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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 February, 2004, 09:44 GMT
Brazil falls in love with Linux

By Mark Ashurst
BBC World Service business reporter in Brazil

Brazilian Linux cyber cafe
One third of Latin America's computers may run Linux

Behind locked doors at Sao Paulo University, Professor Arnando Mandel has what you might call an 'intimate' relationship with the science faculty computers.

Two of the university's computer servers have been named Kama and Sutra, after the ancient Indian love-making manual, he explains.

Computer servers are rarely objects of desire, but there is something special about Professor Mandel's machines.

They run Linux, an alternative to Microsoft's globally dominant Windows operating system.

Linux is known as 'open source' software, because the computer code on which it's based is available, free, for any programmer to customise and adapt.

Professor Mandel spells out what he sees as its main advantage over Microsoft's Windows.

"The main thing is to be in control of your own data," he says.

"In a democracy it's important that a free government shouldn't be subject to the whims of a company."

The entire "open source movement" - people who believe source codes for computer software shouldn't be hidden under patents and copyrights for commercial exploitation - is winning friends in the developing world.

Free software is popular in China, India, even parts of Africa.

Nobody can say for sure, but in Latin America, some estimates suggest open source systems will soon be installed on up to a third of all computers.

Brazil is leading the trend, a battleground in a bigger contest - it's little short of a war - between Microsoft and Linux.

Business switch

Roberto Ticoulat, a Sao Paulo-based coffee exporter, illustrates why Linux is proving a hit with Brazil's businessmen as well as its academics.

shanty town, Sao Paulo
Children in the favelas are learning Linux basics
He is battling a full-blown computer crisis, with several of his machines spontaneously shutting down due to an unidentified malfunction.

Mr Ticoulat believes that his Windows-based system may have been attacked by hackers, or have become infected with a virus.

His strategy for getting his system up and running again may help loosen Microsoft's grip on the global software market.

"I took one of my computers that had a problem last week and I implemented the two systems - Linux and Windows. I wanted to see if Windows goes down, and Linux remains," he says.

"If this happens, I'm going to change to Linux the next day for sure. I'm going to have to convert all my files, but at least I'll be back at work.

Nor is Mr Ticoulat alone.

He says regular full page newspaper adverts taken out by Microsoft urging Windows users to upgrade their systems illustrates just how widespread computer glitches are in Brazil.

The xenophobic mentality in Brazil actually is what drives people towards open source software in some cases
Paolo Zappi, Zappitec
This, together with the cost of maintaining Windows systems, is a powerful incentive for businesses to explore alternatives.

"Every time you have an upgrade, you have to pay something. That's how Microsoft makes money." he says.

Far from home

Linux was developed in Finland thirteen years ago by its namesake, Linus Torvalds.

But it is in Brazil that the system has found its most enthusiastic support.

The government's top technology official wants to create what he calls a "continent of open source."

Even Sao Paulo's mayor, a former TV sex therapist, champions a project to teach the basics of Linux to children in the favelas - the slums of the world's biggest city.

However, it may be Linux's cheerleaders may have overstated their case.

For one thing, while Linux users do not have to pay licensing fees, installing and running the system is not completely "free".

Windows screen
Windows: Facing stiff resistance
Add up the costs of training, technical support, customising new or specialised software ... and Linux's alleged cost advantage looks less convincing.

"It might be a little bit cheaper to install Linux if you look at the whole system cost, although you are better protected from viruses" says Paolo Zappi of Zappitec, a firm which installs Linux systems for small businesses.

Mr Zappi suggests that popular resentment of Microsoft is partly political.

"(Microsoft) are the big monopoly and they come from America," he says.

"The xenophobic mentality in Brazil actually is what drives people towards open source software in some cases."

Bottom up

At the same time, there is a lively debate in computing circles over whether Linux is genuinely more secure.

"Fans of Linux and the open source movement will say that by being publicly available, there are far more people who can work on it, more people who can detect problems, and provide fixes for them more quickly," says Bryan Glick, of London-based trade newspaper Computing.

"On the other side, Microsoft will say there's no way you can manage something like that using software programmers all around the world, you need to have it within a company that has all its expertise within its own doors."

Whatever the underlying reason, Linux is spreading fast in Brazil, although it is impossible to estimate how many organisations have adopted it so far.

"This is happening from the bottom up, and not from the top down, as you might find in big companies," says Mr Zappi.


However, Brazil's bigger businesses are taking a keen interest in the battle for control of the nation's computer systems.

Lawrence Pih is chef executive of Moinho Pacifico, the largest pivately-owned flour mill in the Americas.

Although the computers in his own business run Microsoft Windows, he is glad that there is at least one credible challenger to its global dominance.

"Today without doubt Microsoft is a monopoly worldwide, but it is permitted. It's strange to me - the American system has always defended free competition," he says.

"Every government should have alternatives and not be dependent on one system, and be a slave to that system."

This from an industrialist - not a politician.

It seems almost romantic to insist that a choice of operating systems really brings a heightened sense of freedom - the sort of techno-utopian idea that academics have debated for years.

That conviction is spreading across countries and continents where technology in just about any guise seems the best hope for surviving the hard knocks of the global economy.

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