteen months or so. Hibernate, traditionally a buggy, unstable mess, has worked flawlessly for me on my Dell Inspiron 9300 (Intel chipset and wireless, NVidia graphics). The only notable problem I have is that the sound mixer doesn't control the volume of the bass speaker properly, which is pretty damn annoying, and which I haven't been able to fix. Everything else works really well.

If you're primarily a 'netizen', that is, you mostly use the computer for web surfing, email, and the basic office tasks, Ubuntu is perfectly serviceable. I use Firefox and Thunderbird for web browsing and email, and can move seamlessly between Windows, Linux, and OS X. I like OS X the best, but they all work just fine. If I were forced into full-time Linux, I'd be utterly sanguine and undisturbed, except for gaming.

Ubuntu is really getting very good. You can tinker with it for free and without changing your computer by downloading and booting a LiveCD. It won't be very responsive, because CDs are glacially slow, but you can make sure it'll work with your hardware.

Alternately, you can install it under the (gratis) VMWare Server product, or on the Mac via the (payware) VMWare Fusion, and have it running as a guest OS under your main one. You want a lot of system RAM to do that, but it works surprisingly well. Both products make a file on your hard drive that serves as a virtual disk drive for the guest OS, so while it isn't quite as fast as a true native implementation, it's WAY faster than running it from CD. That doesn't tell you anything about hardware compatibility, but it'll tell you a lot about user compatibility. :)
posted by Malor at 6:36 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've got Ubuntu on one of my systems. It's great but still has a long way to go in terms of what is somewhat accepted as user friendly for Windows and Mac OS, in terms of some installation procedures, skinning, etc. Of course, with so many applications being web-based these days it's very good for that and for the out of the box use it like it is crowd, it's perfect, unless you need some particular software.

But I personally need the jackasses at Adobe to make Linux compatible versions of their software. There is no official Mac to my liking in terms of hardware/price so I'm stuck with Windows for production work. I'd switch to Linux full on in a heartbeat otherwise.

That said, getting inroads where it can is good for Linux and maybe it'll eventually speed up the adaptation elsewhere.
posted by juiceCake at 6:43 AM on November 12, 2008


Richard Stallman wow! I have been open source for about 7 years now (Mandriva) Thanks Richard, you deserve as much credit as Torvalds, if not more. Perhaps if you could get the ear of Obama, we could really get the ball rolling.
posted by dollyknot at 6:44 AM on November 12, 2008


OK, actually on topic: Microsoft is a monopoly, and they are using the traditional tactics of a monopolist to try to shut out Free Software. This is a battle that will take at least a generation to fully resolve, but ultimately, they will lose.

Why? Because software costs nothing to copy, but it costs a lot to make. It makes a lot more economic sense to split the development cost and then share the result freely. The price of things always tends toward its marginal production cost, and the marginal cost of software (which is defined as the cost making another unit after everything else is built and ready to produce it) is very near zero. Copyleft has a gravitional field; each year, the total library of code available under Free Software gets larger and better. That means that, each year, it's stupider and stupider to try to develop something yourself from scratch, instead of re-purposing some of that existing code. Eventually, it will be futile to try to compete with that enormous universe unless you're in a very specialized field with knowledge that nobody else has.

It's going to take a long time, but eventually, all commodity software will be free. You'll pay for niche products and for service, like packaged updates from Ubuntu. And, for that reason, I'm entirely sanguine and undisturbed by Microsoft's bribery and corruption, because they're being hollowed out from underneath with each passing year. They will probably always exist, but they will lose control over the software market. I don't know when that will happen, but it's as inevitable as the sun setting. The bribery is delaying the inevitable, but it won't stop it.

The gravity of Open Source will eventually become so strong that not even Microsoft's bank account can escape.
posted by Malor at 6:50 AM on November 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


Ah, it appears as though I fail at humor. I was joking about Sitegeist being Stallman. Rather than explain the (apparently inadequate) joke, I'll just apologize and slink away.
posted by sdodd at 6:58 AM on November 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


But I personally need the jackasses at Adobe to make Linux compatible versions of their software.

Oh, there are open source versions of software that Adobe makes - I've been using GIMP for all my 'shopping needs. I know this might prompts others to make their own recommendations, or point out that GIMP cannot do everything that Photoshop does, but it works fine enough for me.

I can't add anything to your experience with Ubuntu, as I've never used it. I was using Mint, more or less a fork of Ubuntu, for over a year, and have newly made a switch to Mandriva One 2009. I've been very happy with it, thanks in part to the good people at the PLF, but mostly because of the MCC.

Ubuntu is really getting very good. You can tinker with it for free and without changing your computer by downloading and booting a LiveCD. It won't be very responsive, because CDs are glacially slow, but you can make sure it'll work with your hardware.

