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Mexico Has Resources for High-Tech Success

THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY | Digital Nation

October 02, 2000|GARY CHAPMAN

An open letter to Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox:

Congratulations on your historic victory in the presidential election. About 100 million Mexicans and others who love Mexico are eager for change in your country, and they have high hopes when your new administration takes office in December.

But clearly, one issue of great importance is how to bring Mexico into the "new economy" of the Internet, high tech and global commerce. Mexico has many resources in technology to exploit, but they have been obstructed by weak or bad government policies. You can change this.

Let me offer you some suggestions on how you might start.

First, Mexico's future lies with free, "open source" software like the operating system Linux, and Gnome, another open-source effort to build a Windows-like screen. Gnome itself was developed by a young Mexican programmer, Miguel de Icaza, who is 27 years old. This summer, De Icaza started the Gnome Foundation (http://www.gnome.org) to unify and stabilize the Linux desktop software, and he acquired the support of IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, among other major U.S. companies. He is a hero to young programmers around the world, and he should be a hero to all Mexicans. You should meet with Miguel de Icaza and get to know him and young people like him. They are the best hope for Mexico.

Obviously, the biggest benefit of free software to Mexico is that it's literally free, and Mexico is a poor country that needs to preserve its capital. Mexico has a new law on software piracy, for example, and your government will need to enforce this law for Mexico to be regarded as a trusted partner in high-tech trade. But if you do enforce the software piracy law effectively, it will result in a massive transfer of pesos to the United States, and principally to Microsoft, the largest victim of software piracy in Mexico.

Alternatively, you could promote the use of free software such as Linux, Gnome and application packages such as Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite, which are all free. No pesos would leave Mexico and you would get all of the functionality of modern software. Indeed, you'd become part of a trend that is sweeping the computing field in the U.S. IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq are all offering Linux on computers now. IBM is essentially a Linux company these days, an astonishing transformation. Mexico would not lose anything by adopting free software, indeed, it would move to the cutting edge of technology.

Your government should also think about creating an elite but grassroots-oriented corps of young free-software evangelists, programmers, hackers and systems developers who could build on the culture and spirit of the embryonic free-software movement. Give them an identity with special shirts or jackets and specially painted pickup trucks to go out to villages and towns, and elevate them to hero status in Mexico. They should have an esprit de corps that reflects both their enthusiasm for their work and their patriotism. Send them around the world to technical and trade conferences and make them stand out--make them the young, technically skilled enthusiasts everyone wants to work with.

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Joakim Ziegler is one of these wizard-like programmers. He's Norwegian, but he lives in Mexico City because he loves it there. He works for Helix Code, the company started by Miguel de Icaza. Ziegler is also in his twenties. He told me, "A change as radical as the internal use of free software"--meaning use by the government itself--"would be an indication of real change." The Federal Election Commission in Mexico used free software to run this year's election, but other government agencies have yet to grasp its benefits.

Ziegler also said, "Small companies run by enthusiastic young people don't have a lot of status in Mexico right now." Too many of Mexico's young entrepreneurs have moved to the U.S. to start companies. In Mexico, there's too much government red tape, credit is too expensive and there is a culture of "not what you do, but who you know," all of which are obstacles to building the kind of entrepreneurial spirit Mexico needs. You should make Mexico a place that is as easy to start a business in as it is in California or Texas.

Mexico also needs a better telecommunications infrastructure. Telmex, the recently privatized national phone company, and its competitors, such as Avantel, are slowly building up their capabilities. But they will not soon reach the vast numbers of Mexicans who live in underserved and poor areas.

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So you should pay attention to a San Diego company called Tachyon Inc. (http://www.tachyon.net), which is doing business in Mexico. Tachyon has a contract for using SatMex 5, the powerful Mexican satellite that covers all of Mexico. Tachyon is offering inexpensive two-way Internet service via satellite, and it can serve every town and village in Mexico right now.

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