If he is to make good on his promise to improve life for the tens of millions of Brazilians who live in dire poverty, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva knows that one key challenge is to bridge a massive technology gap. And if that means shunning Microsoft Corp. software in South America’s largest country, then so be it.
SILVA’S TOP TECHNOLOGY officer wants to transform the land of samba and Carnival into a tech-savvy nation where everyone from schoolchildren to government bureaucrats uses open-source software instead of costly Windows products.
Such a policy makes eminent sense for a developing country where a mere 10 percent of the 170 million people have computers at home and where the debt-laden government is the nation’s biggest computer buyer, says Sergio Amadeu, the open-source enthusiast appointed to head Brazil’s National Information Technology Institute by Silva after the president took office this year.
Paying software licensing fees to companies like Microsoft is simply “unsustainable economically” when applications that run on the open-source Linux operating system are much cheaper, Amadeu said. Under his guidance, Silva’s administration is encouraging all sectors of government to move toward open-source programs, whose basic code is public and freely available.
“We have some islands in the federal government using open-source, but we want to create a continent,” said Amadeu, a former economics professor who gained fame before joining Silva’s team by launching a network of free computer centers in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Amadeu, who uses a Linux laptop in his office in an annex of Silva’s presidential palace, authored the book “Digital Exclusion: Misery in the Information Era,” which argues that the gap between the needy and the wealthy will only deepen unless the poor have easy access to the technology that the rich have at their fingertips, especially in developing countries like Brazil.
Only two small government agencies in Brasilia — Amadeu’s department and the government-run news agency — have so far shifted from Microsoft operating systems to open-source. But Brazil recently signed a letter of intent with IBM Corp. to help boost government use of such platforms as Linux.
Amadeu says he’s even talking to election officials about using open-source software in the country’s more than 400,000 electronic voting machines, about 20 percent of which run on a Windows variant.
Although Amadeu insists the government has no plans to mandate open-source software use, Microsoft is worried and is lobbying to prevent the policy from becoming law.
“We still think free choice is best for companies, the individuals and the government,” said Luiz Moncau, Microsoft’s marketing director in Brazil. “There is the risk of creating a technology island in Brazil supported by law.”
Any move away from Windows use by Brazil’s government would clearly hurt Microsoft in its biggest South American market. The company got between 6 percent and 10 percent of its $318 million in Brazilian revenues from the government for the fiscal year that ended in June, Moncau said.
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GOVERNMENTS TURN TO OPEN-SOURCE
Slashing Microsoft’s bottom line would likely not disturb Silva, a former union leader whose most prominent initiative seeks to end hunger by providing poor families with $18 per month to buy food.
Open-source represents a small share of the global software market, but governments around the world have begun turning to it for various reasons, not least of them a sense of not wanting to be beholden to Microsoft.
Federal agencies in major powers including France, Germany, China and the United States have adopted Linux for servers. Cost is a factor, although many network administrators consider Linux more stable and less susceptible to viruses and hacker attacks.
And while other developing countries such as India are farther along than Brazil in promoting use of open-source systems, Brazil is poised to become a role model for other Latin American countries aiming to cut their computer costs, said Vania Curiati, IBM’s software director in Brazil.
As it does in other developing countries including Peru, where the company has faced an open-source challenge, Microsoft donates software to Brazilian non-profit organizations and schools.
In the private sector, many Brazilian businesses are already either using or testing Linux in some capacity, Curiati said. IBM last year helped one of Brazil’s largest fast food chains, Habib’s, install a Linux system that lets customers order by phone for home delivery within 28 minutes.
Microsoft’s Moncau plays down predictions by Brazilian open-source supporters that government efforts to increase Linux use could create jobs and turn the country into a technology exporter. Open-source software could actually be more expensive than Windows programs when service costs are factored in, he said.
But try telling that to the tens of thousands of Brazilians who regularly visit the 86 free “Telecentro” free computer centers in Sao Paulo, a sprawling city of 18 million. All the centers’ computers use open-source software, and the Telecentros cater to working class Brazilians without the means to buy computers. They learn how to send e-mail, write resumes and cruise the Web.
Waiting his turn for a terminal while bouncing his toddler on his lap, Francisco de Assis said his monthly salary of $200 makes owning a computer impossible. The 31-year-old security guard considers the government’s plight to be similar.
“If this was a rich country, it wouldn’t matter and we could buy Microsoft products, but we’re a developing country and Linux is just a lot more accessible, so we’re heading toward a Linux generation.”
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