E-Mexico favours Windows over Linux

While Linux is being embraced by a number of governments thanks to its perceived flexibility, relative security and bargain basement price, some open-source proponents are still finding it a hard sell when pitted against the reputation and resources of major vendors.

Such is the case in Mexico, where an ambitious government project to build out the country’s IT infrastructure and move its 100 million citizens online by 2006 is being sponsored in large part by Microsoft Corp. Through a series of deals, the software maker has agreed to invest an estimated $100 million in software and training for tens of thousands of teachers, technicians and professionals.

Microsoft has pledged $60 million in software and training to help fund Internet kiosks that are being built in remote communities. The software maker has also allotted $10 million to train workers in small and mid-size businesses, along with an additional grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the country’s Vamos Mexico program to be used to move the countries libraries online.

The project, dubbed e-Mexico, was first introduced by the government of Vicente Fox shortly after the ex-The Coca-Cola Co. executive took over the presidency in December of 2000. Funding was scarce, however, and the government began to look to corporate players to fill the void.

Initially however, and to the surprise of many, a handful of big IT vendors endorsed open-source technologies for the project, according to Miguel de Icaza, a Mexican national who now serves as chief technology officer (CTO) and co-founder of Ximian Inc., an open-source technology provider based in Boston.

De Icaza, along with representatives from Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Deloitte Consulting, attended initial e-Mexico roundtable discussions on what type of infrastructure should be deployed.

“I thought I was going to be the only person for Linux,” de Icaza said. “But HP surprised me, IBM surprised me and Sun surprised me.”

Despite general agreement that open-source technologies would be more flexible and cost efficient, Mexico’s Linux revolution was quashed after Fox met with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, according to de Icaza.

“Bill Gates flew down to Mexico, and they announced a donation of $30 million dollars … and Linux was dropped,” de Icaza said.

The deal was a disappointment for local open-source proponents who believe despite Microsoft’s investments, adoption of a Windows-based system will prove more costly for the cash-strapped country in the end.

“People are concerned that Microsoft products are very expensive,” de Icaza said.

In a country where only 8 per cent of the population has computers and 4 per cent has Internet access, according to recent figures released by market research company IDC, this argument is not going unnoticed. Both the Mexico City congress and the Senate committee on science and technology have already voiced their concern and Linux lobbying is under way.

For open-source advocates like de Icaza, it’s crucial for Linux not to lose out in emerging technology markets like Mexico. Once the country gets locked in to Microsoft products, he believes, there’s no going back.

So, why would an emerging market like Mexico opt for a limited and costly software platform? According to de Icaza, it’s politics.

“My personal impression is that the tech people know the advantage of Linux … but Fox made a political decision,” said de Icaza.

The Mexican government has been quick to point out, however, that it does not have an exclusive contract with Microsoft and that other platforms can be utilized if deemed needed.

Given the software maker’s resources and clout, however, it’s not difficult to see why it might seem easier to Fox to rely on the company to support the e-Mexico project rather than coordinate a Linux-based system among disparate branches of his government.

Fox has cited both slim funding and inefficiencies in the country’s central budget management as reasons for looking to outside help with the project.