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Developing Nations See Linux as a Savior From Microsoft's Grip

August 09, 2004|Henry Chu, Mark Magnier and Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writers

BRASILIA, Brazil — Enylson Camolesi has only to look at his teenage daughter to understand the challenges of overcoming addiction. He's gently trying to help her kick the habit, grimly aware that the difficult task at home is what he's attempting to replicate, on a massive scale, throughout the Brazilian government.

But he and other officials are determined to succeed.

Stopping cold turkey may not be an option, but they hope that with time and patience, Brazil's bureaucrats can be weaned off their dependence on Microsoft Corp. and made to switch to free operating systems such as Linux. A workshop here in May for 2,000 government employees was a modest start.

"This is a pioneering initiative in terms of the Brazilian government," Camolesi, director of telecommunications in the Planalto Palace, Brazil's White House, said of the "open-source" project. "This is the opening of new possibilities."

Halfway across the globe, the leaders of the world's most populous nation are contemplating a similar campaign. For more than a year, officials in China have been mulling a proposal requiring the government to procure locally produced software wherever possible, which would give a major boost to providers of open-source operating systems.

Together, Brazil and China constitute two of Microsoft's biggest emerging markets, where potential for growth among a combined 1.5 billion consumers hangs like a tantalizing golden apple waiting to ripen. Government-driven movements to shift to free or low-cost software -- fed by security, economic and ideological concerns -- threaten to dent Microsoft's ambitions.

In fact, government officials the world over, from local authorities in Austria's capital to high-ranking national bureaucrats in India, are increasingly moving from proprietary software such as Microsoft's to open-source products.

Last week, Vienna said it would encourage government employees to drop Windows from about half of the municipality's 16,000 computer workstations in favor of Linux or other alternatives. "Sometimes it makes sense to break up a monopoly," information systems chief Rudolf Schicker said at a news conference. "We want to give our employees a choice."

In June, after more than a year of study, Munich's City Council voted to shift its 14,000 personal computers to Linux, even after Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer pressed the case personally and the company slashed its bid. Israel and South Africa also have moved toward Linux.

"The public sector outside the U.S. is definitely in the forefront" of the move to open-source software, said David Smith, an analyst with the research firm Gartner Inc. "It's where you're seeing the early adopters and the most interest."

Microsoft executives, he added, "are up against an awful lot of sentiment -- some of it directed at them and some of that directed at the U.S."

The anti-Microsoft contingent is motivated in part by money: There are no annual licensing fees to pay with open-source products.

In Brazil, the public and private sectors spent $1.1 billion on foreign-licensed software in 2002, much of it produced by Microsoft, Camolesi said. "That's very expensive for a country that has other priorities."

Many supporters of free software say they are inspired by social aims. Free or low-cost software alternatives, they say, make it possible for more people and institutions to afford computers and access to the Internet, which is currently used by only a fraction of the Brazilian populace.

Microsoft's Windows XP package, for example, costs about $130 here, where the minimum monthly salary is $87.

What's more, they say, open-source software is less susceptible to security bugs. That's because the programming instructions are open for review, not kept secret, as in the case of Microsoft's Windows. In theory, with more people around the world working on open-source software, improving it and exchanging information, the easier it is to spot Trojan horses, viruses and subversion attempts by hackers.

For some governments, the problem is Microsoft itself. They harbor a deep-seated skepticism of global capitalism and what they view as enslavement to a foreign company with a monopoly on the market.

In developing countries such as China and Brazil, eager to assert themselves on the international scene, the political and economic arguments can seem irresistible: Open-source software offers a way to slip out from under the yoke of American supremacy, saving money in the process.

In Brazil, the federal government flirted for several years with instituting free software in the public sector but didn't commit itself until President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected in 2002.

With Lula's left-leaning Workers' Party in power, the idea picked up steam, leading to an officially sanctioned push to install free software on government computers.

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