Brazil’s free software forum: background and arrival

By Andy Oram
April 18, 2006

Brazil, when it comes to IT development, suffers more than nearly any other country from a gap between aspiration and capability. A huge number of talented developers want to contribute to the world’s software, and to their own country’s development, but they’re hampered by difficulties of obtaining hardware, software, and (of particular interest to me as an editor) documentation.

I’m here in Brazil right now--the relatively affluent town and tourist mecca of Porto Alegre, to be precise--for a software conference expected to draw six thousand attendees. It’s the seventh free software forum, an event supported by a lot of companies and several key government ministries in Brazil. A full-time staff person organizes the conference for the NGO that started it, and a lot of people I respect in the free software field come to it regularly from around the world.

Brazil’s unique IT history

A low-end computer system, loaded with Windows software, can cost two months of a middle-class person’s salary. If somebody wants a specialized system, ordering it from North America can end up costing more in taxes than in the computer itself--and for books, shipping can cost more than the cover price. But sometimes the logistics of obtaining software and books legally can even outweigh the costs. That’s why one trainer here told me, “Brazilians are addicted to warez.” Cheap systems with unauthorized copies of software, orderedfrom Paraguay, are particularly popular.

In the 1980s, the Brazilian government tried to force a domestic computer industry into existence through a protectionist policy that required computers to be developed within the country. This “market reserve” was mostly considered to be a failure and was eventually abolished, but one organizer of this week’s conference claims it was responsible for creating a self-supporting and well-educated community of knowledgeable software developers. A culture of developing software for the public good and of sharing both knowledge and software--including among government agencies--developed during that time and matured naturally into a free software movement when that idea came into the country.

The Brazilian government in the past decade has been effusive in its championing of GNU/Linux and free software in general; its deployment in kiosks, ATM machines, and computer centers in underdeveloped Sao Paolo neighborhoods is legendary. Brazil promoted Creative Commons very early. But it is still unclear how much the government is really committed to substituting free software in its own agencies and the country at large for the proprietary software (usually unauthorized copies) that still dominate the landscape. It’s even less certain that the government understands the empowering possibilities of using software that everybody can look at and change, beyond the cost aspects.

Part of the gap I mentioned between Brazil’s aspiration and capability stems from the large number of competent programmers whose English is not good enough to understand the documentation in that language. There are certainly books about software in Portuguese (including many legitimate translations of O’Reilly books) but a lot is still missing.

So the traditional publishing model--restricting redistribution through copyright and charging enough for each book to pay for publication--leaves many people in this semitropical climate in the cold so far as information empowerment goes. This problem interests me intensely, because I think the traditional publishing model is running into problems in the U.S and elsewhere too. In fact, the talk I’m giving at the conference this Friday is on providing free documentation that is written by volunteers from the software community, but is supported by professional help.

Tales of the conference

The number of project leaders who braved 18- or 24-hour journeys to come here (and who make a point of talking about how they’ll come here rather than to other conferences) is evidence of what a big deal the free software forum is. On the final leg of my journey from Sao Paolo to Porto Alegre, I almost felt as if the forum had chartered the plane.

I’m already grooving on being in Porto Alegre and sharing the city with thousands of committed free software users and developers. It’s one thing to talk about how free software draws on the contributions of individuals around the world; it’s another to talk to someone who says, “I developed the SSL implementation that made the bank ATM Linux machines possible.”

The city is described by one of its residents as the most European of Brazilian cities. One can certainly feel that way careening around the well-paved streets in a taxi or hanging out in the Bohemian joints near the federal university. Everybody is friendly, many people speak Spanish if not English, and walking through the city (as long as one takes elementary precautions with wallets, etc.) is a pleasure.

Coming to Brazil is helping to turn my view of the software industry upside down; as the week goes on I’ll be blogging more of my impressions.

Upcoming blog postings on this conference:

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