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Why It's A Mistake For Brazil To Build Their Own Linux

Over the last year, several government organizations such as Brazil, China and the City of Munich have stated their intentions to build a version of desktop Linux. While their motivations are understandable, I think an examination of history illustrates that it's an unwise decision and there's a better path to achieve their goals.

Read about Linux and the Brazilian Government
Government officials I speak to routinely express exasperation with Microsoft's pricing inflexibility. Even in emerging markets with reduced capacity to pay for software, Microsoft prices software at similar rates to the United States. Governments want to create environments where intellectual property is respected (read: where their citizens pay for software, music, and movies). But when incomes are a fraction of the United States, the undeniable realities are that businesses are forced to pirate as a simple matter of economic survival. Additionally, because Microsoft uses proprietary formats, switching to other software becomes difficult, if not impossible, so endless upgrades and maintenance are forced upon them.

At the same time, the non-stop pounding of hacker attacks on Microsoft software creates considerable support costs and worrisome national security issues. Weekly patches, virus services and periodic reformatting/cleansing of machines add significant costs to government organizations. Of more concern is the security risk that critical government data will be leaked out. Whether from sloppy programming that hackers exploit or from intentional or even unintentional back doors inserted into the software, there's a real concern that national security is at risk by depending on Microsoft software.

With this backdrop it's understandable that progressive countries are looking for alternatives and several have announced they intend to build their own Linux distribution. They absolutely should insist on open standards from all software vendors so they can avoid vendor lock-in. Having the ability to switch improves bargaining leverage and ensures competitive pricing, but creating their own nationally branded Linux product will actually cost them more and leave them with an inferior product in the long run.

I think there's an expensive lesson to be learned from airlines. There was a time last century where nearly every country thought they needed their own national airline. Politicians spoke of airlines as strategically important and a national security imperative (much like they are talking about operating systems and software now). Approximately 190 state-owned airlines were created. The vast majority of those airlines have been economic disasters with total losses well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Over time, these countries realized that commercial companies could provide a much higher level of service at a lower price. By 1985, 130 states recognized their mistake and had announced plans to privatize their airlines, and more countries such as Hungary's Malev, Italy's Alitalia, Brazil's Varig, Greece's Olympic, and Poland's LOT are struggling trying to keep their national airlines afloat. Even sophisticated and rich governments like the U.S. and Switzerland are routinely bailing out airline companies with tax dollars costing billions of dollars. Meanwhile, low-cost carriers with no government backing are performing well, reinforcing the point that the free market can deliver services much more cost effectively than a state-sponsored institution.

Read why China is embracing Linux
The same national furor that created massive money losing airlines is pushing a few countries like China and Brazil to explore their own software entities. Countries are desperate for an alternative, but Microsoft's successful business tactics, legal or illegal, have vanquished other options. However, the best way to ensure quality products at a fair price is to reinvigorate competition by supporting some of the commercial companies like Novell, Mandriva and yes, Linspire.

Building your own country-specific Linux operating is an illogical decision in an era when privatization of government services is almost universally recognized to deliver superior results. If the goal is to end up with affordable software options, commercial companies, which can spread costs across many countries, will produce a much higher quality product at a significantly lower price. It's important to note that building a capable desktop software product requires an army of people - not just a few programmers. It's imperative to have quality assurance personnel to test products; field engineers who can partner with companies like AMD, Intel, Via, ATI, Nvidia to insure compatibility; certification teams to interface with OEMs (computer manufacturers) to enable them to ship fully functioning computers; and support personnel who will need to be trained on the product and offer end user deployment, support and maintenance, and constant, ongoing development will be required to support the wave of never ending products and technologies. Each country having their own personnel will make software more expensive than it needs be.

Governments who feel the need to create their own operating system, should, using this same logic, want to have their own automobile factories, apparel manufacturing plants, telecom companies, microprocessor fabricators, and so on. Governments tried to prop up many of these industries in the past. History has shown time and again that these well-intentioned efforts become economic disasters. Ultimately, they have turned to commercial vendors who bring the benefit of economies of scale and competition.

If the goal is to recapture ultimate control of their data and information technology systems, which I would concur is critically important, then that is best accomplished by insisting that all vendors provide source code and use open formats for all their data. Fortunately, all the Linux based companies are doing precisely that today, which is why they deserve support from progressive governments. It's exciting and unusual to see states taking the lead in technology. I hope their actions stimulate the marketplace, which will create long term solutions in the most cost effective manner.

-- Michael
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