Se habla open source?

While open-source software is still fighting for space on American desktops, it's making surprising progress in developing economies due to native-language translation efforts.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
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David Becker
7 min read
A small team of developers in Rwanda was just beginning work on a project to produce a localized version of OpenOffice, an open-source alternative to Microsoft's market-leading productivity software, when they realized they had a problem.

Kinyarwanda, the language spoken by most Rwandans, has no words for many basic technical and computing terms, including the very word "computer," explained Steve Murphy, organizer of the project. After debating

The language spoken by most Rwandans has no word for "computer." After considering the use of an English or French term, the Rwandan developers created their own: "mudasobwa," which roughly means "something or someone that does not make mistakes."
whether to borrow English or French terms or come up with their own native word, the group settled on "mudasobwa," which roughly translates to "something or someone that does not make mistakes."

For projects such as Murphy's, challenges like that are only the beginning. Still, hundreds of developer teams have taken up the dare, working to translate open-source software such as OpenOffice and the KDE interface for Linux into languages ranging from Azerbaijani to Xhosa.

For now, such projects are largely curiosities. But analysts say they could present a significant long-term threat to Microsoft's dominance on PC desktops. Regions and language groups that don't have enough of a PC market now to justify development of proprietary commercial software will naturally turn to open-source alternatives, they say. And by the time those markets become big enough to draw the attention of Microsoft and other commercial software makers, open-source could be as entrenched as Microsoft is in developed countries now.


What's new:
Developing countries are translating open-source programs into native languages, filling a hole left by makers of proprietary software, who look to the size of a market when deciding what tongues they'll cater to.

Bottom line:
Although these nations represent relatively insignificant sales opportunities now, Microsoft and others could suffer if open-source applications are entrenched by the time the countries become attractive markets.

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"I think Microsoft has so far been driven by customer demand for products area-by-area," said Paul DeGroot, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft. "In some cases, there isn't enough demand for products in a certain language for them to do it. Now they're shifting a bit, realizing there are other issues besides, 'Is it worth our while to develop a product in that language?' There's going to be a certain escalation of computing demand in poor countries, and the question becomes do you wait for those to become commercially viable markets or decide not to risk somebody else getting there first?"

For now, the numbers are on the side of open-source software. Windows XP, the current version of Microsoft's operating system, currently is available in 47 languages. Office 2003, the software giant's current version of the software, supports 34 languages.

The l10n localization effort for OpenOffice lists completed projects covering more than 30 languages, with projects for twice as many more under way. KDE, one of the most popular desktop interfaces for the Linux operating system, is available now in more than 40 languages, with another 40-plus in the works. The open-source Mozilla Web browser is available in 59 languages, and support for dozens more is on the way.

Many of those languages are unlikely to merit the attention of commercial software makers for the foreseeable future, so open-source projects are the only way to produce applications ordinary people can use. Murphy said the Rwanda project has about 20 contributors, mostly college students who can use English-language applications but want something in the native tongue to benefit the rest of the country.

"With only one country in the world speaking this language...and with 90 percent of the population not even having access to electricity, I highly doubt

"Our translators aren't doing it for themselves; they are doing it to open computers to their little brothers and sisters, their parents and relatives."
--Steve Murphy
Organizer of the Rwandan project
that there is anything even close to a monetary incentive to translate any Microsoft utility to Kinyarwanda," Murphy said. "For this project, the motivation is not monetary. The motivation is patriotic. Computer technology is seen as at least one possible route to lead the country out of poverty...Our translators aren't doing it for themselves; they are doing it to open computers to their little brothers and sisters, their parents and relatives."

Localization projects are no trivial undertaking. OpenOffice has 20,000 strings of text--everything from dialog boxes to help libraries--all of which have to be translated into the new language. Support for non-English characters and accent marks requires further work, as does creation of a spell-check dictionary and tweaking the user interface. Just finding everything that has to be translated can be a daunting task.

