South Africa has more than its fair share of technical skills and capable IT people. Unfortunately, the one thing it lacks in abundance is technical intellectual property (IP): technology developed locally that encourages local entrepreneurship and keeps IT spend in South Africa and out of foreign corporations' pockets.
To address this imbalance, open source group The Impi League has released the first local version of Linux, named Impi, to challenge what Ross Addis, technology consultant at MIP Holdings, chairman of the Gauteng Linux User Group and the driving force behind the new distribution, calls digital colonialism.
"Digital colonialists are proprietary software vendors who sell foreign products into the local market without catering for our unique circumstances," says Addis. "Impi is not about simply releasing a Linux distribution we can call our own; it will also encourage local innovation and spur growth in IT skills, especially in the growing open source segment of the market."
Addis adds that the inspiration for Impi came from the ideal of providing an integrated, multilingual, professional and innovative open source solution to the local market in accordance with the government's adoption of open source computing in South Africa, designed to develop and keep IT skills and expenditure within our borders ( www.oss.gov.za
The government's open source strategy specifically states that the economic value to the country from open source initiatives "includes contributions to greater efficiency, saving of foreign currency, possible savings on acquisition and opportunities to stimulate SMME development. In the social sphere value flows from, for example, wider access to information and providing an instrument for IT training."
Can of the best
Based on the Debian GNU/Linux distribution, Impi is available as a free download at www.impi.org.za
and plans are in progress to provide a box set in the near future. Debian is an internationally renowned distribution that is released with hundreds of open source applications designed for the operating system.
"In this first release we have not modified the underlying operating system, but merely ensured the accompanying packages are aligned with local business needs," says Addis.
"Impi is a gift to South Africa from the open source community. As it is pure open source software, anyone can download it for free, use it, modify it and do with it as they please, as long as they comply with the underlying licensing conditions."
The community involved in compiling and ensuring this package worked for the local market contributed their skills free of charge in an effort to raise awareness of our local capabilities. They were all also focused on providing an operating system that could be installed and used free throughout the country. The lower costs of ownership and training will make improving our IT skills base less costly, opening the IT door to previously disadvantaged communities.
Addis also notes that Impi is not the first foray of local technology experts into the Linux world. Many are also involved in the development and maintenance of many open source projects, including the Linux kernel.
Impi is also bundled with core business applications, including Mozilla ( www.mozilla.org
) for Web browsing, and OpenOffice, a full office suite ( www.openoffice.org
) including word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. OpenOffice can open and save files in existing Microsoft Office formats, along with its own file formats.
The company's first act in support of local innovation will see Cubit Accounting, a commercial open source financial application developed in South Africa ( www.cubit.co.za
) bundled with Impi. As the product is released under an open source licence, the source code is available with the application and users are allowed to modify it to suit their specific needs. However, support is also available for users who simply require a reliable, powerful accounting package and do not want to get involved in programming.
Cubit is not a traditional 'fat-client' application. The system is written in PHP, meaning it is run from a browser window on a PC or across a network - without any of the usual security concerns associated with browsers.
Addis says the current release of Cubit matches the functionality of a proprietary application such as Accpac, but at a far lower price tag, as the product is free of charge, only requiring an annual licensing fee. Future plans can be gleaned on the Cubit website.
Only the beginning
Impi is a desktop (or laptop) distribution aimed at taking over users' desktop computers, but Addis plans to release a server version in the near future. "More importantly for local users, the next release of Impi will run on a totally local core. We will no longer be reliant on Debian, but will put our own skills into a truly South African distribution."
As the most virus-free operating system on the market, Impi is already a secure environment. However, security features such as a firewall have also been included to put users' minds further at rest.
Some Linux implementations offer the facility to keep older Windows operating systems on a user's PC, allowing users to boot into either Windows or Linux. However, no dual-boot facility is included with Impi as it is slated to be a Windows replacement system. "Our support is geared to Linux users and not to dealing with problems that can be caused by Windows installations," Addis explains.
He adds that another great option for users still uncertain as to whether they will be able to use or run Impi is the Live CD installation disk. Windows users can simply boot from their Impi CD and run the operating system from the optical disc without actually loading it onto their hard drive. This allows them to experience the look and feel of the desktop operating system and allow the application to check whether their PC will be able to run Impi without risking their current installation. Should they decide to proceed with the installation, a simple click of the mouse is all that is required and the installation program handles the rest.
Addis says the operating system is preconfigured for the average user, but should individuals require changes, a graphical administration application allows them to make changes and control their computer with ease. "Our basic recommended hardware configuration is a Pentium-II class PC with 128MB of memory and 3GB of disk space for the operating system and the additional applications provided."
Professional Linux support
"Another first for Impi will be its support," Addis says. "This is the first Linux distribution to be released locally with a telephonic support line. However, in true open source tradition, most other Linux distributions will be supported, not only Impi Linux. Calls will be charged by the minute. (See www.impi.org.za
"Of course, the usual support mechanism of Linux user groups and the Web will also be available to users if they so choose."
To tailor the operating system further to local requirements, work will begin on including South Africa's 10 other official languages, using translations carried out by the Translate.org.za project, which is sponsored by the Shuttleworth Foundation.
After that is complete, The Impi League plans to take Impi into the rest of Africa, localising it for each language and culture as they discover the benefits of open source computing.
"To date, all the work done on customising the distribution and all the money spent has remained within the borders of South Africa," states Addis. "We intend to follow this pattern with all future development and to initiate skills transfer programmes to raise local technical capabilities. Our goal will also be to assist in educating local corporations on what Linux is and the real benefits of open source software - as opposed to the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) being spread by proprietary software vendors.
"The Linux and open source movement is only beginning to take shape in Africa," Addis concludes. "The development and release of Impi proves we have the ability to stand our ground when it comes to IT and we certainly do not have to play second fiddle to anyone else."
A number of people and companies have thrown their weight behind the project: Francis Viviers was the primary creator of Impi; and Cubit, MIP Holdings and Internet Solutions have been instrumental in providing resources and infrastructure.