Toward a thriving open source software arena: Opportunity and challenges

In 2011, weeks after the departure of the Hosni Mubarak regime under the pressuring mobilization of the masses against his rule, public morale was high. Many thought that after an unwanted order had seemingly gone, time had come for a new one, the seeds of which emanated from a collective imagination for a different future. Back then, the thought was that while change from below, through grassroots means, continued to be key, it was not the sole possibility. The time offered a certain opportunity to influence government policy.

A group of techies, researchers and information activists gathered around a cause that is essentially political and social at its core: How can free and open source software (FOSS) be a more common base for IT solutions and become a go-to tool for users. The initial outcome was the formation of Open Egypt, an initiative turned into an NGO, aimed at promoting FOSS through different strategies.

In its early life, associated with the beginning of the revolution and its surrounding dynamism, Open Egypt sought out to draw a strategy for FOSS’ proliferation to be adopted by the government.

After a series of encounters with government officials, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology hired an external consulting committee to draft the strategy, and the committee was led by one of the scholars of the access to knowledge community.

Nagla Rizk, a professor of economics at the American University in Cairo who specializes in knowledge economies, took the lead in drafting the strategy, mediating between the desire to raise the ceiling of demands from the FOSS community and the constant consideration that the government needs to approve and adopt the strategy, despite its longstanding partnerships with major multinational software players.

The government adoption of the resulting document is seen by some as an achievement by default, while for other FOSS enthusiasts, the document is less representative than their desire to witness robust open source streamlining.

In a meeting in late October at Mushtarak, the newly founded space for techies engaged in political and social causes, Rizk spoke about a strategy that is not idealistic, but that is an achievement for committing the government to adopt FOSS from the standpoint of liberalizing knowledge as a cornerstone of democratic practice.

“It was important that this language is enshrined in a government document,” she said.

The resulting strategy was one that rationalized the need for FOSS as a general tool for development, as well as for a number of other practical reasons. For one, FOSS’ has the ability to offer localization and Arabization solutions, increasing the adaptability of different tech tools to local needs. The strategy also linked the need for FOSS with national security, utilizing the core principle that the more secured software systems are the open ones. The openness of FOSS solutions allows users, including governments, to understand their how they are constructed and hence to have a robust security approach toward them.

From an economic perspective, the total cost of ownership of FOSS is significantly lower than proprietary software, where much of the cost goes to license sales, leases and outsourced customization. In FOSS, not only is the cost lower, but it is also retained through training and empowerment of local staff to develop FOSS-related skills. Moreover, the rise of a community of companies and techies who specialize in localization and Arabization becomes an economic asset for Egypt, the region and worldwide. The strategy also emphasizes that Egypt’s growing ICTs industry, and its position as a common ICTs outsourcing hub is a reason to believe in the economic potential of FOSS.

The strategy pointed to successful experiences worldwide in mainstreaming FOSS, such as Malaysia, where the use of FOSS led to a direct reduction of licensing fees by 80 percent and development and consultancy costs by 58 percent. At the Mushtarak gathering, Malaysia’s experience was lauded for focusing on practical matters, besides setting out the philosophy behind FOSS and its convenience for the local context. India was another referenced success story, with FOSS being directly linked to developmental projects such as educational platforms, where localization to native languages is a key technological need.

With this rationale in mind, the strategy set its objectives to include ensuring access to knowledge to citizens, improving public sector transparency and efficiency, avoiding misspending on IT needs, achieving technological independence, sustaining a FOSS community of users and developers and encouraging SMEs using FOSS as a base for production and services, as well as promoting FOSS through raising awareness.

Positioning FOSS in the ICTs market next to proprietary software-based players, particularly multinational companies with an established history of collaboration with the Egyptian state, became the main policy challenge in the strategy. As it stands, the strategy adopts a rationale and an objective of fostering a competitive ICT environment, where the introduction of FOSS-based enterprises adds to the industry’s competitiveness. If the market is to be more open for FOSS players, it will also witness the paradigm shift that comes with FOSS adoption, mainly in how its economy is centered on the differentiating factors of companies, while the non-differentiating ones become areas of collaboration. As such, Rizk says, “if the market is a pie, we are not claiming a share of it for FOSS, but we are enlarging it.” The strategy made sure to emphasize that FOSS is there to co-exist in the ICTs market, provided “the government levels the playing field for all product types.”

Competition and the close government ties to proprietary software providers are the main sources of cynicism toward the effectiveness of the strategy. To that effect, Ahmad Hussein, a co-founder of Open Egypt, spoke in Mushtarak of areas where FOSS players can engage in a competitive environment, such as having access to government tenders for projects contracts, drafting and amending legislations that facilitate the entry of FOSS players into the market. These ideas have proven to be the most challenging for the streamlining of FOSS solutions in the market through government blessing, namely because of a strong lobby by multinational players in the ICT market.

With some indicators, the strategy marks a number of enablers that Hussein refers to. These include a point of reference that will steer the implementation of the strategy and policies designed for the support of FOSS use and development, particularly with regards to competition. Other enablers include FOSS promotion in public sector agencies, capacity building, infrastructural development through an IT sector assessment and the possibility of basing one of the governmental cloud computing services on FOSS. Finally, funding support for the strategy, small and medium enterprises’ empowerment and collaboration with civil society are held as equally important enablers for FOSS’ adoption.

But with the current political context, where civil society has close to no leverage to influence government policy, the government strategy is now seen as a closed chapter where little can change. Indeed, a critique from the gathering of Open Egypt was centered on the group’s focus on this strategy alone, without giving attention to community building.

Instead, it is believed that a community-based effort can be conducive to the promotion of FOSS solutions in the market. And beyond the principled position behind FOSS adoption, there is a need to address it from the perspective of opportunity to show both providers and users the merits of investing in FOSS.

“We can only export agricultural products from Egypt by providing a complete product traceability; i.e. the land on which it was cultivated, whether pesticides have been used, the type of fertilizers deployed, etc. A whole technological infrastructure is needed. How can we show that FOSS has solutions for this? There are a lot of market needs and the available products can be too expensive,” said Hussein.

At the Mushtarak gathering, suggestions for directions included the empowerment of companies using FOSS as a base of their enterprise. Some have pointed to the management deficit in FOSS-based enterprises, where the focus on skilled technology is often not paired with an equally needed focus on business development, marketing, sales and product design. “We like tech more than we like business,” was how Sherif El Kassas, professor of IT at AUC, described the issue.

Ahmad Mekkawy, a FOSS techie and owner of a FOSS-based hosting services company pointed to the lack of market intelligence as part of the series of issues associated with FOSS companies. “There are a lot of conceptual problems and not only practical ones.”

Fostering channels through which a FOSS community can thrive was also put on the table, along with suggestions surrounding business development and business models discussions, competitions around local FOSS solutions, capacity building and ways to seed-fund FOSS-based startups. Kassas reiterated the need to develop research and experimentation around four layers of FOSS-related business modeling: product reselling, software development, production of software goods and consultancy.

Finally, an overall paradigm shift in how technology is perceived and how knowledge economies have developed can be empowering to FOSS promotion. Kassas pointed to the shift from the dependency of technology on ownership to use. In other words, we are users of Google’s services and not owners or customers. The paying customers are advertizers who capitalize on our use of Google’s services. Accordingly, the cost of knowledge goods has become zeroed, while parallel income generators are developed around the use of a core business activity.

In principle, this puts license providers at stake. In actuality, the road for more FOSS adoption remains bumpy without a stronger community development and eventual influence on the government.

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