23 August 2010

Is Africa ready for Ubuntu?

So, as some of you may have heard, I spent some time teaching and administering some computer systems in Tanzania.

The vast majority of the boxes here are Windows machines. They are all slow, consisting of either cheap imitation or donated hardware and about 90% of them seem to be infected with one virus or another.

Viruses are a huge problem.

The very first time I used a net cafe in Morogoro some clever little Trojan key-logger virus nabbed my gmail account password and managed to send a bunch of my friends ads about Viagra. Luckily that seems to be the worst of it.

Because of the lack of reliable internet the main transmission vector seems to be USB flash drives that everybody here now carries around and uses to go from cafe to cafe to transfer documents and trade music. I'll spare you an uncomfortable parallel to another huge problem here that I've touched on in other blogs.

Big and bloated

Another huge problem is the bloated registries and systems desperately in need of re-installation. Many of these machines have not been wiped from their original owners in western countries or have long ago succumbed to the onslaught of "helpful" toolbars and malware.

Oh, and about half of everyone here uses Internet Explorer.

So here's the next obvious question: Why not switch everyone over to Ubuntu?

  • Ubuntu is FREE to download and use,
  • All Ubuntu software is also free and has almost anything you could think of including a free alternative to Microsoft Office,
  • Ubuntu is designed to be used in many languages, including Swahili,
  • Ubuntu is fast,
  • Ubuntu is secure,
  • Ubuntu is still virus-free,
  • Ubuntu doesn't need to be reinstalled every two months to keep it running fast.

Never fear. I'll save you!

I was brought in to fix a computer with a corrupted WindowsXP install and no working CD-Rom drive. No more windows for you. Shame. So, being the plucky early-adopter and annoying I'll-make-your-life-better-through-my-technology kind of guy that I am, I went right ahead and installed Ubuntu Netbook with big friendly buttons and easy-to-use menus on the machine. I also spent a good hour to demonstrate where things were and how to get at OpenOffice. Look at me, saving the world, one installation at a time!

Or not

A week later I came back to the office. The computer was off and unplugged and sitting neglected like a giant paperweight in the corner. Every other computer in the office was humming and clicking like clockwork.

My heart sank. "Why aren't you using Ubuntu?", I asked.

"Ubuntu isn't as good as Windows", he said, "There's no Start button."

And there we have it ladies and gentlemen. A hard lesson in international development summed up in that concise statement: Ubuntu isn't as good as windows because there's no start button.

Those who don't learn from history....

When we go into a country with our big ideas and don't consider how people from a different culture might work the results will almost always be disappointing, if not disastrous. I am kicking myself now for not learning from all the reading I had done in preparation for this trip about these exact issues popping up in well-meaning but ultimately failed projects the world-over. In my eagerness to push my ideas on others I hadn't thought even 2 minutes past the install.

The telecommunications companies here understand, in startling and often terrifyingly perceptive ways, how important local knowledge is. Unlike some of the NGOs I have seen which have buffers and don't generally compete with each other, inefficiency for a big corporation leads to compromised competitive ability which leads to failure and death.

Straight from the scary giant's mouth

So the TIGO™s and the Zain™s and the Vodacom™s have seen how people interact and developed a micro-purchase pay-as-you-go service into a brilliant and shining art form; the result of which is that every single person I met has a mobile phone in their pockets regardless of class, education, occupation or lack thereof.

So how did they do it? Those are likely trade secrets but we can speculate. For one the base model phone is cheap, rugged and functional with only features that people here really use (like a flashlight!). Also the pay-as-you-go minutes can be bought, sold, re-sold and traded from phone to phone like a currency. The long and the short of it is that, at some point somebody lived here long enough to do the research and realized how people do things. The rest is history.

So..... yes?

Of course sub-Saharan Africa's crumbling IT might need Ubuntu but careful thought is going to be needed in its deployment. We need to know how people view software and what sorts of things they know already. We need to find out how we can easily train people on how to use new software and the best way to deploy it.

"Ubuntu. Like the world cup commercial?"

One of the famous commercials for the world cup used the word Ubuntu in its original non-software meaning so there's been a lot of confusion about that. Maybe Ubuntu OS could use that somehow and start putting football wallpaper and themes in as a default.

More seriously, I'd love to see Canonical write and make available a deployment strategy guide for those of us looking to implement it overseas. I mean, the Ubuntu community is just that and we can learn from each other's mistakes right?

Only then will Ubuntu, the operating system with the African name and the African origins, ever really fly in Africa. Well, that's my opinion.

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