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Open software wins in Mexican schools

By Leander Kahney

SAN FRANCISCO (Wired) - In another coup for the open-source software
movement, the Mexican government said that it plans to install the free
Linux operating system in 1 4 0 , 0 0 0 elementary- and middle-school
computer labs around the country.

Over the next five years, the government's Scholar Net program will furnish
Mexican students with access to the Web and email, as well as word
processors and spreadsheets, said Arturo Espinosa Aldama, the project's
leader.

``We decided to go with Linux because of the cost of using proprietary
software,'' said Espinosa, who is based at the National Autonomous
University of Mexico in Mexico City. ''Otherwise, it would have been too
expensive for all the software licenses.''

Open-source software is developed and improved collaboratively by
thousands of volunteer hackers around the world. Unlike a proprietary
operating system such as Windows, Linux developers and users have access
to the system's underlying software code and can modify that code under
certain conditions.

Linux has grown increasingly popular among server administrators as an
inexpensive and flexible alternative to Windows NT. Partly because of
limited software availability, however, the OS hasn't yet taken off in
educational or business networks.

Internal Microsoft memos were published on the Net this week that reveal
how seriously company officials view open-source software as a threat to
Windows.

Indeed, without Linux and other open-source software packages, such as
Netscape's Mozilla browser, Espinosa said the Scholar Net project would
likely be more restricted.

He figured that it would have cost the equivalent of at least $885 to
install Windows 98, Microsoft Office and a
server running Windows NT in each school computer lab, he said.

Multiplying that cost over 1 4 0 , 0 0 0  labs, the price tag for software
alone on the project would have been about $ 1 2 4 million. So Espinosa
turned to Red Hat Software, which distributes Linux at a cost of $5 0 for a
pair of installation CDs and a manual.

Red Hat's version of Linux can be copied as many times as necessary at no
extra charge. It is also available as a free download off the Net.

Cost factors aside, Espinosa said Linux is more reliable, adaptable, and
efficient than commercial operating system software. These qualities will
allow him to use older, less expensive equipment.

``We don't have a huge budget. We are depending a lot on the equipment
already in schools, so we need to be kind of flexible. We don't want to
upgrade a lot of hardware,'' he said.

``I think it was a shrewd choice on all levels,'' said Eric Raymond, an
open-source evangelist and author of the influential article ``The
Cathedral and the Bazaar.'' The essay is said to have inspired Netscape
execs to release the source code for the company's Communicator Web
browser last March.

``It was probably the only thing they could have done, but there are
situations where poverty will force some good choices.... I expect this
will happen wherever the school system is poor.'' He added, ``There's
nothing special about Mexico.''

Scholar Net plans to have labs installed at a rate of 2 0 , 0 0 0 to 3 5 ,
0 0 0 thousand per year for the next five years. The program already has
2,000 labs set up using Windows software, but Espinosa said those schools
will soon switch to Linux.

The project is not without its share of challenges.

Although the Linux interface resembles a commercial operating system, it
may be challenging for school students to use. The project also faces a
shortage of applications and difficulties translating the programs into
Spanish.

But he's confident he'll get help.

``When you ask how many people are working on Scholar Net, well, it's the
whole Linux community,'' Espinosa said.

In the United States, Oregon's Multnomah County will next month install 30
Linux servers in high schools-the most ambitious Linux project in American
schools to date, according to Paul Nelson, technology coordinator at the
Riverdale School District in Portland. Nelson is one of the leads of the
Linux in Schools Project.

Like Espinosa, Nelson said he would love to see Linux desktop machines but
doesn't think there is enough software available for the platform just
yet. ``It's made huge inroads in the server market,'' Nelson said, and
``the desktop is next.''

Espinosa said there was little resistance to Linux from the Mexican
educational establishment, thanks to the attention the system has
attracted among the media.

He predicted Mexican schools will become hotbeds of Linux programmers.
``It will let a lot of kids discover computers,'' he said. ``Some may
become little hackers.'' (Reuters/Wired)

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