LinuxUser Column 1

Welcome to my new column, I’m Jason Kitcat and I’ll be your host over the coming months as we explore Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), e-government and life in the digital lane. Enjoy the ride.

Just so you know that I am qualified to take you on this journey, I’ve been tooling around with the Internet since around 1996. I’ve run a dial-in bulletin board system and started several tech companies. Since 2000 I’ve been building online communities at Swing Digital, a Brighton-based company I co-founded. We host all our communities on custom versions of Linux and Apache.

So what’s the first stop on our journey? Poland as it happens. I spent some time in the south-eastern corner of Poland during the Christmas period and was curious to know how Linux is doing in this region. Poles are bursting with pride in their country, rightfully so, still it has its fair share of challenges. In a country with high unemployment and low wages relative to the rest of the EU I was expecting FLOSS to play a major part in Polish digital life.

I was very wrong. I didn’t see a single copy of Linux running in any of the offices or homes I visited, everyone had Windows. Chatting with Marek Ogrodnik an employee at a major technology retailer I learnt that he reckoned that Windows has 99% market-share in Poland.

Piled up next to Marek as we chatted were boxes and boxes of Mandrake Linux on DVD for £15. It wasn’t selling, but OEM versions of Windows XP for £65 were. Consider that for those with jobs in Poland an excellent salary is £300 per month. With Windows XP Home Upgrade selling for £190, Office going for £360 and the academic license for Office a cheeky £70 I couldn’t understand why Linux was more popular.

Stepping over discarded flyers for Mandrake I asked Marek why Linux wasn’t more popular. His answer was similar to what I often hear back in the UK: Linux is very hard to use, he couldn’t get it to even install on the showroom computer, when it does work you can’t play games, movies or buy software the way you can with Windows. The network effect is in full force in Poland, because everyone else has Windows stuff, you are better off having Windows.

Poland has, like most countries, a technical elite who can and do ignore Microsoft-shaped bandwagons so inevitably they are playing with Linux. PLD is the Polish Linux Distribution (www.pld.org.pl) made by Poles, another Polish distribution is Aurox (www.aurox.org) and there is also a Polish Linux User Group (www.linux.org.pl). It’s a small group, but they seem to have influence. Poland caused a storm and ingratiated themselves to the FLOSS community by stopping the EU Software Patent Directive in its tracks. This is the sign of a well informed technorati but unfortunately the average man in the street, or computer shop for that matter, is still ignorant of the benefits Linux could offer.

According to the Linux Counter Project (counter.li.org/bycountry/PL.php) there are just over 8,400 Linux users in Poland, a country of nearly 40 million people. While the project’s methodology is hard to verify the results still give us an idea of the low adoption Linux has had.

Before accepting Microsoft’s overwhelming dominance I wanted to double check the market share figures. After much digging I found some more statistics. Ranking.pl (www.ranking.pl) shows that 98.8% of those accessing the Internet in Poland are on Windows with only 1.1% on all forms of Unix including Linux and MacOS X. 64.6% of Polish Internet users are on Windows XP. Sadly these figures are probably, if anything, underestimating the Windows share as Linux and MacOS X users are far more likely to go online than the average user especially those stuck with Windows 3.1 or 95.

Historically a significant portion of the copies of Windows and associated software have been shared and not purchased legally. However since a very strict government crackdown on piracy three years ago the majority of software is grudgingly purchased. Coming from a Communist era where scarcity forced ingenuity, Poland is culturally ripe for the FLOSS approach to digital life. Unfortunately Windows got there first and it’s going to be very tough overcoming Microsoft’s huge installed base.

All is not lost though… As in many other countries the government can use procurement policies to force competition. The Polish Ministry of Finance is using Linux for some backend functions. This move gained considerable publicity and is probably only the first of many gains for Linux in the Polish government. On the other hand government has also been unhelpful, in at least one case commercial installations of Debian Linux were regarded by the local tax office as ‘gifts’ so a 30% tax was applied on the assumption that Debian cost as much as Windows. Oops.

While Windows’ dominance in markets such as Poland can be depressing, it isn’t the whole picture. The key thing to remember is that whether we look to Eastern Europe, Central America or India most people don’t have a computer at all. So we don’t need to wean them off Windows, we need to reach out to them and explain why FLOSS can help to make our digital lives more fair and open.

Jason Kitcat jason@swingdigital.com is Managing Director of online community consultancy, Swing Digital.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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