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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 June, 2004, 04:40 GMT 05:40 UK
Iraqis get a taste for Linux
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

A group of Iraqi computer enthusiasts are advocating the use of the operating system Linux to rebuild their country.

Women at a US computer project in Iraq
The US is running various computer training projects in Iraq
Ashraf Hasson and Hasanen Nawfal are both natives of Baghdad.

Like many 20-somethings, Hasson and Nawfal grew up nurturing passions for computers and for programming.

Both of them are firm believers in open source software. Unlike expensive proprietary software, open-source software can be freely distributed and modified, as long as the modifications are shared with other users.

They are particularly fans of Linux operating system.

These two Linux enthusiasts, though, did not even know one another before the ousting of Saddam Hussein.

But they found each other online, in a Linux forum hosted by Iraqi expatriates, soon after Saddam fell and started thinking about what they could do.

"Every country has a Linux users group except Iraq, so I thought, maybe Iraq deserves to have a Linux users group," said Ashraf Hasson.

"We started sending e-mails, and trying to figure out how to help Iraqi people here to know about Linux, educate them, spread the word. And so we did."

Cost savings

The Iraqi Linux User Group has now been up and running for a little more than a year.

There is a shortage in power and water supplies, and sewage systems, so the last thing Iraq needs is spending billions of dollars on very expensive and overpriced products, especially software products
Nabil Suleiman, Iraqi Linux User Group
"I wanted to find people to share knowledge with," explained Hasanen Nawfal, "to learn from them, to speak with guys who share my thoughts."

The Iraqi Linux User Group website lists more than 200 members, most of whom are Iraqi expatriates.

They are united in their belief that open-source software like Linux could help their nation.

Its chief advantage is that Linux code is free to use and modify.

To Nabil Suleiman, a member of the Iraqi Linux User Group living in Canada, Linux could mean significant cost savings.

"There is a shortage in power and water supplies, and sewage systems, so the last thing Iraq needs is spending billions of dollars on very expensive and overpriced products, especially software products," he said.

"We believe that Linux can save us lots of money in this field."

Illegal software

But it is about more than just cost for the Iraqi Linux User Group.

The open source enthusiasts believe it could allow Iraqis to build their own home-grown technologies.

Proprietary software companies are using these illegal copies as a free sample program, and a marketing tool, as they have in other countries
Don Marti, Linux Journal
"This enables the country to build its own infrastructure based on open source, on open ideas," Ashraf Hasson.

"That might help establish a solid base for Iraqi technology, and help not constrain the country with proprietary software and prevent monopolisation over Iraq by such major companies."

But getting Iraqis to think about Linux is an uphill battle. Most have never touched a computer, let alone thought about what operating system they want to use.

Computer software is now more widely available in Iraq, but little of it open-source.

"Currently, most software in use in Iraq is illegal copies of proprietary software," explained Don Marti editor of the US-based Linux Journal.

Software giants like Microsoft, he said, are happy to hook Iraqis on their software.

"Proprietary software companies are using these illegal copies as a free sample program, and a marketing tool, as they have in other countries."

"When the crackdown comes, and the people in Iraq start having to comply with the licenses for this software, then they're going to be in trouble."

It means Iraqis are going to have to start paying companies like Microsoft, who declined to be interviewed.

Obstacles in the way

Ashraf Hasson of the Iraqi Linux User Group said he would actually welcome tech giants like Microsoft coming into the Iraqi market.

Computer border system
Iraq has a computerised system at the Iranian border
He grudgingly even admitted that the Windows operating system may be OK for "people who want to do basic stuff".

But he is pushing small and medium-sized businesses, and the Iraqi government, to consider running open-source software on their servers.

He is also leading Linux seminars at a couple of Iraq's larger universities.

And Nabil Suleiman in Canada says that some expatriate members of the user group want to open a Linux training centre in Baghdad.

"But it all depends on how the political issues and all the other issues are resolved there," he said.

"I think it will take between two years and five years to stabilise the whole system, and then we can start building on a more stable foundation."

Inside the country, the Iraqi Linux User Group is thinking big. Their ambitious goal is to see every server in the country running Linux a year from now.

Getting there, they face numerous obstacles.

"Security, electricity shortage, poor communications, blurred view of the future, money, bad response from government, lack of resources," explained Hasanen Nawfal, "too many to mention."

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production


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