Software and the New Colonialism

A colleague of mine recently attended a meeting between the Ministry of Education and representatives for a new initiative sponsored by Microsoft. On the face of it, the offer on the table was compelling: Microsoft Windows and Office licenses for sale at about 700 vatu each for educational institutions. Huge investment in flagship schools in Vanuatu, with hundreds of new PCs in total running all the latest software at prices never seen before. How could anyone refuse?

Microsoft is not the only company to come to the sudden realisation that there are about 5 billion people out there who don’t buy their product. Many major IT corporations have taken a look at the mature European and North American markets and decided to begin developing markets elsewhere in the world.

It’s a great opportunity for them. Junior and intermediate managers trying to make a name for themselves are leading the exploration. Rather than navigate the shark-infested waters of corporate HQ, they’re establishing new territories, trying out new tactics and creating new opportunities for themselves and their customers.

This is not a bad thing in and of itself. But it does need to be understood.

The world of IT is undergoing the same shift in emphasis and momentum as industrialism underwent in the late 19th Century. Having reached critical mass in the developed world, technology was exported to the developing world, most notably into India, Japan and, to a lesser degree, China. They profited immensely, but the social cost was high.

It was largely due to technological mastery that the great colonial powers managed to control huge parts of the globe. Their communications and logistical capabilities were well beyond anything their opponents could muster, and their industrialised military ensured that they dominated wherever they set foot.

In fairness, this latest excursion into the ‘wilds’ of the developing world is much more benign than the conquests of the 19th century. Nonetheless, the goals are the same: expansion of business opportunities and profits through the creation of new products and markets.

It’s not necessary – or possible – to pass judgement on the process as a whole. Regardless of how we might feel about it, it’s happening now, and no one can stop it. This strategic change in approach offers Vanuatu a valuable opportunity and at one and the same time creates challenges that need to be understood and addressed.

Let’s unwrap the Microsoft offer then, and try to tease out the implications….

Low-Cost Software Licenses

Affordable software licenses are a very good thing. Something that many people don’t realise is that breaking a license agreement by installing pirate software is just as illegal in Vanuatu as it is anywhere else in the world. You can get away with it for now, but that will change. Besides, it’s only right that people should receive payment for their work.

But what software would Education be getting? The official answer is that it would be for cut-down versions of Windows and Office, which would be missing some features that people have come to rely on. As for server licenses, which are many times more expensive than client software, the only thing the Microsoft would say was that they would ‘look into it.’

A particularly sticky issue is scope: How long will Microsoft continue to offer these cheap licenses? Would Education end up paying tomorrow for something that is free today? The issue of perpetual licensing was discussed, without any commitment from Microsoft.
These licenses would be available to schools and other educational facilities, but not to the Ministry itself, nor any related administrative offices. The cost of integrating central systems with these new PCs and servers was not discussed.

Free Hardware

The Microsoft representative spoke of a remarkably ambitious plan to purchase ‘hundreds’ of new PCs and servers for Malapoa College, VIT and other institutions, to install Microsoft software on them, to provide training and support for years. There was limited discussion, however, about support issues, technical capacity of existing staff and the carrying capacity of Vanuatu’s ICT capacity as a whole.

Other unanswered questions included our rural schools’ ability to run PCs at all, issues of Internet access or any kind of communications, for that matter. There was no detail available concerning the actual use of these computers. How would they be integrated into the existing curriculum? And what about service and repair?

The issue of exclusivity was also not discussed in detail. If Microsoft provides the hardware, will there be any limitations on what gets installed? What if we decide to use Firefox and not Internet Explorer? What if we want to integrate the OLPC laptop in with these systems? Contracts with other countries have required the exclusive use of Microsoft products, a condition that would certainly prove far too restrictive for Vanuatu’s unique requirements.

A New Colonialism

Most significantly of all, the issues of freedom, self-determination and appropriate technologies were not on the table at all. Global corporatism is very much the ‘New World Order’ described by George Bush senior in the late 1980s. It’s not necessary to like it or hate it, but it is both healthy and wise for people in Vanuatu to consider what this new colonialism means.

People today are wiser in the ways of the world than they were. They are better positioned to determine their own fate, and they are better equipped to achieve it. A more positive, less overtly dominating global environment also means that we have a great deal more leverage than we did before. We can effectively pick and choose which elements of this new world order we want, or where the choice is compulsory, we can at least have some say in how things get done in our corner of the world.

This offer from Microsoft is generous, and Vanuatu would do well to consider it carefully. But there’s no need for us to accept it whole hog and without first making sure that every aspect of it will work well for us today and continue to work well for us in the future.