FOSSASIA: Free software and why you should care

Submitted by tomo on March 4, 2014 - 4:53pm

What is FOSSASIA? | Nerds of a feather flock together | Where is FOSS found? | Why you should go to FOSSASIA | Why you should care about Free Software | Why open source matters to Southeast Asia | Open Source is more than just software. Open Source Everything!

I've been doing a lot of traveling for nerdy reasons lately. A month ago it was BarCamp Yangon. This past weekend it was FOSSASIA in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I'll get back to writing about living in Vietnam soon, since I'll be traveling around the country.

What is FOSSASIA?

FOSSASIA is a rare type of technology conference in Southeast Asia (so far it has been held in Vietnam and Cambodia) that brings together members of the free/open source software community in Asia and around the world. And these people are usually odd and/or interesting and quite eccentric compared to most Asian computer nerds (covering the differences in every Asian countries nerd sub-cultures could be a future topic). The event had been held in Saigon before.
Introducing the hack sessions of FOSSASIA on OpenStreetMaps, Firefox OS, Fedora, OpenWRT

Nerds of a feather flock together

Are you a nerd? Are you an expat nerd? Do you find it hard to meet others with the same interests as you in your adopted home compared to your former home? That has been my experience living in Vietnam. It's not so hard to meet programmers, or web developers, or gamers, but is hard to meet folks who are passionate about a number of nerdier topics (anime, anyone?). Not all developers are "hackers" either. And not enough people in Vietnam who studied IT or programming in order to get decent jobs at outsourcing companies are also into things like hardware hacking or even passionate about code. When it comes to technology, some cities are more "techno-cosmopolitan" than others and we here in Southeast Asia are still far behind the curve even if we've "leapfrogged" some technologies (like when it comes to mobile phones over landlines).

FOSSASIA organizers do all the hard work of finding a venue, getting dozens (maybe over 100) foreign experts (who are passionate enough to pay their own way) to come to one place for one long weekend, and generally providing access to it to all affordably. Having attended a fair share of paid and free technical conferences before, I was impressed by the quantity and caliber of speakers who came from across a wide cross-section of topics related to free software and an open society in general. Besides BarCamps, which are more local in scope, there's no better place in Southeast Asia to talk deeply about many technologies over the course of a weekend. The people who come are truly walking the walk.
Talking about open source vocaloids: Chinese virtual singer software Linne creator on main stage at FOSSASIA

The event attracted a number of young, mainly male, college-aged Cambodians. But, most likely, it didn't attract you. Why not?

Where is FOSS found?

This blog post you're reading is stored and conveniently managed within an open source content management system (CMS) using open source modules and HTML to make it look (relatively) pretty, running on an open source web server, which itself runs on an open source operating system (OpenBSD, in this case. Not Linux!). And once you leave this page (wait!) you'll probably go to another web page that's built on top of an open source software stack. This kind of technology is what largely powers the internet today (replacing the dot in .com) and is the reason the internet is so free yet can do so much. Are you browsing this using Chrome or Firefox? Also open source. (Using Safari? Might want to switch browsers before getting hacked!) Whether you realize it or not, you're crossing paths with open source software countless times throughout every moment you spend connected to the internet.

Why you should go to FOSSASIA

Already -consciously- using open source software? Rather than reading copy or technical manuals about non-commercial software (usually written by teams which don't have resources for professional copywriters), why not talk to passionate people who will work hard to recruit new users (who can turn into future developers or advocates) using their chosen software projects? What better opportunity to upgrade your OS to Fedora, or see how to migrate from your untuned MySQL server to MariaDB, or re-purpose your old wifi router by installing OpenWRT on it, or build a new website using Drupal? Experts are on hand to guide you through getting software installed and set up and you won't be paying out the boot for either the software or the support! It's a rare opportunity to upgrade your software stack when you're in Southeast Asia.

Why you should care about Free Software

For those among us for whom money is not a concern, the "price" of free software may not thus concern you. But consider this: Windows 8 (Pro) is the equivalent of 200 meals (more or less) in Cambodia and Vietnam, even more in Myanmar. And Microsoft Office is up to twice as expensive. Even with discounts, it's hard to justify ASEAN and many other countries spending any significant percentage of their annual budgets on commercial consumer software from American software companies when there are reasonable yet free alternatives - alternatives that can help even beyond the cost savings.

And maybe Google's Office software replacement (Google Docs, Spreadsheet, etc.) is one of those "free" alternatives. Except that it's only free in one sense of the word - users may use it without paying. But as nearly all SaaS (software as a service) products, they aren't free in the true sense of free software. Users may use the code, but may not view the code, nor put the code on their own machines, or make modifications to make the software more well-suited for their specific needs. They are merely given license to put their data into the product via the product maker's website. How they then use or retrieve their own (the user's) data is up to the company to decide. And if they decide not to give you access to your data, there's little you can do about it.

Why open source matters to Southeast Asia

This may not be a problem to many people, for whom the idea of spending "the equivalent of a Starbucks coffee a day" is so cheap as to be reassuring, and especially those for whom the product was made directly for - middle-class American knowledge workers who speak only English, let's say. But if you're using Khmer or Myanmar language on your computer and want to use data written in those scripts and the software doesn't provide any support for those scripts (which is still a huge problem for Khmer and Myanmar) then, technically speaking, you're SOL. At best, you're at the mercy of an American software company which, for many valid reasons, is totally not concerned with the Cambodian or Burmese markets.

If the product were open source, local developers could take the source code and localize it to their own language. They wouldn't have to rely on American software developers who, despite earning much more, don't have the knowledge to work with that script and language. And the work that one Cambodian developer does to localize a piece of software can be shared by everybody else who wants to use it in Khmer. And by doing this, non-English-speaking developing countries can improve the playing field for themselves versus others when it comes to software and technology. At the same time, users will get skills and experience using the same software that's used elsewhere, increasing their value in the international market for talent more than if they had been using a low quality local commercial alternative or nothing at all.

Open Source is more than just software. Open Source Everything!

FOSS is more than just Linux (or Android) or web server platforms (Apache, nginx). It's also browser platforms (Chromium, Firefox), other operating systems (the BSDs), and many of the common programming languages themselves. But also many new types of innovative software, like vocaloids, content management systems like Drupal, databases, maps. Maps and other data can also be open, like Wikipedia, and data used in government leading to open government.

Open source applied to data and knowledge can be found in open-access journals (PLoS), Creative Commons, Wikipedia, and more. Open source for food and beverages includes all kinds of free user-submitted recipes you can find online and even OpenCola. For computers, there's not only open source software, but also open source hardware. There's even open source hardware (3d printers) that can print other kinds of open source hardware. While music was first sold in an openly readable (but not freely licensed) format - sheet music - there's now an ecosystem of open source music software and freely licensed music to go along with it.

Open source is a movement. One which I can feel proud to be involved with. Whether you're looking for practical reasons to benefit from software, or you're a software enthusiast because of what it can do besides edit workplace documents, or you're a patriot who wants to improve the technical capacity of your country, get involved!

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peter moren (not verified)

Free software sounds good but most of the free software are designed for commercial purposes. Advertisements, adware and other things are seen in the free software.

  • oil paintings have a position for all types of gamers, that

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