Selling Ubuntu to the "Third World"

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

April 11, 2010

4 Min Read
Selling Ubuntu to the "Third World"

Ubuntu adoption for communities in the “Third World” seems like it should be a no-brainer: how could a functional, free operating system not prove wildly popular in developing countries?  Nonetheless, I believe Ubuntu use outside rich nations remains limited. Here’s a look at some suggested explanations of that reality, and how to change it.

Counting Ubuntu users by country–like counting Ubuntu users in general–is surprisingly difficult.  There used to be a frappr page, a map run by and a world map hosted on the Ubuntu forums all dedicated to this purpose, but these resources no longer function.

However, there are still a few data sources available suggesting the extent of the disparity between Ubuntu use in the first and third worlds.  The Linux Counter has some statistics broken down by country for Linux use in general.  Granted, this data is self-reported and represents only a tiny fraction of Linux users worldwide.  Nonetheless, it strongly suggests that there are plenty more people using Linux in developed countries than in developing ones.

This difference can be easily visualized using a snapshot from May 2006 of the old Ubuntu Forums worldmap provided by the Internet Archive:

Ubuntu World Map

That data is old, and subject to various complicating factors, but the difference between the density of Ubuntu users in North America and Europe on the one hand, and the rest of the world on the other, is striking all the same.

Explaining the Difference

Glyn Moody of The H recently wrote about the surprisingly poor rate of Linux adoption in the Third World.  His explanation of the trend echoed that of another recent article on that cited lack of affordable bandwidth as the chief obstacle to free-software uptake in developing countries.

Moody accordingly called for private individuals to help Canonical expand its ShipIt program via donations in order to make Ubuntu more accessible to people without the means of downloading an ISO.

That may be part of the answer.  The ShipIt program has indeed been in a flux since Canonical announced major changes last October.

But I don’t think expanding initiatives like ShipIt (or the Freedom Toaster project, which provides free Linux CDs in select regions via a different strategy) is the key to bringing Ubuntu to the Third World.  Nor am I convinced that bandwidth is the problem–or at least not the chief problem.

Beyond Bandwidth

After all, Ubuntu uptake in developing regions remained limited even when ShipIt was in full swing.  There’s no evidence that mailing massive numbers of Ubuntu CDs out for free is going to change things.

In order to increase Ubuntu use in the Third World, Ubuntu needs to become more appealing to the Third World.  Lack of attraction, not lack of bandwidth, is the greatest obstacle to surmount.

A good first step towards increasing Ubuntu’s appeal would be improving translation initiatives.  According to Launchpad, the Afrikaans translation of Ubuntu, the most complete of all African languages (I know, Afrikaans is not historically African, and South Africa is arguably not part of the Third World, but…), is only about ten percent finished, ranking below more than sixty non-African languages.

Some Asian languages that might be associated with developing countries fare a little better, but still have a long way to go to compare to Ubuntu’s European-language iterations.

Granted, the translation effort depends heavily on volunteers, and represents a sort of chicken-and-egg problem: if Ubuntu is not popular among speakers of a certain language to begin with, there will be few people to translate it into that language.

Nonetheless, recognizing the gross inadequacy of Ubuntu’s translation into the languages of Third World countries is an important component of making Ubuntu more attractive to the people living there.

The second major obstacle to Ubuntu adoption is the prevalence of pirated copies of Windows in the Third World: Ubuntu becomes less attractive when Windows can also be obtained for free.  That’s not something Canonical or the Ubuntu community can control.

But what Canonical can do is convince hardware vendors in developing countries to ship low-cost computers with Ubuntu preinstalled, which is exactly what the company, in partnership with IBM, has started doing.  That initiative may not make Windows piracy go away, but it will make pirated Windows that much less attractive.

Ubuntu will not take over the desktops of the Third World–or the First World–overnight.  But there are some things that Canonical and the community could be doing more of to make Ubuntu more desirable and accessible beyond the borders of rich countries.  In order to live up truly to its namesake, these are initiatives that Ubuntu needs to pursue.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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