Until recently, debating about proprietary software vs. free and open source software (or simply Microsoft vs. Linux) was sounding for me like something exclusively for geek and techies. The kind of argumentation I had with classmates during coffee breaks at university. Yet, an e-discussion with some ICT4D professionals and a look at this blog post and its comments revealed me that the question is also valid in global development projects. Should we systematically go for proprietary software (or inversely free and open source software) in our global development work?
First of all, I want to be clear. In most cases, it doesn’t really matter and both solutions are equivalent. If you want to save money by not paying for commercial licenses, you will definitely choose free and open source software. But anyway, you will spend time and resources to train users because generally, they are used to Microsoft (and commercial) products. However, there are some special cases where this can become a serious issue.
I am currently working for a West Africa based development organization which operates in the fields of food security, climate change, sustainable development and other related thematic. My main role is to provide support in finding new ways to make IT work for the organization’s strategic goals, and also for more effectiveness in corporate processes and management. One of the most important issues I face is the lack of financial resources to support IT needs. The organization is mainly funded by foreign aid agency like USAID, ACDI… Obviously these agencies funding priorities are not corporate services. The result is that there is poor or squarely no budget dedicated to support IT. In this context, I had no other choice than prioritizing free and open source software (Alfresco, DSpace, etc.). This is a common issue for many donors-funded development agencies.
Yet, for me the debate goes beyond software. The present-day talk should be about standards and formats. While more and more organizations are joining open and linked data initiatives, and big data is gaining ground, it is time to talk about open standards and formats. More than thinking about producing increasing quantity of data, we should now be focusing on quality, usability and sustainability of the data we publish. I believe, and I stand to be corrected, that interoperability across platforms (OS, software, devices, etc.) is an important factor that we should consider if we want to leverage the quality of data we produce. Data are finally not that open if they are published in proprietary and opaque formats, sometimes owned and controlled by one company.
Finally, the Microsoft vs. Linux or proprietary vs. free and open source software argument is not just a matter of personal preferences or financial considerations.