Murphy said he's still working on building tools to extract the text strings that need to be translated. "The OpenOffice folks don't do it for anyone, so this is some sort of gauntlet we are expected to pass through," he said.

OpenOffice.org marketing guru Sam Hiser said that although the main OpenOffice development effort has done a good job of building in support for alternate character sets, right-to-left text and other mechanical issues, much more needs to be done to aid localization efforts. "The instructions are abysmally unclear," he said. "It's not so hard for the technically literate. You write a program and it spits out these 20,000 strings--for technical people, it's not a big deal. But the documentation is pretty lame as it addresses non-computer-literate people."

Microsoft looks ahead
When it comes to open source in the developing world, there are potential benefits besides language, and even countries that can get proprietary software in their own tongue are looking elsewhere.

Robert Ludvik, head of a project to create a Slovenian version of OpenOffice, said it took a team of 10 about a year to do the translation work. But the effort was supported by government and education officials as part of a national plan to promote adoption of open-source software. Microsoft makes Slovenian versions of Windows and Office, but open-source products are cheaper and create more opportunities for local developers.

Such concerns appear to be drawing Microsoft's attention. The government of Thailand was showing a similar preference for open-source products when the software giant unrolled a plan to provide a scaled-back combination of Windows and Office available at a steep discount from normal prices.

Maggie Wilderotter, senior vice president of business strategy for Microsoft, said the Thailand deal reflects a new flexibility at Microsoft in dealing with developing markets.

"What we used Thailand as a pilot to look at is, 'Can we separate product sets to meet the needs of citizens in a developing environment?'" Wilderotter said. "'How can we put good-better-best product sets into the market based on local needs?' We got very good feedback to see how we would change our product offers in those situations, and we came up with a package that met those needs."

"Developing countries have much different needs and approaches than developed ones," Wilderotter added. "For a lot of these developing nations, there's huge

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opportunity for our company in the long run, and figuring out how to engage customers there is very important to us."

Microsoft also recently announced that it will make Office 2003 and Windows available in all 14 major Indian languages over the next few years. Even though many of the language groups normally would be too rare to justify commercial software work, Microsoft is sharing the load with university and government programmers in India working under the Project Bhasha program.

Indian leaders have joined numerous other government entities recently in giving preferential treatment to open-source software, and OpenOffice already has been adapted for five Indian languages.

In the past, rampant piracy, especially in Asia, has limited Microsoft's enthusiasm for addressing some markets, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst for research firm Red Monk. But with looming competition from free open-source software, the giant may no longer have the option of writing off countries with heavy black-market trade.

"In Thailand, (piracy) was one of the compelling factors for Microsoft to look at that and say, 'It doesn't make sense to put money into developing software there,' " O'Grady said. "It may not any longer be a simple economic decision based on piracy. It becomes a more complex long-term decision based on is this going to be a potential threat in terms of their market position."

DeGroot agreed that developing nations are a long-term concern for Microsoft, posing substantial risks and rewards in the coming decades. "It is important for Microsoft not to let any open-source product become the only option for people in a particular region or language group," he said. "If that happens, in a sense it becomes Microsoft fighting someone else's monopoly, and their monopoly with American consumers doesn't really have much of an effect there."

The potential upside if Microsoft can plant seeds in emerging markets is considerable, DeGroot said. "The North American business market is already pretty saturated, so you have to think about where is the growth going to come from," he said. "This is one of those gleam-in-your-eye type things. As populations around the world get the benefits of computerization, Microsoft will need to be there."

Open-source advocates believe they have the upper hand, however. By separating software development from profit motives, they can respond more quickly and completely as computing communities arise.

"It's one of those areas where proprietary software companies are fundamentally at a disadvantage because of their method of allocating resources," said Hiser. "You've got markets that are fragmentary at best, where software as we know it is not economically viable. But that doesn't matter for an open-source project. You just have to have a need and some people willing to work...It's going to be like the cell phone technology that went into some of the developing countries, where they went from having no telephones to fairly advanced services very quickly."