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<nettime> Open source's local heroes
eveline lubbers on Fri, 12 Dec 2003 12:13:55 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Open source's local heroes

In preparation for the WSIS (and after N5M4) I wrote several 
articles for the Dutch press, questioning the conference
as such, the role of NGOs putting in so much effort and
time and money - better get back to basics and do something.

One opinion piece was for the large liberal daily the Volkskrant, 
a plea to make the Netherlands a breeding place for Open Source 
software for the South. It appeared this week.

It was good to see that The Economist ran an article promoting the
advantages of OSS for the South as well. Seems we are getting

The Economist

December 6, 2003 

Open source's local heroes

ITS POPULARITY is growing around the world, but open-source software has
particular appeal in developing countries. In China, South Korea, India,
Brazil and other countries, governments are promoting the use of such
software which, unlike the proprietary kind, allows users to inspect,
modify and freely redistribute its underlying programming instructions.
The open-source approach has a number of attractions. Adopting open-source
software can reduce costs, allay security concerns and ensure there is no
danger of becoming too dependent on a foreign supplier. But there is
another benefit, too:  because it can be freely modified, open-source
software is also easier to translate, or localise, for use in a particular
language. This involves translating the menus, dialogue boxes, help files,
templates and message strings to create a new version of the software.

Large software vendors have little incentive to support any but the most
widely spoken languages. Microsoft, for example, provides its Windows 2000
operating system in 24 languages, and Windows XP in 33. The company also
supports over 20 languages in the latest version of its Office software
suite. Yet for many languages, commercial vendors conclude that producing
a localised product is not economically viable.

The programmers who produce open-source software operate by different
rules, however. The leading desktop interfaces for the open-source Linux
operating system--KDE and GNOME--are, between them, available in more than
twice as many languages as Windows. KDE has already been localised for 42
languages, with a further 46 in the pipeline. Similarly, Mozilla, an
open-source web browser, now speaks 65 languages, with 34 more to follow.
OpenOffice, the leading open- source office suite, is available in 31
languages, including Slovenian, Basque and Galician, and Indian languages
such as Gujarati, Devanagari, Kannada and Malayalam. And another 44
languages including Icelandic, Lao, Latvian, Welsh and Yiddish are on the

Localising software is a tedious job, but some people are passionate
enough about it to resort to unusual measures. The Hungarian translation
of OpenOffice was going too slowly for Janos Noll, founder of the
Hungarian Foundation for Free Software. So he built some web-based tools
to distribute the workload and threw a pizza party in the computer room at
the Technical University of Budapest. Over a dozen people worked locally,
with about 100 Hungarians submitting work remotely over the web. Most of
the work--translating over 21,000 text strings--was completed in three

Dwayne Bailey of translate.org.za, an open-source translation project
based in South Africa, says localising open-source programs into Zulu,
Xhosa, Venda, Sesotho and other African languages makes computers more
accessible. With translated software, "these languages are suddenly
players in the modern world." Neville Alexander, a former South African
freedom-fighter, agrees. "An English-only or even an English-mainly policy
necessarily condemns most people, and thus the country as a whole, to a
permanent state of mediocrity, since people are unable to be spontaneous,
creative and self-confident if they cannot use their first language," he

A similar approach is being taken in India, where there are 18 official
languages and over 1,000 regional dialects. Shikha Pillai is one of the
leaders of a team in Bangalore that is translating open-source software,
including OpenOffice, into ten Indian dialects. She, too, feels that
introducing Indian languages will help to foster a far deeper penetration
of information technology. "Localisation makes IT accessible to common
people," she says. "And Indian-language enabled software could
revolutionise the way our communications work; even the way computers are
used in India."

In May, Thailand's government launched a subsidised "people's PC" that
runs LinuxTLE, a Thai-language version of Linux.  In September, Japan said
it would join a project established by China and South Korea to develop
localised, open-source alternatives to Microsoft's software. Computer
users around the world are discovering that open-source software speaks
their language.


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