19 May 2005

Windows in the developing world

Several years ago, Bill Gates announced Miscrosoft's strategy for China:
Although about three million computers get sold every year in China, people don't pay for the software. Someday they will, though. And as long as they're going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.

Leaving aside the issue of how stupid it was to say this in reference to a country that remembers all too well the Opium Wars, what does this mean for poor countries?

The method that Microsoft is intending to use to enforce collection of license fees is likely digital rights management (DRM). The initial push for DRM seems to have come from the entertainment industries, worried about piracy. But it presented a golden opportunity for Microsoft to make sure that the world's Windows habit could never be overcome.

The stated intention is to create a secure computing platform in which no unauthorized changes are made. The rights to a digital item would always inhere in the creator of the item. Thus when you create a document, you could specify who should be able to read it or alter it.

That seems fair enough, huh? It seems likely that there would be a lot of inconvenience as people got used to the system. Imagine, for instance, that you're compiling a large report, and one of the contributors forgets to grant you permission to copy the text from his 30-page section before he leaves for a long vacation in Tibet. You would have no choice but to re-type all of it.

The biggest problem will come, though, when trying to read a document, which is protected by DRM, on a non-DRM machine. It will be impossible. In fact, you may have run into this already, when trying to play a Windows Media file. If you've ever seen the message "Inconsistent hardware license", that's DRM at work.

The end result will be that documents created on a Windows machine will be readable only on Windows machines. And it's easy to imagine that documents created on other platforms, because they're "untrustworthy" (an assessment that Microsoft, not you, will be making), will not be readable under Windows.

Further, any bootleg copy of Windows will likely be deemed "untrustworthy". What does this mean for a place like Cambodia?

Let's start with this basic fact: essentially no one in Cambodia can afford to buy Windows. Current retail price for XP Home is about $200, which is roughly the same as the average Cambodian's annual income. This is an impossible price. (If you make $40K/yr, would you pay $40K for Windows?)

So when Microsoft starts making people pay for Windows, one of two things will happen in Cambodia. Either they will stay with their current bootleg Windows, and forego updates and compatibility, or they will switch to Linux. In either case, they will wind up getting cut off from up-to-date Windows users.

Which way will they go? The experience in Thailand may give some indication. The Thai government started selling complete computer systems — hardware, OS, and an office suite — for $250. They have sold a million of them in a country of 65 million.

It was thought that most people would buy the cheap computer, and then go to the market and pick up a bootleg copy of Windows for $4. But it turns out that most people — about 80% — are keeping Linux and OpenOffice.

This has Microsoft so worried that they are now selling Thai-language Office and Windows (albeit in a somewhat crippled form) bundles for about $40.

Still, the widespread acceptance of Linux, the low likelihood that there will be a Khmer version of Windows anytime soon, and the projected release date in about a year of a Khmer version of Linux make it seem likely that Cambodia will largely shift to Linux.

I would expect most other developing countries to do the same. And when that happens, the computing world will bifurcate into the rich Windows users and the Linux users.

The big question is, which way will China and India go? If they go the Linux route, expect Microsoft's monopoly to lose much of its power. If that finally forces all of the smart people in Redmond to finally start innovating, it could be a very good thing for all of us. But expect a lot of trouble along the way.

Update: There's at least one developing country that has already decided to go with Linux. It brings up an interesting question — how was Microsoft getting around the embargo?

Update: From WorldChanging, it seems that India has released a CD of Tamil-language open source applications; it plans to release them in all 22 official Indian languages. While these applications run under Windows as well as Linux, as more people use open source software, it will become both better and more accepted.