The free-software tango

In Argentina, a miserable economy is encouraging computer users to look for low-cost, nonproprietary solutions. Bill Gates is paying attention.


Matt Dorn
May 7, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)

My first clue about what was going on came when I peered through the window of the entrance to the office -- inside an exhaust-choked parking garage -- and saw a stuffed penguin sitting upright on an otherwise bare desk.

In a different world I would have seen a stylishly coiffed receptionist wearing a headset and maybe typing memos on a matte-black cordless keyboard while gazing at a matching flat-screen display. These were, after all, the offices of Argentina's Via Libre (Free Way) Foundation, an organization whose members are so influential in the free-software movement in Latin America that Edgar Villanueva, a Peruvian congressman, relied on them last year to draft his widely circulated "Response to Microsoft" letter. That missive detailed the advantages of free software so persuasively that it is credited with scaring Bill Gates into making a P.R. trip to Peru last July to give away $500,000 worth of computers loaded with Microsoft products to schools in that country.

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But this was post-currency-devaluation Argentina, a country undergoing the worst economic crisis in its history. The forlorn likeness of the penguin "Tux," the Linux mascot, would have to suffice as an introduction to what Via Libre was all about.

Passing through the anteroom I discovered that I wasn't really in an office at all, but a storage space crudely refashioned to accommodate serious computing activity. In a corner by the window overlooking one of the busiest streets in Córdoba, a provincial capital that is Argentina's second-largest city, a half dozen Via Libre members were hacking away -- programming and documenting Via Libre's own free-software offering (an accounting application that may eventually form part of the GNU Enterprise suite), organizing the migration of the administration of a university in a neighboring province to a free-software platform, and communicating with Argentine officials regarding the passage of legislation that would require free-software use in government administration on both the provincial and national levels.

During the summer, the heat in here would be so unbearable that these guys couldn't make it through the afternoon without stripping down to little more than a pair of shorts. But when I visited it was July, the middle of the Argentine winter, and they were bundled in heavy sweaters and huddling over their machines, which ranged from a tiny Sony notebook to donated Sun workstations stripped of their proprietary operating systems to boilerplate boxes with Intel chip sets inside.

The foundation has since upgraded to more dignified digs, but the no-frills spirit lives on. It has to, here in Argentina, where the crushing currency devaluation has eviscerated the ability of consumers and businesses alike to purchase computer hardware and software, and where faint signs of recovery from an economic recession that has lasted more than four years are only now beginning to materialize.

Economic hard times have had a paradoxical effect on the adoption of free software in Argentina: The low costs associated with operating systems such as Linux offer obvious benefits, but the cash crunch has also encouraged the practice of pirating proprietary software, which in turn inhibits the spread of free software. In the midst of these contradictions, Via Libre soldiers on, offering a good look at how the free-software movement has become truly global.

Among the many Argentine institutions to feel the pain of the four-year recession is the University of La Rioja. One of Via Libre's most significant projects to date has been to migrate the university's administration to a free-software platform.

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Four years ago, university administrator Daniel Cohen attended a Linux-themed discussion, after which he was convinced that open-source methodology represented the cutting edge of computing technology and that the university ought to at least offer a course in the subject.

But it was not this flash of inspiration that finally persuaded the administration of UnLaR, as the school is known, to make the switch. As the Argentine economic crisis reached fever pitch, the university faced a deadline for renewing licenses for its proprietary software products. "It was going to cost a lot of money to do a license renewal," says Cohen. "With the change in the situation with the dollar, it was going to turn out to be almost impossible to be able to pay for it." From there, the decision was easy.

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Unfortunately, in a typically Argentine institutional snafu, the project has been stalled by what Via Libre co-leader Federico Heinz refers to as a "very complex internal situation," in which the university's rector has proposed that the journalism school be closed "because its graduates eventually write articles that are not favorable to the university."

It's not just free software's cost advantage that makes Via Libre's uphill battle in beleaguered Argentina so noteworthy. As in so many other countries in the so-called developing world, the software piracy rate in Argentina is considerable: 62 percent according to the most recent -- and probably conservative -- estimate of the Business Software Alliance. In fact, it wasn't until 1998 that Argentina even had a law on the books prohibiting unauthorized software copying. In November of that year, an antiquated 1933 copyright law was finally amended to include protection for computer software.

As if to make up for lost time, in a series of highly publicized raids in September 2001, authorities in the province of Santa Fe seized the assets of several companies suspected of illegally running copies of proprietary applications. Still, according to Via Libre co-founder Daniel Polzella, "the majority of businesses here don't pay for licenses. They [software companies] apply pressure, but not much."

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Indeed, now that the free-software movement is gaining momentum in Latin America and has been given a particularly high profile since the events in Peru, some companies may be willing to forgo profits from selling licenses in order to benefit from the "network effects" of increasing their products' user base and to forestall potential migrations to free-software products.

