One of the problems with Microsoft is that, while most experts agree it offers the best suite of business tools and the most dependable operating system around, its gear isn’t exactly what you’d call cheap. And if you happen to have several hundred thousand computers lying around in schools and offices, all needing to be installed with licensed software, the cost of doing so can soon run into several millions of dollars.
For the Egyptian government, that figure amounts to some $44 million over four years – a considerable price to pay when one considers that there are several, 100% free, alternatives available.
Despite just tying up a deal to use Microsoft’s software on its computer systems last December, officials in Egypt have revealed that they are giving serious thought to dumping its software, and switching over to open-source applications instead.
The potential savings are a big incentive for a nation like Egypt, which has seen its economy ravaged by more than two years of political turmoil following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, but it’s not the only one.
Ahmed Hussein Mohamed, who sits on Egypt’s newly-formed National Open-Source Strategy Committee, says that not only would the government be able to cut down its IT costs by 80%, but it would also help to boost the IT economy in a country where ‘genuine’ software is prohibitively expensive and where the vast majority of citizens instead resort to using illegally pirated software.
But switching from Microsoft to open-source applications isn’t something that can just be implemented overnight, and so the committee has been tasked with implementing a plan to do so gradually, beginning in the place that’s likely to make the smoothest transition – Egypt’s schools.
Committee members say that the strategy will take an approach that integrates both Microsoft and open-source software, with the Ministry of Education conducting training to acclimatize teachers and students to the new platforms. After the current deal with Microsoft expires, the country’s schools would then drop Microsoft’s products altogether, at a time when students and teachers are completely familiarized with open-source.
It’s hoped that by doing so, Egypt’s schools and the Ministry of Education will become a role model for the public sector and other areas of government to make the switchover, which would be done gradually over the next few years.
The ultimate reward for Egypt, if it does go open-source, is that the country would be able to revolutionize its computer habits and gradually move away from being a place where the vast majority of citizens habitually use pirated software. This would likely have ramifications for Egypt’s IT industry and other businesses, where computer security remains a big concern given that most IT systems in the country cannot even receive basic Microsoft updates, due to their software being copied.
Such a move would also allow Egypt to move away from what many perceive as a dependency on Microsoft, which effectively achieved a monopoly on government IT systems during the Mubarak years. Under the previous regime, Microsoft became the sole information technology infrastructure provider to Egypt’s government, its schools and its universities, and as a result few people in the country understand how to use anything but what the American company offers. The vast majority of Egyptians have never even been exposed to Apple’s operating systems and technology, let alone open-source alternatives like Ubuntu.
Whether or not they can actually pull it off is debatable however. Despite the confidence of those leading the project, Microsoft Egypt’s General Manager Khaled Abdel Kader seemed nonplussed about the prospects, saying that these efforts will only push the company to work harder and deliver an even better service for 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,” insists Abdel Kader.
“It is always better to work in a competitive, fair and transparent business environment.”