Software and Nationality
Jeremy Allison of the Samba project made some interesting remarks in an interview last week about the nationalist flavors of Linux distributions. To sum up: SUSE is popular with Germans and other Europeans; Red Hat and Fedora are for Americans; the Chinese have Red Flag Linux; and Ubuntu “seems to be more third world.”
In general, these descriptions make little sense. I know plenty of Americans who use SUSE, and plenty of Germans who don’t. When I was living in France a couple years ago, I failed to locate a single Mandriva desktop (in fact, the only free-software-powered computers I saw at all were a few FreeBSD email kiosks scattered around the Sorbonne), even though Mandriva is headquartered in the French capital. Even the French National Assembly chose Kubuntu over Mandriva when it made the switch to Linux last year.
Moreover, the idea that Ubuntu is a “third-world distribution,” which I suppose grows out of the fact that Ubuntu’s founder, Mark Shuttleworth, is from South Africa, is obviously flawed. First of all, South Africa is not exactly the third world (whatever that means in the first place); second of all, the national origin of a Linux distribution’s founder clearly has little to do with the distribution’s character or userbase.
Rather, Linux is extraordinarily transnational. Its creator, after all, is a Swedish-speaking Finn who now resides in
California Oregon. The Linux kernel and Linux distributions are developed via contributions from people in almost every country around the world, and thus do not reflect any single set of cultural values. Ubuntu may have been first conceived by a South African, but it has been substantially influenced by people from many more countries.
Why cosmopolitanism matters
You might ask: while I feel warm and fuzzy knowing that Linux can so readily transcend cultural, linguistic and political boundaries, who really cares?
A lot of people care, or at least they should. Microsoft and Apple are fundamentally American. Sure, they might have a lot of non-American employees, and the United States may represent only a fraction of their total markets. But at the end of the day, Windows and OS X are created for Americans before anyone else. After all, an international business model based upon selling crippled versions of Windows to poor countries doesn’t exactly reflect cosmopolitan values.
The truly multi-national character of Linux, in contrast, is a strength that perhaps isn’t played up as much as it deserves. Ubuntu doesn’t exclude speakers of minority languages or deem citizens of non-industrialized nations unworthy of a complete, modern computing experience. And the cultural assumptions behind it aren’t skewed towards certain groups. This means that Ubuntu can be available in a much more genuine way to people outside the United States.
As an American, I might overestimate the importance to non-Americans and non-Westerners of using software made, at least in part, outside the United States. But cosmopolitanism is clearly an area where Ubuntu and Linux win hands-down over proprietary platforms. In the struggle for market share, this trait should be played for all its worth.