I'd add that if you partition your hard drive, you're in even better shape - keeping your actual system in a partition separate from your data means you can throw anything you want at your system with impunity. In the event you do something really stupid that requires a fresh install, your date is safe.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:30 AM on November 12, 2008


Malor: "... my Dell Inspiron 9300 (Intel chipset and wireless, NVidia graphics). The only notable problem I have is that the sound mixer doesn't control the volume of the bass speaker properly, which is pretty damn annoying, and which I haven't been able to fix.

Malor- I have Ubuntu 8.10 on my Inspiron 9300. I had the same volume issue. IIRC, you can adjust the volume mixer under Preferences. If you set the multimedia volume buttons to "PCM," it will control all the speakers. You can then set the system volume GUI control to control the bass speakers, so you can get a good mix.

My only complaint with 8.10 on my 9300 is that it doesn't seem to recognize wireless access points as easily as 8.04 did.


Oh, and sdodd, I was going to make that Richard Stallman joke too! But you beat me to it.
posted by TechnoLustLuddite at 7:52 AM on November 12, 2008


Just thought of another way of looking at this. Microsoft's bribery is a tacit admission that their software is inferior; they have to pay people to use it.

Linux and Free Software have come a long way since 1994; back then, you had to be a serious geek to even get that system running. Building modelines by hand to get X Windows running was extremely painful, but everyone had to do it. (they were a series of numbers that told the video display hardware how to drive your monitor; they were dangerous with fixed-frequency monitors, and in fact I blew one up that way, because it was easy to send a signal to your monitor that it couldn't handle.) And then, after going through all that pain, the GUI software was hopelessly primitive and painful to use. The command-line stuff was very impressive, but Unix was fundamentally about Big Iron, not PCs, and everything in the system reflected that thinking. It made a great server, but it was incredibly painful to try to use as desktop software.

Compare that with fifteen years later, and the biggest software company in the world is having to pay people not to use Linux on the desktop.

It's a slow shift, rather glacial in fact, but eventually people just won't run closed source software routinely anymore; it will be unusual, rather than the norm. Microsoft won't die. They might not even shrink, but you won't be forced to run their software. They'll be one vendor of many you might choose, based on quality and fitness for your particular purposes.
posted by Malor at 7:54 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't have anything much intelligent to offer, so I will just stand on the sidelines and cheer on the FLOSS. Go, Linux! Go O-O!

(I love my O-O).

I don't know why we don't have just about every public and/or non-profit institution in the world (schools, universities, government offices, etc) switching to open-source software for all non-sensitive, non-specialist usuage -- just on cost grounds. There will always be a place for proprietary software (I recently bought some good analysis software), but why use word when you can use OpenOffice Text? And O-O calc is much better than Excell. And this would save so much money, especially for governments in developing countries who can't afford to waste one penny.

That said, I had heard that some governments were rejectinig the OLPC with its awesome operating system, because they didn't understand that it was actually a whole teaching package, but thought it was some kind of knock off operating system, a second class operating system for the developing world. So they insisted on getting OLPCs with Windows, which just eviscerates the great teaching tool the OLPC could be.
posted by jb at 8:04 AM on November 12, 2008


A foreign company taking over a market by giving a product away for cheap or for free, intentionally losing money in the process, is called dumping in the US and is considered fraud. It usually leads to high tariffs being charged.

An example of DRAM dumping.
posted by eye of newt at 8:22 AM on November 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


It is unlikely that Richard Stallman would be a Metafilter member - mainly because he doesn't use a web browser.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:47 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


How does the massive software giveaway strategy work long term?

At some point the recipients of that software are going to want to upgrade or add new systems, or something.

Can Microsoft reasonably expect to charge them after the freebies? How do you do you even negotiate those terms?

"We'd like the same price we paid before."
"We gave it to you free…"
"Exactly"
"Well I don't know, I uh…"
"You wouldn't want us moving to Ubuntu, OpenOffice, MySQL, and Zimbra would you?"
posted by device55 at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2008


I am very upset about what has happened with the OLPC. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and I learned computing it was a variety of operating systems (Commodore PET CP/M, Apple, Tandy, MSDOS)... the best of which was ICON. The basics of networking and programming were perfectly covered by the OLPC without resorting to a maintstream operating system.

Sure - my kids have MS Windows & Office on their computers - but they also have Scratch, OpenOffice, Dia, InkScape, GIMP, Alice, Squeak and dozens of other free multimedia, graphics and programming tools.
posted by jkaczor at 9:02 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I taught computers in South Africa, and opened a small computer training centre. I didn't really care if it was a Micrsoft location or a non-Microsoft location. The project sponsors were pro-Microsoft, but not to the extent they would stop me from doing anything.

