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Developers lined up for huge gains in software shift

Because of limited talent, the migration to FOSS will be in phases starting with KRA, the Treasury and CBK. Photo/File
Because of limited talent, the migration to FOSS will be in phases starting with KRA, the Treasury and CBK. Photo/File  Nation Media Group

The Government is doing away with copyrighted software for Free Open Source Software (FOSS) as it seeks to cut its expenditure on IT.

According to the directorate of e-Government, the migration will see related costs reduce by 20 per cent initially but improve to 80 per cent in three years of shift.

At present, most government data bases and computer platforms use proprietary software provided by vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco but which it says is more costly compared to FOSS.

Katherine Getao, the ICT secretary at the directorate of e-Government, said it costs a government agency about Sh237 million per annum to acquire and upgrade copyrighted software.

“Initially we expect this to reduce the government expenditure by 20 per cent but the bigger impact will be in three years time when we anticipate the savings will be up to 80 per cent,” she said. Among the databases intended for the shift in the first phase are those of the Kenya Revenue Authority, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), Ministry of Finance, and Integrated Population, said Dr Getao.

The move is expected to hurt the sales of copyrighted software vendors but boost local software developers who have previously been locked out of government tenders.

FOSS is a software that gives the freedom to use, alter and share data. Since the software source code is readily available, users can make changes to suit their preferences.

Users of free Open Source software such as Linux, Apache and MySQL do not pay licensing fees to vendors as is the case with proprietary and closed source alternatives such as Microsoft or Oracle.

However, they only pay customisation fees, thus cutting the cost of acquiring the software. The copyrighted ones require an annual licence fee per user and upgrades.

The licensing fees run into billions of shillings for heavy users such as the Government.

This is not the first time the government is making an attempt to provide a level playing field in this segment that has been skewed towards the proprietary software providers.

In December 2008, Information minister Samuel Poghisio directed that all government agencies ensure that half of their budgets on software is spent on locally developed software so as to boost the sector.

Although the Public Procurement and Disposal Act states that tendering documents should not refer to a particular trademark, name patent or producer or service provider, software tendering documents from a number of ministries always specifies that the software should be from a particular firm or brand, thus locking local FOSS providers out of competition.

“Many proprietary software vendors have turned to donating software to the education sector with subsidised licensing agreements thus making students believe that these are the only software,” said Mr Evans Ikua, the chairman of Linux Professional Association.

“This is a dangerous precedent which must be rejected by the government as it will lead to vendor lock-in, with the vendors gaining a firm foothold in the market and later holding the country at ransom with high licensing fee for their software,” Mr Ikua said.

Jon Hall, the director of Linux International, says the adoption of open software will not only help the government cut its expenditures on IT but also help to boost job and wealth creation in the country.

“Open Source software provides the opportunity for high paying local jobs, better balance of trade since the locals are the ones which will be involved in customising these solutions and also the fact that the money they get will be spent locally and not repatriated as in the case with the copyrighted software,” said Mr Hall.

Mr Hall is an Open Source advocate, having supported the early development of Linux.

As an alternative to copyrighted products, it is seen as a possible solution to software piracy in developing countries like Kenya.

Linux is engaging the Public Procurement Oversight Authority (PPOA) with an aim of coming up with solutions on how the authority could help government bodies when tendering for software.

Dr Getao said lack of adequate human capacity that can handle the open source platform and the fear of what the government will do with its legacy systems has stifled its ability to adopt the technology on a wide scale and hence the need to migrate in turns.

Other efforts by the government to boost software developed locally has been introducing benchmarks aimed at raising the quality of homegrown computer applications and sharpen their competitiveness on the global platform.

The benchmarks introduced by Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), the quality watchdog, are expected to help local products meet global standards such as ISO and International Certification of Engineering (ICE).

The move was in response to the low regard with which computer users have held locally developed software in favour of global brands such as Microsoft.

Training hurdle

That consumer market tilt in favour of international brands has been blamed on the absence of harmonised standards for software development and performance levels, an anomaly that Kebs and the Communications Commission of Kenya, the telecoms industry regulator, hope to address with the introduction of the benchmarks.

Software developers said the benchmarks could also help them to overcome the lack of a comprehensive training plan, a hurdle that has prevented them from honing their skills in developed software markets.

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