Failing Freedom Toaster

I like the concept of FOSS, you know the community spirit that encourages contributions, etc but I have yet to see any major open source application which brings productivity directly into the hands of users. Instead what I see is that market completely shadowed by those companies who DO charge a price and provide excellent tools for getting things done like Apple or Microsoft (Office anybody?). There is something fundamentally wrong with open-source in terms of a business model. I can’t really say it without being vague. But as much as open-source is supposed to be good for “everybody”, everyone still needs to get a piece of the money pie. You can’t get something done for free without it being sub par – it’s just the rule of economics and to say that open-source developers don’t care about money is just a dirty old lie. Sure, you can rely on ultra slick distribution channels to reduce the end cost much like Wal-Mart, but to charge nothing is not a workable concept.

In fact, this reminds me of even more unsuccessful open-source initiatives. A couple of years back we saw the release of the Freedom Toaster in South Africa. It was a by-product of the Shuttleworth Foundation. It was a standalone kiosk that would burn software images on CDs/DVDs. I mentioned this briefly somewhere else before (perhaps it was on Digg) but I’ll have to say it again. The device was pretty interesting and there was no doubt that it would have all the geeks and nerds out their drooling just to be able to burn through it…easy as pie. But once the novelty factor wore off, it became clear to many people out there that is not what the market needed.

Let me explain, South Africa has undergone many changes sinces the first democratic elections in 1994. Some would say it has completely revolutionized the speed of business in the country and has opened many pathways for international brands and firms to settle, and along with all this wealth and job creation there has been an active role to provide education for ordinary South Africans. This is what the country really needs if it is to successfully carry on it’s economic leadership role in the continent. Not to diverge, the Freedom Toaster was created to allow easier access to software, but not just any kind of software but free software. The only problem is that they forgot one small little detail: there’s no market! The whole idea was to provide free software in such a way that the lack of ADSL/Cable internet would not be seen as a barrier to people using open-source material. But in a country where the population is still coming to terms with the so-called IT revolution, the last thing they need is some unfamiliar environment which they can neither benefit from nor use. It’s like you are providing all the petrol and diesel in the world yet you have no cars, boats or trains to use it up. Technology should reinforce the processes and must always have a beneficial outcome, it’s not just technology for the sake of it.

In fact, if any organization were to follow the path of education in terms computer technologies, I’d say they should train people to use what’s most accessible to them, and that would most likely be Microsoft or Apple technologies (Office, anybody?). After all, who wants to learn all this UNIX/Linux material if it cannot help the situation. Looking at the business side of the Freedom Toaster, it’s hard to ever see this project reach a sizable ROI. And one must try to understand that ROI doesn’t always have to be measure in monetary terms. It could be measure as how many Freedom Toaster vs. how many rural people (or people who need it the most) get it. In fact, by the time the Freedom Toaster catches the attention of the average South African, ADSL and broadband coverage will be much greater and hence it will defy the point of having the kiosk anyway. If anything, I’d say the OLPC (One-Laptop-Per-Child) project is looking way more interesting and fitting.

Let me sum this up:

– People need to interact with technologies they will most likely use

– Open-source permeation/adoption rates are way below what they should be for success

– Only geeks and enthusiasts should be interested in this, and even then most have good internet access

– Freedom Toaster: Not a success and way overdue

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