Traditionally, software has been classified into application system software and operating systems software. Application software facilitate users’ work in executing routine processes while operating systems software is designed to make all the different hardware components, as well as all the peripherals, work together and operate as an integrated machine. Examples of modern operating systems software are various flavors of Microsoft Windows, and Red Hat Linux.
The Microsoft Office Suite (with MS Word, MS Excel, MS PowerPoint, MS Access, and MS Publisher) are good examples of application software. Fact is, for almost every thinkable task under the sun, there exist an application software that can execute the task.
Most software are proprietary and owned by somebody. To use it, one has to purchase it from the developer or a distribution point. Also, a user cannot modify the software code if it is proprietary. Software that fall in this category is classified as closed. A good example is Microsoft’s products.
Over the past few years however, a new approach for software development and use has emerged. This is now known as the Open Source Software movement (OSSM). This provides a serious alternative to closed software. This concept rests on the foundation that better software is produced when everyone is involved in the design and modification of the software (or source code).
Linus Torvalds is regarded as the “father” of the OSSM. Torvalds launched the Linux operating system in 1991 and decided to share the code with the software community.
The Open Source Community has established several factors to guide the classification of software as a member of the open source family. According to them, for a software to be classified as open source, it should be freely distributed. Second, the source code should be made available to the open source community. Third, the license must allow modification by others and should not restrict people from utilizing the programme. Also, the license must not be specified to a product. This is to say that the rights attached to the program must not depend on the program’s being part of a particular software distribution. Furthermore, the license must not restrict other software that is distributed along with the licensed software. Additionally, the license must be technology neutral. This is to say that no provision of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or style of interface.
Open source has retained its spot as a popular operating system in enterprise IT, with even more growth predicted. According to Red Hat, its version of Linux maintained an almost 33% share of worldwide server operating environments in 2017, coming in behind only Microsoft’s Windows Server.
The use of OSS makes it possible for individuals and organizations to have access to software that they couldn’t have afforded to purchase; it eliminates to need to renew the software license; it promotes the spirit of entrepreneurship in software development; and makes it possible for developers to customize software to local situations. Another advantage of OSS is that it is not hardware intensive. This makes it possible for users to run OSS on “obsolete” machines.
Using open source removes the barrier of licensing fees and the learning curve around a closed proprietary language, he added. “This allows our community to essentially tinker with elements of our platform, which in turn generates innovation, which they can then feed back into the ecosystem.”
In Europe and other parts of the world, the OSS movement is becoming increasingly popular among software users. The last couple of years have seen an exponential growth in its use and adoption by most corporate entities and individuals. African markets are beginning to embrace this new trend in the use and development of software. The International Institute for Communication and Development, a Dutch Non Governmental Organization (NGO) promoting the use of ICT’s in developing countries, investigated the use of OSS in organizations in three countries in Africa: Uganda, Tanzania and Burkina Faso. The findings of the research show that OSS in Africa is being used, but it is not yet very widespread. Since then, a number of organizations have emerged to champion and guide the development of OSS on the continent. For example, the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa has been organizing yearly conference on the subject in various parts of the African continent.
The adoption of open source on a massive scale will enhance the training of software engineers. Software engineering in Africa can greatly benefit from the expertise from the OSS community. Thus, OSS should be considered as a serious alternative to closed software.
Since it is an emerging field, there is the need for the development of policy guidelines to guide the industry. Policy support for an OSS strategy is vital. South Africa has made progress in this direction. The South African government has released a policy framework document which recommends that government “explicitly” supports the adoption of open source software and promotes the further development of OSS in the country.
Institutions should be established to facilitate OSS training and research. For example, there is a false assumption that OSS is Linux only. This perception will limit the expansion of OSS in Africa. Research to document the various open OSS out there will correct this erroneous perception. Africa’s academic institutions could spearhead the OSS research agenda. The Martyrs University in Uganda has made substantial progress in this area. The university has migrated most of its systems (desktops and servers) to OSS. Most of their systems use Linux operating system and Open Office (instead of the Microsoft Office suite).
OSS has the potential to enable Africa play a more meaningful role in the information society. OSS is mostly available at a lower cost; it is robust and reliable, and does not require the renewal of software license. With these qualities, it promises to position Africa on the information map.
Osei K. Darkwa, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor, University of Illinois-Chicago