20 February 2006

Freedom, in Other Words

Recently the blogosphere went slightly bonkers over a story that "the Korean government plans to select a city and a university late next month where open-source software like Linux will become the mainstream operating programs." It seems to have been the concept of a "Linux city" that really caught people's attention (though surely "Linux city" must refer to Helsinki?). But the significance of this announcement is perhaps not quite what most people think.

As the article rightly pointed out, there's nothing new in the idea of a city powered by free software: the much-ballyhooed Munich conversion to open source was along the same lines. And there are plenty of other, smaller-scale deployments that show that free software is up to the job. But there is another element in this story that is in some ways more interesting.

Yes, open source can now offer all the usual elements - operating system, browser, email, office apps - that people need for their daily computing; but even more impressively, it can do this in many languages. In other words, there is now a multi-dimensional depth to free software: not only in terms of the apps that have been created, but also with regard to the languages in which many of those apps are available natively.

For example, Firefox boasts versions in languages such as Asturian, Basque, Macedonian and Slovenian, with several others - Armenian, Gujarati and Mongolian - listed as "Not Yet Available", implying that they will be. OpenOffice.org does even better, offering versions in languages such as Albanian, Azerbaijani, Galician, Khmer and Sango (new to me). There is an even longer list of languages that includes others that are being worked on.

And if that doesn't impress you, well, you must be pretty jaded linguistically. So consider this: for many of these languages, you can download the program for three platforms: GNU/Linux, Windows and MacOS X. "Get The Facts", as Microsoft loves to say; but the ones it cares to give are partial, and they strangely omit any mention of this factual strength-in-depth that only free software can offer.

Indeed, there have been various cases where national governments of smaller nations have all but begged Microsoft to port some of its products to their language, only to be refused on the grounds that it wasn't economically "viable" to do so. Which just goes to show how complicated is the warp and weft of software and power, culture and money.

Viability has never been much of an issue for free software; if it had been, Richard Stallman would never have bothered starting it all off in the first place. As far as he is concerned, there's only one word that matters, whatever the language, and that's freedom. As the sterling work underway to produce localised versions of open source software emphasises, that includes the freedom to work in your own tongue.

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