Mexican Schools Embrace Linux
Leander Kahney 11.06.98
In another coup for the open-source software movement, the Mexican government said this week that it plans to install the free Linux operating system in 140,000 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 US$885 to install Windows 98, Microsoft Office and a server running Windows NT in each school computer lab, he said.
Multiplying that cost over 140,000 labs, the price tag for software alone on the project would have been about $124 million. So Espinosa turned to Red Hat Software, which distributes Linux at a cost of $50 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 20,000 to 35,000 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."