In Argentina's case, Polzella suggests that if the economic situation were better, proprietary software companies, realizing that companies do in fact have the ability to pay, might apply more anti-piracy pressure, making the benefits of using products without licensing costs more obvious. From this perspective, Via Libre is gaining converts to free software not necessarily because of the Argentine economic crisis, but rather in spite of it.

In any case, the economic advantage of free software isn't as simple as its nonexistent price tag, says Heinz. He notes that the urgency of the cost issue in the face of crisis "certainly has called attention to free software, but for entirely the wrong reasons." He brings up a recent IDG report that sought to prove that Microsoft NT servers were cheaper to operate than those running Linux. Compared with the United States, "the economic equation here is very different. Hardware is expensive, but labor -- even qualified labor -- is much cheaper." For that reason, he says, "TCO [Total Cost of Ownership] studies" -- perhaps even ones that seek to prove Linux's cost advantage -- "don't apply here."

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Amid the discussion of the economic issues involved with choosing free software, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Via Libre is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization, funded by sources -- among them a Swiss foundation called AVINA -- that believe it can make a lasting contribution to sustainable development in Argentina and further afield.

For founder Polzella the movement is part of a larger struggle for empowerment. After studying with famed economist Manfred Max-Neef on a scholarship in Chile, Polzella got involved with the first organization in Argentina to promote "micro-finance" -- an approach to economic development that grants small loans to low-income entrepreneurs.

"When we talk about sustainable development," Polzella explains, "not everybody is in agreement about what it is. For me, it's economic, social, ecological, and long term -- and it includes all human agents." Before he can be accused of subscribing to a lofty idealism that ignores the realities of the competitive software marketplace, Polzella adds: "If you don't have concepts like solidarity, cooperation and also competition, you can't achieve sustainability."

In the end, business practices that alienate the end user by abusing monopolistic power rather than fostering competitiveness while allowing for the possibility of collaboration are unsustainable and doomed to fail. "Proprietary software tends toward the centralization of power, not its distribution," Polzella says. "If I have a business model that cancels the rights of users, it's no longer sustainable development."

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Heinz agrees, but recasts the issue with a dramatic comparison: "Just as the Eastern bloc fell apart because of its unsustainability, so will the proprietary software model."

Most important to Via Libre, of course, is the direct application of these principles to the situation at home. Free software represents an opportunity -- seemingly rare in Argentina today -- to reinvigorate at least one sector of the languishing economy. In Argentina, according to Polzella, "there are no important companies that develop software. We are net importers of software." For this reason, purchasing proprietary software licenses doesn't directly benefit the Argentine economy in the way that investing in open-source application development and support services by local talent would. In a country where capital flight has brought the country to its knees, this is an important concept to grasp.

Heinz remembers a recent talk in the northeastern province of Entre Rios, where an audience member asked him: "How is the software industry supposed to earn money if they can't sell licenses?" Heinz recalls: "I asked him: Do you earn your living selling licenses? Do you know anybody who earns their living selling licenses? The software-marketing machine has created an image that the software industry works by selling licenses," which is not true, especially outside the United States.

While profitability is not one of Via Libre's goals, self-sustainability is. "We're generating our own resources right now, but we're far from being able to support ourselves," says Polzella. One of the ways that it hopes to achieve it is through the sale and support of its own open-source software product called PAPO (an acronym for a name that in English means "Program for the Administration of Small Organizations").

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John Lenton, a PAPO developer and one of the most knowledgeable members of Via Libre's team, underscores how free software's collaborative methodology has speeded PAPO's development by creating synergies with existing free-software products. The PAPO team found especially useful code in GNU Enterprise, an ambitious project that aims to provide an open-source enterprise software application to compete with enterprise resource planning giants like SAP. Lenton estimates that two-thirds of PAPO development time has actually been spent making enhancements to GNU Enterprise code. "If we didn't have the ability to [use that code], we'd have to cut features or delay release by a year or two."

But what about the "Response to Microsoft," which made the rise of free software in Latin America such a hot topic last year? Does Via Libre continue to intimidate the likes of Bill Gates with threats to help pass free-software legislation in Latin America? The organization currently advises legislators at both the federal and provincial levels who have, like their Peruvian counterpart Villanueva, proposed legislation to require the use of free software in government administration. The most recent case has been the introduction of a bill in the province of Buenos Aires (by far the largest in the country), by Sen. Alberto Conde.

Heinz is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for these proposals. "It's been successful insofar as it's put the discussion on the table ... It's being discussed in specialist circles, with one or two breakthroughs into mainstream media -- much more than we expected four years ago." At that time, says Heinz, "only France had considered such legislation. Brazil had begun, too, but now it's being considered all over the place."

In Argentina -- whose government, after years of privatizations and neoliberal capitalist reforms, is hardly likely to buy into legislation that might affect the bottom line of powerful multinational software corporations -- success in the short term seems unlikely. Regardless, from its distant outpost in the country's interior, this small band of Argentine free-software devotees aims to continue to exert an influence on the movement for quite some time to come.

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Matt Dorn

Matt Dorn is a software developer.

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Latin America Linux Microsoft

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