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By gfdecaires at 2006-06-20 04:57
When I first saw Linux Question's request for writers I thought that it looked interesting. I like to write, I like Linux, what more could you want? Then doubt crept in as I remebered that I really am not proficient enough in Linux to contribute anything worth while. At this point, ready to give up, I thought back to the basic principles of Linux and the Open Source community in general, and the fact that contribution from all is welcome, not just those who are technically proficient. Bearing this in mind, I dropped a note off on the website giving a bit of background about myself and lo and behold, LQ was interested. Armed with new vigor, I sat down and began to plan what I would write.
Now to give you all some background, I am from Barbados, a small island in the Caribbean and it is about my island that I decided to write.
Barbados is what is known as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) by the UN which essentially means that we are somewhere between the Third World and a fully developed nation. Now as a SIDS, we are also ranked by the UN as the most developed of the developing countries which indicates that we have a strong economy, stable political environment, good education and health care and a relatively low poverty rate. It also means that we have most of the luxuries available in Europe and North America, albeit on a slightly more expensive scale. Our exchange rate is usually around $3.60 to the Pound and $1.98 to the US dollar. As currencies go, this is favourable when compared to some of the other SIDS around the world. These rates however, do pose a problem that I will look into further on in this article. You may be thinking at this point, what does any of this have to do with Linux or Open Source and the answer is simple: despite our successfully developing economy and progressive culture, we are significantly ignorant in the technology field. Now this statement is a paradox because we as a people are truly infatuated with all of the latest technology luxuries such as iPods, cellular phones and computers etc. but when it comes to the actual engines that drive these toys and tools, we seem to be unaware of what is truly available. Most of the island's decision makers, drive the best cars, have top of the line cell phones and even jog to the beat of a pulsating iPod but ask them "What is Linux? What is Open Source?" and you will get a glazed look. This is why they hire IT specialists and consultants who bring technology to the board room table where decisions are generally based on the bottom line. Now all business is based on this imaginary margin, and concentrates on keeping it out of the red so it is no real surprise that that is how things are done here in the sunshine. What is truly amazing however, is that despite this profit driven mindset, many business will not trust smaller, lesser known sources. They want brand name and nothing else. This is where the ignorance shines forth. When it comes to alternatives to Microsoft, Apple, 3COM and the other big players, it is, to quote a friend, “The blind leading the partially sighted”. To further illustrate my point, I put forth the following scenario where the blind man is a younger me, and the partially sighted is an old client and friend who was led astray.
A few years ago, when I was young, dumb and consulting, I had a client who was in the manufacturing business. He had a relatively high turnover of products with a small management structure and did quite well. His infrastructure was typical of small and medium business in Barbados with four PCs running various forms of Microsoft Windows 98, 2000 and XP. He used Microsoft Office for letters and spreadsheets, Outlook and Outlook Express for Email, Intuit Quickbooks for accounting, Netscape Navigator for browsing the internet and two specialized applications, one for printing special labels, the other for calculating piece-rate production for employee wages. Things in the office were relatively stable and we spent a little time fighting fires when they occurred. Eventually though, it came time to upgrade as file and print sharing was becoming increasingly unstable and business disruptions became continuous. Our first step was to replace an old laptop and to buy an external hard drive for data backups. Now in these days I was completely ignorant of Linux and Open Source and thus, to my everlasting shame, we chose Windows XP professional for the laptop and an Iomega external USB hard drive for the backup media. Despite these poor choices however, things went quite smoothly and we were both happy. It then came time to replace the Windows 98 PC. It was here that trouble began. I did not know it when we first began, but the two specialized applications would only work on Windows 98 and not 2000 or XP. On top of that, the piece rate calculator, which was custom written, was installed in a strange way that I just could not fathom. I was not too distressed however because I assumed that I could simply go on the Internet and find replacements for each of these packages. I was wrong. Try as I might I could not find affordable software that calculated piece-rates and I could find nothing to print the labels in the manner necessary. This led me to a point where it was either change the way business was done to suit the technology available, or leave things as they were. Of course we chose the latter and sadly, two and half years later, my old friend is still stuck using Windows 98 and some really old software. Now at this point, the one thing that has changed is that the guys who wrote the piece-rate package was written a new one and progress has taken place though I am not sure if the client is still using the old Windows 98 PC. All in all, this case still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Now to add a new twist to the plot, this same client happens to sell his products to various hotels throughout the Caribbean and as such he often attends a huge Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference (CHIC) where he advertises his wares to prospective buyers. When we were working together, he showed me a web site that he had designed that allowed navigation through his various lines of products. This would have been a great idea had it not been for the fact that the site ran locally on his laptop and was not available for future use on the internet. Again, a sad state of affairs.
