Fri software – inspirerende scenarier

Den sydafrikanske regering udgav i 2002 en rapport om Free/Libre and Open Source Software in South Africa (opdateret flere gange, bl.. i 2004), og den indeholder en række scenarier for den umiddelbare gavn af fri og gratis tilgængelig software, som i sig selv er grund nok til at læse den:


Sipho has good reason to be pleased with himself; he has just submitted a groundbreaking PhD thesis at a leading South African university. Using advanced concepts in mathematics and physics, his thesis, “QVM: the Quantum Virtual Machine”, proposes an ingenious algorithm to speed up the conventional PC beyond the wildest dreams of classical wisdom.

QVM will make light of computer resource hungry fields like environmental and climate modelling, determination of protein structure and function, discovery of new drugs, complex industrial simulation and design etc. It will also lead to a host of completely newapplications that inevitably accompany such a major computational advance.

Sipho cannot wait to publish a paper in a high impact international journal giving full details of QVM principles and design. He also intends to place a full software implementation on the Internet, allowing anyone to download and use it on a standard PC. No license fee, no royalties. They can use the software as they please –learn from it, modify it – as long as they do not repackage and sell it for private commercial gain and attempt to stop others from using the free distribution.

His friends are horrified – he could license QVM to a global computer company and make a fortune. The university is horrified – it could license QVM to a global computer company and make a fortune. His supervisor is horrified…

But Sipho stands his ground. He firmly believes in the freedom (or should that be obligation?) to publish academic work supported by public funds – software included. His own research benefited immensely from the use of software distributed under similar conditions.

He is also mindful of a moral obligation to seek the greatest economic gain for the country from publicly funded research. But this only strengthens his resolve. He is convinced that greater benefit can accrue to South Africa’s scientific and economic fortunes through his suggested route than by surrendering such a major scientific breakthrough wholesale to any single company, whether it is foreign (almost certainly) or local.

“Is he very foolish or simply ahead of the game, like he is in his research?” his friends puzzle. “Is he really acting in the country’s best interest or is he a well-meaning but naïve academic?” wonders the inquiring public. “Should a man like this even be allowed a choice on the matter?” fumes the university’s deputy vice chancellor for research.


Funeka is a schoolteacher with a mission: to give her dusty, rural school the very best. She launches a campaign to build a computer lab and approaches various businesses for help. To her delight, one company donates 20 computers that are being replaced, but the company will keep all their software licenses for their new machines. She also has to find her own educational

Delight turns to horror when she discovers that it will cost many thousands of Rand for software licenses, including licensing the educational software the dealer tells her she needs. To make matters worse, casual inspection reveals that the content is geared to American schools, using unfamiliar baseball metaphors and the like.

Meantime, Funeka’s students have been doing some legwork of their own. They have contacted a young IT company that has offered to network the computers and connect them to the Internet. When the company’s network guru calls by and finds computers with no software, she installs Linux and associated free software on all of them, sets up the network and Internet connection and even gives the students a preliminary driving lesson on using the software and surfing the Internet.

While Funeka agonises over raising a software budget, the students spend many days probing, exploring and discovering new things. Within a short time they have learned to do creative projects by searching the Internet and sending email around the world for facts they can’ find in the tiny school library. Using tools and examples from other Web sites, they soon start designing their own school Web site and developing content like a Web-based newspaper covering school and local community issues.

When she learns of all this, Funeka is amazed at the creativity of her students, and decides that her original idea of what computers should do is completely wrong. She had thought of the computer as just another passive medium of instruction. Funeka quickly adapts to this awakening, and promptly arranges a session on the Internet – given by her students to members of staff. They are all amazed that all this has happened without the school having to pay a cent in software licenses.

They also heartily approve when the students explain their plans to design a community resource for guided access to government Web sites. The one concern the students have is that they are often unable to read files downloaded from government sites. The problematic files are in a format that requires proprietary software to read.

I begge tilfælde er scenarierne særdeles realistiske. Det er egentlig ret meget ude af trit med almindelig akademisk skik, at universiteterne kan finde på at sælge vigtige ideer til det private erhversliv, for slet ikke at tale om at patentere dem. Hvad Sipho gør, er det eneste oplagte og det bedste for såvel Sydafrika som hele verden, men desværre er det ikke sådan, det altid går.

Og hvis skolerne baserer sig på fri software, kan de både undgå store udgifter til licenser og få langt bedre muligheder for at tilpasse systemerne til deres egne lokale behov. I Sydafrika betyder det ikke mindst, at man kan få lokale virksomheder eller sågar frivillige til at hjælpe til med at oversætte programmerne til et af de elleve officielle sprog. Så behøver man heller ikke vente på, at Microsoft eller de andre store leverandører tager sig sammen til at levere en oversat version – med fri software kan man altid oversætte programmet selv, hvis man har lyst.

Eksemplerne er mange og lærerige, og det var slet heller ingen skade til, om  en dansk politiker eller to også kastede et blik på denne rapport.

Link: Free/Libre and Open Source Software and Open Standards in South Africa. A Critical Issue for Addressing the Digital Divide,%20reports%20and%20publications/2002/Libre%20&%20Open%20Source%202002.pdf

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