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FLOSS and Developing Markets

The adoption of technology in developing markets is often pictured as the same as developed markets, only it happens later. That is, once certain financial or technological deficits are overcome, the adoption patterns of technologies will be the same as they have been in developed markets.

This is a very comforting picture for traditional technology players in the market. So comforting in fact that we see 'philanthropic' offers of discounted versions of licensed technologies at large scale being touted to government buyers, often supported by trade missions. This is presumably to give this adoption pattern a little push in case the 'natural' aspiration to Western technologies should not prove enough of an incentive.

However, two trends are converging to shake these cosy assumptions. The first is the fact many developing nations, especially the poorer of them, have skipped a technology generation with regard to mobile phone technology. There is unlikely to ever be a wired network in these nations for the general user. This is true from the Caribbean, to Africa and large parts of Asia including India. This implies the vast majority will have their first, second and third experience of the Internet not through a Windows PC like the vast majority in the West, but through their mobile device where Windows is almost irrelevant.

The second, perhaps unexpectedly, is the cloud. The cloud requires a regular and reliable Internet connection, something not available in many cases in developing nations. But if we look only slightly to the future, mobile networks will improve, devices will become cheaper and access will become more widespread. For open source this is interesting as it underwrites the cloud. The implication for government policy in developing nations changes with this reality. Government purchases and directives remain the dominant driver as far as IT is concerned in these markets. For the producer economy, where should a government and its universities be directing their efforts? Writing Windows applications for an increasingly irrelevant platform for the population, or creating applications delivered through the cloud to any platform depending on its suitability?

So the production and the consumption of IT shifts away from a single proprietary platform in the developing world and towards generally available technologies that are largely based on FLOSS (Free and libra open source software). It follows then the PCs and servers they are created and delivered on, and the tablets, phones and laptops they are consumed on, might as well be FLOSS too.

The days of countries believing they were leaving themselves at technological disadvantage by choosing a non-Windows solution are certainly over. At Canonical we are negotiating multiple governmental opportunities in South America, Africa and parts of Asia with enlightened IT procurement agencies. One day the West might catch up too.