To tie all of this together, I can show that if I had known about Linux and the Open Source movment back in those days, I would have been able to help my client out in such a way that he not only would be in a stable environment, but also in one that easily supports upgrades and is affordable to the small business. Take for example, the choice of operating system. No one in their right mind would ever claim that Windows 98 was seamlessly upgradable to Windows 2000 far less to XP. Linux however, has proven that not only is this process easy, it is in fact beneficial to keep upgrading but not necessary if you are content. Compare this to the number of updates one needs to put on a Windows product just to ensure that some cracker doesn't break into your machine and wipe off all of your Solitaire scores.
Now you may remember that the OS choice was linked to the line of business applications and therefore assume that had I known about Linux at the time, I still would not have been able to change. You would be right and wrong. Had I known about Linux, I still would have been tied to the apps, however had I known about the Open Source community, which is probable as they often go hand in hand, I could have at least investigated having the applications written in a more flexible language not only allowing migration, but also precluding subsequent upgrades.
Now that we have solved two issues, lets move on to the third and most important. Having a web presence could only have helped my client's business grow, but with traditional technology and pricing, it would have been inconceivable for him to do so. This is where the exchange rates that I mentioned earlier come into play. The Barbados dollar is tied at virtually two-to-one to the US dollar and it's around Three dollars and Sixty cents to the British Pound. This essentially means that everything, such as Web Servers, Web Hosting etc. is twice as expensive on the island as it is in North America where most of our suppliers are based. These differences had traditionally made e-Commerce and simple Cybertising prohibitive to the small business. Back to my ignorance. If I had known of such wonderful products as PHP, Apache and MySQL a few years ago, I would have been able to help my friend in ways that we thought were inconceivable. The likes of Sendmail and Evolution Mail, dotProject could have replaced the traditional and expensive proprietary software that we all use and we could have planned for things in a way hitherto thought to be impossible. Now take this scenario and know that there are thousands more like it in Barbados and tens of thousands in the Caribbean. Fast forward a couple years and this leads to my experiment.
Almost a year ago, the hotel group that I worked for invested in a Customer Relationship Management package and I was quite excited. The possiblities stemming from this service seemed limitless and it allowed me to play with data at the down and dirty level. While working on this project I thought of my old client and indeed several more and came to the conclusion that they could all use a CRM package like this. I knew however, that the price of several thousand dollars per user license would be prohibitive so I searched around the Net and found some Open Source alternatives. These too were a bit pricy and to be honest with my own work at hand on top of these initial hurdles, I set the idea aside and forgot about it. A couple of months ago, feeling a bit disillusioned with my work, I was thinking about returning to consulting and started planning a web-site based solely on Open Source software such as Apache that would allow me to put my name back into the market. During the planning I came to realise that the site should not be about me but rather about Open Source in order to educate local businesses in its benefits and possiblities. As I progressed on this train of thought, I put together the following idea as an experiment: The website will contain information about Open Source, its origins, its seeming direction and its legal and economic ramifications on an island like mine. It will also include information about Barbados and the Caribbean so that hackers from around the world can understand the economic, political and cultural environment that we are working in. The site should include forums for local businesses and techs to post queries to hackers for advice. It will have a blog for thoughts from all and, most importantly, it will have a project section. This section will not only list current Open Source projects but will also be what I hope is a meeting place for local businessmen and women and be in contact with Open Source providers throughout the world. I believe that if these meetings take place, OS hackers will be able to gain ground in a new market while the small businesses here will be able to explore new ideas in ways they never thought possible.
In summary I would say this: Barbados and the Caribbean are again new worlds waiting to be explored, this time by those armed with laptops and berkenstocks and large quantities of caffeine. The true benefit of the Open Source environment can be tested and proven against the needs of small entrepreneurs, looking for a way to compete against big business and a global economy. Even without my website to guide, I would encourage all to look into the possiblities of working within the region if not for the challenge or the principle of helping where proprietary software giants hinder, then come for the Sun!