I had six months to start teaching computer classes, and when I got there I didn't even have a building, or computers. Eventually we got the building and the PC's, but the Operating System decision was a huge hassle. Remember that I had only six months and virtually no budget.

Discussions with Microsoft/the Open Soruce community started with... "As for money we have none" and are running a variety of old and donated equipment (often the cables weren't supplied, and had the wrong power supplies for SA). MS sent me trial versions of XP and Office which I would have been able to install and uninstall later (ignoring the specs problem - as if keeping the patchwork network I had built up and running wasn't enough problem I wasn't going to install trial versions) , and the Open Source Community sent me a nice box full of the latest version of Mandrake Linux (which I couldn't run, cause I didn't meet minimum video specs). Other Linux distros were out - I was using a dialup internet connection, and the South African phone network charged for every call and imposes an additional fee for time spent on a call (just like long distance for local calls in NA) , and downloading say 800MB of software over a modem wasn't practical - plus I didn't have time to negotiate the learning curve (I knew command line Unix, but had never even looked at Linux).

I got things running, but it was in a decidedly grey-market kind of way.

So my opinion is that any discussions of the "digital divide" in Africa have to focus less on technology and more on things like distribution of software and logistical issues; which can only work through local-boots-on-the-ground-engagement. I worked in Vietnam a few months after leaving South Africa, and although Vietnam is a poorer country and I was in a small city in the South - virtually everyone had some access to an internet cafe with decent machines (and software which they freely pirated - normally by passing around CD's) and knew at least some things about computers. I am not advocating piracy, but PC and software companies need to be realistic about local market conditions and make the appropriate adjustments. One of the reasons that South Africa was much more computer illiterate than Vietnam is that SA was much more tied into the models of intellectual property (I am talking at the level of poor people, people with resources in SA are every bit as good as people in NA).
posted by Deep Dish at 9:48 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


So my opinion is that any discussions of the "digital divide" in Africa have to focus less on technology and more on things like distribution of software and logistical issues; which can only work through local-boots-on-the-ground-engagement.

This is 100% true. This is what impressed me about the South Africa story. To wit:
For consumers this means that by Christmas time in South Africa they will be able to purchase Linux pre-installed PCs at PC retailers as well as major general retailers. ”The response from the systems builders and retailers has been overwhelming,” said Masie. ”No-one has said no and we have already signed up half of them.”

”Our intention is to offer consumers a choice,” he said. ”They can either buy a PC and pay R3000 to R4000 for the proprietary software. Or they can buy the same PC with the open source software which will only cost around R500 and will include every application they could ever want.”

”We want to drop the cost of software for end users to just 10% of where it is now,” he said. ”Which is where it should already be.”
When the software is free to download and, more importantly, free to copy, it can spread to machines wherever they are - whether they've been bought from the shelves of a major retailer in Jburg or are sitting in storage gathering dust in a school basement - they can all freely and easily receive the same system.

Even more importantly, there are the updates. Sure, you can pirate a copy of XP for your machine, but you're stuck at that service pack until you buy a copy. Linux distros and open source software update and upgrade for free.

Of course, there are also the logistical issues of hardware itself; it's hard to install a system on a non-existent machine, after all.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:59 AM on November 12, 2008


Malor : Linux and Free Software have come a long way since 1994; back then, you had to be a serious geek to even get that system running.

I remember helping a friend to get Slackware up and running in about '94. God that sucked. The worst part was that after you got all the fires put out, there would be a new system update that would re-break everything.

The fact that a decade and a half later, I've got computer illiterate co-workers rocking Ubuntu gives me hope for the world.
posted by quin at 10:01 AM on November 12, 2008


Happy Dave writes "It is unlikely that Richard Stallman would be a Metafilter member - mainly because he doesn't use a web browser."

Metafilter is perfect for how RMS uses the web: there are few images, high S:N ratio, no goofy layout, and no dynamic content. It's prefect for web via email.
posted by Mitheral at 10:20 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sitegeist, your pedantry is much appreciated. MS is definitely trying to hijack the jargon of open source and reframe the debate.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:47 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I was going to say that Linux was easy in 1993, but then I remembered nervously editing monitor timings to get X running without destroying my hardware.

Despite playing on and off with Linux for 15 years, I'm still stuck with MS. There is always some piece of win-only software that is too mission critical for me to trust on wine. I'm especially pissed because MS has dropped the ball on improving computer security/reliability by not making it easy to virtualize with a legitimate license.

Meanwhile Linux is getting to the point where it is easier to install and use than Windows, has more flexibility, better security, reliability, etc...
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:57 AM on November 12, 2008


But not currently the ability to display certain SMB shares in the shell (Intrepid)...

