As the government struggles to make ends meet, figures both in and outside the government are saying the country could save some serious money by re-examining its recent high-dollar deal with international software giant, Microsoft.
On 26 December, the official Facebook page of Prime Minister Hesham Qandil announced that the Cabinet had sealed a deal with Microsoft to buy and maintain licensed software for the government worth nearly US$44 million to be paid over four fiscal years.
That’s a large chunk of money, activists say, when the government could get a superior product for free.
Open-source software, also known as free and open-source software, is computer software without a source code, or software that makes its source code available to the public, with very loose or nonexistent copyright restrictions. Linux, an operating system developed in 1991, has emerged as the most popular free and open-source software. Android mobile phones are now completely open-source operated.
Open-source was developed as an antithesis to large American software corporations’ products, which have strict copyright restrictions and secured source codes. Such software is also commonly surrounded by activists who see it as a vehicle to a free flow of knowledge.
Companies like Microsoft and Apple stand to make more money the more difficult they make their products to copy onto multiple computers.
In Egypt, weak enforcement of intellectual property rights means most personal computers operate with pirated Microsoft software.
For governments, such large-scale theft is out of the question. However, supplying thousands of computers in their offices costs a sizable amount of money — hence the $44 million price tag for the Microsoft deal.
But how does the bureaucracy-heavy government implement open-source software in its thousands of school and office computers? Very gradually, experts say.
The Communication Ministry announced on 11 December that it would form a committee to draft what it calls a “National Open-Source Strategy” to help implement free and open-source software at a number of government departments.
The committee, chaired by Assistant to the Communication Minister Hoda Baraka, includes representatives of different ministries, university professors and representatives of Open Egypt, a non-governmental organization that has been lobbying for the government to adopt open-source software.
Ahmed Hussein Mohamed, communication expert and a member of the committee, estimates that by using domestic open-source software, the government could cut costs by as much as 80 percent, and also help fuel local economic growth. He also pointed to countries around the world that have endorsed Linux.
The committee was tasked with coming up with a strategy that would incorporate both the Microsoft Corporation partnership agreement and a general movement toward open-source software.
“The government has shown interest in using open-source software, but is looking to have a well-structured plan before implementing any changes,” says Ahmed Mekkawy, founder and CTO of Spirula Systems and co-founder of Open Egypt. “So the committee is drafting a general strategy to start applying and using open-source software in government departments, the public sector and schools.”
He said the communication minister would review the strategy by the end of February, after which it would be passed to the Cabinet for further study and amendments.
The transition, Mekkawy says, calls for an approach that would integrate both Microsoft and open-source software. The ubiquity of Microsoft software in much of the government, he says, means that government systems must evolve gradually.
Committee members say that under the strategy, the government will conduct training, in cooperation with the Higher Education Ministry, to acclimate students in the fields of computer science and information technology to open-source software.
Ali Shaath, co-founder of the Egyptian Association for Free and Open Software and the Arab Digital Expression Foundation, believes all students should be able to learn on computers with open-source software, as an alternative to illegally downloading stolen software.
Experts say there is an eager and growing open-source software community in Egypt, with technical skills, expertise and the desire for development and collective growth.
Under the strategy, committee members say the ministry would switch to free and open-source software desktop applications off the bat, so that it wouldn’t have to rebuild server applications.
The ministry would then become a sort of open-source model for other departments. The ministry has initiated other projects before; it was the first ministry to support a website and pioneered e-government in the country.
Cracking open a monopoly
The goal, open software experts and technology activists say, is to revolutionize the government’s computer habits, and eventually those of the average Egyptian consumer, so that the country would no longer be a place where the majority of computer users are operating stolen software.
Committee members say that, according to the strategy, companies and civil society concerned with open-source software will participate in training and planning processes, in the hope that open-source will spread to other facets of society.
“This support would lead to an essential development in the software development sector,” says Shaath. “And it would provide solutions based on creativity and development, as opposed to being limited to buying ready-made products from foreign companies.”
Open-software proponents criticize former President Hosni Mubarak’s government for allowing major international software companies like Microsoft to monopolize the government’s computers. Currently, Microsoft is the sole information technology infrastructure provider for strategic national projects, such as the e-government services project.
“The government became dependent on these companies, whereby the latter always has to renew expensive license contracts to guarantee the carry-over of services,” says Haytham Nabil Bayoumy, committee member and head of the software unit in the Administrative Development Ministry.
He says Microsoft also penetrated information technology programs in schools and universities, and used the opportunity to market cheap products to students.
Eventually, Bayoumy says, all information technology training processes became based solely on the use of this software.
“As a result, this has led to generations that only know the products of these companies as the equivalent of information and communications technology, since they haven’t witnessed any other free alternatives that are of the same quality,” he says.
A fair deal
But Microsoft executives deny any monopolization of the government’s computer systems. Rather, they claim that they’ve tried to make the contract renewal process as easy as they can for Egypt while it continues to struggle with a political transition.
The initial contract with Microsoft from 2009 to 2012 was for the leasing of software licenses and not buying them, with the possibility of paying an up to 18-month lease toward the end of the contract in order to buy the licenses.
According to that contract, the government paid almost $90 million to lease software licenses in the last three years.
Following an assessment of the impossibility of implementing open-source software all at once, the government found that a better solution was to buy previously leased licenses. Officials argue that these are the best available options and the least costly.
In fact, Microsoft even intervened to reduce the value of the software and to present other incentives to guarantee the continuation of its deal with the Egyptian government, as the company sees its relation with the Egyptian government as “a successful long-term partnership,” according to Khaled Abdel Kader, general manager of Microsoft Egypt.
“[In Microsoft], we believe in the potential of Egypt and, for the first time, the long-term vision is clearer than the short-term one. To put our money where our mouth is, we are the only company that doubled its workforce after the revolution,” he tells Egypt Independent.
He also says the government will receive periodic updates and maintenance to the programs and licenses throughout the agreement’s duration, and will also receive a 10 percent return on Microsoft investments to be allocated for the completion of government projects.
Abdel Kader maintains that a switch to open-source software is not, in all cases, cheaper. A recent German study found the switch to be more expensive than maintaining Microsoft. A report by IDC, the global market intelligence firm, showed that the investment retainer value of each dollar paid to Microsoft is $7.5.
Nevertheless, Abdel Kader says that if the Egyptian government will adopt free and open-source strategy, that will push the company to even do a better job and offer a more efficient service.
“It is always better to work in a competitive, fair and transparent business environment,” he says.
Egypt has already tried using free and open-source software. The website that provided voters with information during recent elections was completely based on open-source technology, developers say. Microsoft executives, however, say some of its components were Microsoft-based.
“We don’t aim to completely call off closed-source software, that is something that will never be able to do,” says Bayoumy. “But we aim that in five years we can create a sort of balance between other companies providing software and proprietary operation systems and open-source software.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.