BRAZIL: Free Software's Biggest and Best Friend
Looking to save millions of dollars in royalties and licensing fees, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
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 SÃ©rgio 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, Mr. 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 1,400 reais ($509) or less. The machines will be comparable to those costing almost twice that outside the program.
Buyers will be able to pay in 24 installments of 50 to 60 reais, or about $18 to $21.80 a month, an amount affordable for many working poor. The country's top three fixed-line telephone companies - TelefÃ³nica of Spain; Tele Norte Leste ParticipaÃ§Ãµes, or Telemar; and Brasil Telecom - have agreed to provide a dial-up Internet connection to participants for 7.50 reais, or 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 seven 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 sales, the number is closer to four million, still a small fraction of the number sold in the United States last year, according to the International Data Corporation, a technology research firm.)
"We're well aware that we're talking about doubling the domestic market for personal computers," said Cezar Alvarez, the presidential aide in charge of the PC Conectado program. "But it's absolutely feasible."
Some analysts have questioned the effectiveness of such programs, noting that some similar projects in Asia have become bogged down in red tape and, in some cases, have ended up favoring the elite. In Malaysia, for instance, the government is introducing a second affordable-computer program after its first attempt failed because of poor planning and fraud - something Brazilian officials say they are working hard to prevent.
Others say the government should focus its technology initiatives elsewhere, especially in schools. Only 19 percent of Brazil's public schools have computers.
The government says it plans to complement the PC Conectado program with stepped-up efforts to put more computers into schools. It is also investing $74 million to open 1,000 community centers in poor neighborhoods by year-end with computers that run free software programs and offer free Internet access - supplementing similar programs by local governments and nongovernmental organizations.
The drive to bridge the digital divide has drawn widespread praise throughout the technology industry. But the preference for open-source software has been controversial, with critics inside and outside the government saying Mr. da Silva's administration is letting leftist ideology trump the laws of supply and demand.
"The government shouldn't be the one who decides what hardware and software will go into these computers," said JÃºlio Semeghini, a member of Congress from the opposition Social Democratic Party. "That's undemocratic."
The open-source route, however, has support beyond the da Silva administration. Walter Bender, the executive director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose opinion was solicited by the Brazilian government, replied in a recent letter that "high-quality free software" has proved more effective in stimulating computer use among the poor than scaled-down versions of proprietary software.
Though he said he did not oppose giving consumers a choice, he concluded that "free software provides a basis for more widespread access, more powerful uses and a much stronger platform for long-term growth and development."
Whatever the government decides, most industry analysts agree that the program will probably help combat software piracy, which is widespread in Brazil.
And by wooing new consumers, "even if the program doesn't reach its goals, it's going to end up stimulating the computer and software markets," said Jorge Sukarie, president of the Brazilian Association of Software Companies. "It's not perfect, but it's certainly better than nothing."