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Brazil: The spirit of community

Part of a special feature on open source and developing nations, a look at what the Brazilian government is doing in alternative software.

Part of a special feature on open source and developing nations,
a look at what the Brazilian government is doing in alternative software.

Spotlight project:
The Brazilian government may distribute 1 million laptops running open-source software to local schools. In January, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched a project to build low-cost Linux-based laptops for the developing world. The Brazilian government is considering building 2 million of these laptops, half of which will be distributed to local schools, and is investigating the finances of the scheme.

Open-source software has been deployed by the federal, state and city governments in Brazil, although the states and cities have been more progressive, according to Ronaldo Lemos, the director of the Centre for Technology &: Society at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas law school in Brazil, which recently advised Brazilian government on the its open-source strategy.

"Before the Federal government embraced free software, there had been initiatives at the city and state levels that helped to pave the way for a broader program," Lemos said.

Open source and developing countries

Other stories in the special coverage:

Search for alternatives
Cost isn't the only motivator for foreign governments
Local software for local people
Speaking your language

There have been a number of large-scale migrations in Brazilian states. For example, the state of Parana is migrating 10,000 government employees from proprietary software to a customised version of the open-source collaboration application eGroupWare, and Sao Paulo has deployed Linux on 16,000 PCs and 1,000 servers in schools across the state, Linux distributor Mandriva said.

Some federal government agencies have also migrated to open-source software, with seven of the 22 federal ministries reportedly using it. This includes a number of open-source desktop deployments--for example, OpenOffice.org is run on 4000 seats in the federal government, said Erwin Tenhumberg, a product marketing manager at Sun Microsystems.

The Brazilian federal government has drafted a bill that would mandate the use of open-source software by public departments. This decree would force government departments to migrate to the software unless they can justify the continued use of closed-source products.

A few Brazilian states and municipalities have already passed laws that require public administrations to give preference to open-source software, including the states of Espirito Santo and Parana, and the cities of Amparo, Solonopole, Ribeirao Pires and Recife.

Jaques Rosenzvaig, who was the chief executive of Brazilian Linux vendor Conectiva, said in April that these laws have not affected the use of open source in these states, as they are not strictly enforced.

Francois Bancilhon, the CEO of Mandriva, which was formed from the merger of Conectiva and Mandrakesoft, agreed that in Brazil there is "more talk than action.".

"There is still a gap between what politicians want to do and what administrations are willing to implement," he said.

As well as legislative policies, the Brazilian government has also funded projects to research and promote the use of open source,. These include the CDTC (Centro de Difusao de Tecnologia e Conhcimento), a technology centre that provides training and support around open-source software.

The Brazilian government claims that the main reason for its adoption of open source software is to cut costs. "The number one reason for this change is economic," Sergio Amadeu da Silveira, the head of Brazil's National Information Technology Institute, told the BBC in an interview. "If you switch to open source software, you pay less in royalties to foreign companies."

Lemos, who advised the Brazilian government on its free software strategy, agrees that saving money is a "very important" reason for the government. Other reasons for the government's support of open source include the educational benefits from being able to access the source code, says Lemos. For example, this was seen when the Sao Paulo government set up community centres, known as telecentros, where people could access free software.

"The interesting thing that happened at the telecentros (in Sao Paulo) is that people not only started to use computers to browse the Internet, but also a significant number of people started to learn programming, by tinkering with the source code of the programs," Lemos said. "Free software creates a community of skilled programmers, that later become an important asset for the country's technological development as a whole. So the 'educational' benefits are also an important factor leading the (Brazilian) government to adopt (free and open source) software."

The adoption of free software by the public sector has also been driven by a large and active free software community in Brazil, Lemos said.

Redmonk analyst James Governor said that the Brazilian government's enthusiasm for open source is partly due to a "strong distrust of American corporations" and partly for cultural reasons. "Brazilians are very community-minded and open source fits into that," he said.

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London