Microsoft’s approach to give away some of its core software to universities, schools and governments often creates the appearance that just like Open Source software,„Microsoft is also free in Africa“. This statement is often heard, meant both sarcastically and seriously. Software donations and aggressive lobbying are common in many African countries but have not always proven to be a successful strategy. Like a number of African software developers and advocates, Nnenna Nwakanma of the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) believes:
Microsoft has been locking African government agencies into costly, multiyear agreements to license its software. African governments cannot afford long-term licensing contracts […] The money would be better spent on training people to use computers and fostering homegrown software development. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122332198757908625.html, 28.10.08)
It is widely known that Microsoft has a strong policy of lobbying governments and education initiative to use its software and keep the employment of Open Source alternatives at bay. Cases that have been reported on by mainstream media and the blogosphere alike include the adoption of XP as an operating system for the OLPC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7402365.stm, 15 May 2008), and the lobbying of governments to use Microsoft Software in its education programmes, as reported on in detail by the Wall Street Journal. In Namibia, Microsoft engaged the government in an unsuccessful and costly programme after failing to make a deal with the NGO “School Net Namibia” who where engaged in spreading the use of information and communication technologies in schools. In Nigeria Microsoft made persistent attempts to revoke the government plans to use OS software in a national School Laptop Programme. In both Namibia and Nigeria, where it has sought government contracts, Microsoft hired family members of government officials. (see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122332198757908625.html, 28.10.08, for a detailed report)
On May 12th 2009, the BBCs world service reported on Microsofts newest coup in its radio show „Digital Planet“ – the launch of the platform „Vine“. Vine is an application that is „location aware“ and designed to share information in case of an emergency in a way one would use twitter. Users can send messages and alerts via email or SMS. Vine only runs on Windows. So far so good.
Except… that the African platform Ushahidi, which is an Open Source Software development, is designed to do the same thing. The initiative started in Kenya in 2008. Since then, the application has been successfully used in a number of different cases and its recognition is growing. FOSS-Expert, Jonathan Gosier, comments on the launch of Vine in his blog AppAfrica:
„So I understand that Microsoft’s development team probably weren’t even aware of the location based crisis reporting tool, Ushahidi, and to innovate in the social networking space, they went to the next logical step…location based micro-messaging. If anything, they probably heard about the general idea at a press conference (or in a TED Video or something, maybe this little news network called Al Jeezera) and they decided they (being one of the world’s largest software companies) could reinvent the wheel and make it better with Vine. Nothing wrong with that. The really disappointing thing is that Microsoft, true to form, want to ‘own’ such a system. The difference between Microsoft Vine and Ushahidi is that with the former you have to wait for some execs in Redmond to crunch some numbers and authorize updates or new features. With Ushahidi, you’ve got a large amount Kenyan developers as well as other guys from around the world contributing to an open source platform that no one really owns, the company Ushahidi just supports and configures installations. The whole point of the software is to be decentralized so that it can be deployed beyond the scope of a few individuals or one company“.
The ownership of a crisis reporting system by one company seems unattractive from a consumer as well as a security perspective. It is not unlikely that this will become yet another failed attempt to override instead of collaborate with existing local solutions.
Of course, Microsoft does not come for free – the hidden price tag is not just attached to the licensing costs but also to the ownership of innovation and data. Microsoft should be supporting local developments instead of stifling them and dealing with them as competition. Since that is unlikely, it is fortunate, that the examples named above demonstrate the growth of awareness and informed decision making as well as the development of African innovations based on Open Source. The scenes are far from set.