Brazil: Free software's biggest and best friend

Since taking office in 2003, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has turned Brazil into a tropical outpost of the free-software movement.

Since taking office two years ago, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has turned Brazil into a tropical outpost of the free-software movement.

Looking to save millions of dollars in royalties and licensing fees, da Silva has instructed government ministries and state-run companies to gradually switch from costly operating systems made by Microsoft and others to free operating systems, like Linux. On da Silva's watch, Brazil has also become the first country to require any company or research institute that receives government financing to develop software to license it as open source, meaning the underlying software code must be free to all.

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But the new buyers
are going to need
some discounts.

Now Brazil's government looks poised to take its free-software campaign to the masses. And once again, Microsoft may end up on the sidelines.

By the end of April, the government plans to roll out a much-ballyhooed program called PC Conectado, or Connected PC, aimed at helping millions of low-income Brazilians buy their first computers.

And if the president's top technology adviser gets his way, the program may end up offering computers with only free software, including the operating system, handpicked by the government instead of giving consumers the option of paying more for, say, a basic edition of Microsoft Windows.

"For this program to be viable, it has to be with free software," said Sergio Amadeu, president of Brazil's National Institute of Information Technology, the agency that oversees the government's technology initiatives. "We're not going to spend taxpayers' money on a program so that Microsoft can further consolidate its monopoly. It's the government's responsibility to ensure that there is competition, and that means giving alternative software platforms a chance to prosper."

Microsoft has offered to provide a simplified, discounted version of Windows for the program. Though a final decision on which software to install has been delayed several times, as has the program's rollout, Amadeu and some other government officials have publicly criticized Microsoft's proposal, calling the version's abilities too limited.

Still, Microsoft has not given up just yet. The company, which declined to make an executive available for an interview, said in a statement that it was still "working with the PC Conectado project to see if there's a way Microsoft can help."

Under the program, which is expected to offer tax incentives for computer makers to cut prices and a generous payment plan for consumers, the government hopes to offer desktops for around $509 (1,400 reais) or less. The machines will be comparable to those costing almost twice that outside the program.

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Buyers will be able to pay in 24 installments of about $18 to $21.80 (50 to 60 reais) a month, an amount affordable for many working poor. The country's top three fixed-line telephone companies--Telefonica of Spain; Tele Norte Leste Participacoes, or Telemar; and Brasil Telecom--have agreed to provide a dial-up Internet connection to participants for less than $3, a month, allowing 15 hours of Web surfing.

The program aims at households and small-business owners earning three to seven times the minimum monthly wage, or about $284 to $662. The government says 7 million qualify, and it hopes to reach a million of them by year-end.

That may seem ambitious in a developing country of 183 million people where only 10 percent of all households have Internet access and just 900,000 computers are sold legally each year. (Including black-market

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