Grrrrrrrr!
posted by Samizdata at 12:01 PM on November 12, 2008


Linux elicited the help of a former Microsoft executive

That sentence makes absolutely no sense. Linux is a bunch of code, it cant ask for anything. You mean Novell competed with MS. I mean, do people even run SUSE? Its horrible. I sure as heck woudnt pay for Novell's overpriced "support" contracts.

So, two corporations fought for marketshare. One lost and the other won, perhaps with dirty tricks. Lets not play this up as some non-profit full of geeks handing out antibiotics and ubuntu discs got run over by Bill Gates' Mercedes. Thanks.

Novell was trying to sell retail PCs with their bought and paid for version of linux. They werent giving it away. When placed side-by-side consumers usually pick windows anyway.

Microsoft charges between $100 and $250 for Vista and between $40 and $50 for XP.

No one knows what the giants actually pay for their volume OEM licenses, but if you look at the differences between the same or similiar hardware with linux/no os and Windows youre looking at a 20-60 dollar difference, not hundreds of dollars.

Id love to see an intelligent debate on the merits of the platform in the context of the free market along with what normal people choose, but instaed its more fud and elitism from the usual OSS loudmouths, who are just hurting their cause. Queue up the shouts of 'sellouts' when an autonomous government chooses XP over Sugar/Linux for their olpc deployment. I guess government and education planners have no say, they must do what Joe American Geek thinks they should. White over-educated geeks certainly know better than poorer people, AMIRITE?

That said, I had heard that some governments were rejectinig the OLPC with its awesome operating system, because they didn't understand that it was actually a whole teaching package, but thought it was some kind of knock off operating system

You have no idea what their requirements were and why. Youre just assuming because in all situations all over the world, linux is the best. I feel sorry for people with such rigid worldviews.

Ive spent a fair amount of time with Sugar/Linux, its terrible. The desktop metaphor isnt too hard for kids to understand, American kids seem to figure it out just fine. I guess poor kids need dumbed down interfaces, eh? Where are the 3rd party usability studies that claim sugar is better? Do they even exist?
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:03 PM on November 12, 2008


Sure, you can pirate a copy of XP for your machine, but you're stuck at that service pack until you buy a copy.

Is this a joke? Youre saying youre stealing something and youre upset that the manufacturer isnt helping you? That's like stealing a BMW from the lot and being angry that the dealer wont perform warranty service for you.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:04 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, two corporations fought for marketshare. One lost and the other won, perhaps with dirty tricks. Lets not play this up as some non-profit full of geeks handing out antibiotics and ubuntu discs got run over by Bill Gates' Mercedes. Thanks. ... Id love to see an intelligent debate on the merits of the platform in the context of the free market along with what normal people choose, but instaed its more fud and elitism from the usual OSS loudmouths, who are just hurting their cause.

Someone enjoys hyperbole ...

Is this a joke? Youre saying youre stealing something and youre upset that the manufacturer isnt helping you?

Er, no. I'm pointing to a reality of the situation, period, and I have no idea where you got the idea that I want Microsoft to help me update stolen software. Take a couple deep breaths there.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:08 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lastly, the olpc isnt open. Firmware is tivoized. If kids want to hack these machines in the future they better hope the activation servers are still up. Oh, the irony.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:09 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I want Microsoft to help me update stolen software. Take a couple deep breaths there.

Explain that sentence there dude. I mean honestly, youre complaining about not getting support for something you stole? Why even mention pirating software in your own post about the greatness of OSS?
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:10 PM on November 12, 2008


You want updates? Pay for the fucking software. Seriously.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:11 PM on November 12, 2008


Explain that sentence there dude. I mean honestly, youre complaining about not getting support for something you stole? Why even mention pirating software in your own post about the greatness of OSS?

Back up for a moment, and read what I wrote. Better yet, I'll just repeat it, in simpler terms: when you can download an OS for free, and copy it for free, and get updates for free, you have an OS that has a good design paradigm for a developing country, both in terms of cost and distribution. The reality is, even if you were to pirate the proprietary OS, you'd still be locked into one service pack. This in no way, shape or form advocates pirating software nor is it "complaining" that Bill Gates won't let me get free updates for stolen software. I do hope this was clear enough for you, and saves you the trouble of having to extrapolate whole other layers of meaning from what I've said, three times now.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:16 PM on November 12, 2008


So in other words you just wanted to whine about MS. Thanks for clearing that up.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:16 PM on November 12, 2008


So in other words you just wanted to whine about MS. Thanks for clearing that up.

Yes, you've found me out. Bravo. This has nothing to do with the possible advantages of open source in the developing world, I just like to bitch about proprietary software.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:18 PM on November 12, 2008


LEAVE BILL ALONE!!!!
posted by ryanrs at 6:13 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


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