[By Tuesday Bwalya]
Many Zambians may not know that there are software/programmes that we can use on our computing devices without paying license fees; such software exists and is called free and open source software (FOSS).
It is free, as in freedoms; it guarantees freedoms to organisations and persons using it. FOSS is released under the General Public License (GPL) and the concept of developing FOSS was started in 1983 by Richard Stallman, who was a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Computer Laboratory. This implies that FOSS has come of age.
FOSS provides freedoms, which include:-
the freedom to run the software for any purpose,
the freedom to study how the software works and adapt it to one’s needs, the freedom to distribute copies of the software so that you can help your neighbour, and the freedom to improve the software and release your improvements to the public so that the whole community benefits. As you can see from the above freedoms, FOSS is the direct opposite of commercial or proprietary software where license fees are paid and freedoms are restricted. Many people are familiar with Windows Operating System and Microsoft Office; these two software/programmes are examples of commercial software.
I can safely say that today, many FOSS exist in all sectors of the economy and that for any major commercial software, there is FOSS. For instance, for Windows Operation system, we have Linux (Ubuntu, Red Hat, Suse versions) which are FOSS. Further, for Microsoft Office we have many FOSS replacements which include LibreOffice and OpenOffice.
Since the time Zambia began using computers, government departments, quasigovernment institutions (including University of Zambia) and the private sector have been using commercial Operating systems (Windows) and Office applications (Microsoft Office). In government today, Smart Zambia coordinates the procurement of such things as software from Microsoft on behalf of government ministries and departments. Quasi-government departments such as UNZA on the other hand make their own arrangements with Microsoft Company. In government, you are not allowed to use pirated Windows or Microsoft Office Suite; you need incensed products (software).
Zambia has been spending a lot of money on buying commercial software such as Windows operating systems and Microsoft Office when these programmes can be substituted by FOSS. I may not have figures on how much we pay as a country to Microsoft Company for its commercial software but I can tell you with confidence that we pay a fortune; we pay millions of United States Dollars (USD).
Further, the use of Windows operating systems requires the purchase and installation of Anti-viruses etc, which adds to the cost of using Microsoft software. You do not need to install anti-viruses when running on Linux platforms. Why should Zambia continue spending its meagre financial resources on commercial software which can be replaced with FOSS? Are Smart Zambia and other departments in charge of ICTs in the country aware of the existence of FOSS? If they are aware, why have they allowed this senseless expenditure in the midst of an economic meltdown? Is it that someone in government/quasi-government departments has continued to connive with Microsoft Company to continue looting from Zambia?
At this point when our economy is on its knees, we need to scale down or stop unnecessary expenditure. Certainly, paying Microsoft for its software is not necessary; it can be avoided. Smart Zambia, if indeed you are smart, provide leadership on this issue and stop the senseless expenditure. Provide a road map on how we will stop this costly dependence on Windows and Microsoft Office applications.
I am not saying let us stop using all commercial software and systems; let us stop the use of Windows operating systems and Office applications because reliable FOSS exists. I know the argument could be that it is difficult to migrate to FOSS because Zambians are used to Windows and its Microsoft Office applications. No, we need to learn FOSS. I know it will be difficult to learn the new software; it will be like learning to use the left hand in an old age but we have to do just that because financial resources cannot permit to continue on this trajectory.
Further, I wish to request Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) to urgently review the Computer Studies Syllabus in schools because the current syllabus is meant to ensure Zambia continues to be dependent on Microsoft commercial software. The current Junior and Senior Secondary Computer Studies syllabi feature only Windows and Microsoft Office. Let us infuse FOSS (Linux, LibreOffice etc) in them so that our children can begin learning about FOSS at a tender age.
Zambia should learn from other countries that have phased out Windows and its productivity software such as Microsoft Office. Countries such as Brazil, India, and Russia have switched to FOSS. Their National ICTs Policies have clearly stated that the use of commercial software in government is prohibited; they have compulsory FOSS policies. These countries are better economically; they have more money than Zambia. They have even more capacity to pay Microsoft than we are struggling but they chose to do away with Microsoft software and embrace FOSS as a measure to minimise the cost of ownership of software in government. Zambia needs to follow suit.
Smart Zambia if indeed you are smart help Zambia break the yoke of depending on Microsoft software and allow the country to save the little money remaining in the treasury.
The author is a lecturer at the University of Zambia, department of Library and Information Science.