The Open Source Software (OSS) Africa Conference, held at the Indaba Hotel recently, was received with mixed feelings from delegates, some of whom accused it of lacking a clear objective.
One of the delegates, Bethuel Mashilwane, from the technology research department at the DOC, described the conference as “hopeless”, and said the OSS movement “lost out on a good opportunity to use it to drive the OSS movement to the rest of Africa”.
“It presented nothing different to what was presented last year. Open Source Software (OSS) has never taken off, and we always claim we know why that is. If everyone who attended the conference wanted to speed up migration to OSS, then the conference should have been used as a platform to organize a collaborating body to achieve this. Instead, all the people who attended were industry experts, whereas inviting other members of the industry could have helped to spread the word about OSS,” he argues.
He also notes that, although the conference was meant to be for Africa, few Africans attended. “I would have expected to see a higher number of African delegates,” he says.
But one presenter, Dumisani Mtoba, senior systems engineer of software at Sun Microsystems Inc., has dismissed this comment, saying that the representation of African delegates at the conference was not unique to the conference, but occurred in all ICT-related conferences.
“This conference could not have changed the face of the industry on its own. This was a representation of the demographics of the industry itself. If we want to see a change in attendance at conferences, then the industry itself must change, and that is what the ICT Charter is trying to address and achieve,” he says.
ccessibility was noted as one of the most current challenges of the OSS movement. This became evident as one of the open discussions on Africa’s contribution to the OSS revolution became hijacked by topics around OSS inaccessibility, lack of awareness and distribution.
Craig Adams, southern African marketing project lead for OpenOffice.org, presented on Open Source in Africa. He says awareness is one of the biggest issues for OSS. “The most effective way to create awareness is advertising and using public media, but most OSS projects have a problem with using these channels, because they are community-based. Unless they are supported by funders such as the Shuttleworth Foundation there is not much they can do.
“I try to attend as many workshops as possible simply to raise awareness. You can call it low-cost marketing, but it helps. Moreover, most of our people are technical, and not skilled in marketing. Companies like Novell Inc., although focused on Linux, can be used as a marketing vehicle and to draw people to OSS,” he states.
He also pointed out the challenges posed by the reseller channel, saying: “Some resellers consider selling OSS to be a complete risk because they are used to selling at a high mark-up. Selling OSS might imply cutting their profit, but many resellers do not realize that selling it can be used as a competitive advantage, by adding more value and choice for the customers.”
He warns that most resellers will find themselves in trouble when customers begin to ask for OSS, only to find that they do not have it.
He also remarks that the successful experience of OSS’ benefits can only be met in an environment with adequate communications infrastructure. “The government is going to have to address access to telecoms and infrastructure. There are initiatives to subsidize OSS networks, but the fundamental infrastructure would have to be looked at closely,” he says.
According to the organizers, there is no doubt, however, that interest in OSS has grown over the past year. Although they say that there was an increase of 50 per cent in attendance, to a total of 160 delegates, most of the sessions were so brief that the last day of the conference ran early by thirty minutes. By then less than thirty delegates remained scattered in the large conference room.
“Perhaps everyone is attending the Microsoft conference, or it could simply be due to the fact that it is a Friday afternoon, and people are exhausted,” said one delegate who preferred not to be named. “The last word you want to mention here is the big ‘M’ word,” he whispered.