June 26, 2006
Ubuntu in Ethiopia: The difficult early years
The reason? I have decided to take my first steps away from Windows and into the brave new world of Ubuntu.
Ubuntu is one of the sexier versions of Linux - the open source challenger to Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows computer operating system. (It is also the name of a community-based philosophy seen as one of the founding principles of the new South Africa – read more here).
While I was browsing around six months ago, I noticed that Ubuntu's backers were offering to send free installation CDs out to anyone who wanted them. I filled in the form using my mother-in-law's UK address and forgot all about it.
Last week a friend flew in with a big fat brown envelope filled with all the bills that we haven't been paying in the UK and a package of discs for the second-most-recent version of Ubuntu, code-named Breezy Badger.
I got out our No 2 laptop - a cranky Dell Inspiron 8000 - and put in one of the CDs. After about half an hour working out how to boot a computer from a CD (sorry, this is going to be painful reading for any true geeks out there), it all started working.
There are lots of reasons why this seemed like a good idea at the time.
First of all, you just have to love Ubuntu itself. It is free. It is multi-lingual. It is backed by Mark Shuttleworth, the Afronaut, the first African in space. It has recruited an army of volunteer hackers who spend hours typing out patient emails and forum postings to any newbie who contacts them. It comes with very cool screensavers and desktop wallpapers (see pic). It is African. (Well, kind of. The company that promotes it Canonical Ltd is actually registered in the Isle of Man.)
There was another big reason why I wanted to give it a try. I have lost count of the times I have heard tech commentators say that open-source software is the future for Africa. The argument goes something like this:
Microsoft's Windows operating system is big and bloated and Western and evil and, worst of all, very, very expensive. It ties you down with proprietary software packages and file formats and forced upgrades. And, despite all the language packs on offer, it works best of all in English.
Open source software is compact and good and multi-cultural and open. Best of all it is very, very cheap - i.e. it is free - an ideal price point for a country like Ethiopia. (The computers that run it remain expensive but, thanks to the savings from open source operating systems, even that is changing.)
African countries, which are now in the process of building out their IT systems, can now start afresh and install open source software everywhere it works. These countries now have a unique chance to leapfrog over the misguided age of proprietary software in the same way that they have already largely leapfrogged over the clogged-up age fixed line telephony into the world of mobile phones.
That is a theory that I wanted to test. One simple way to do that was to see what it was like living with Linux in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
So the installation went surprisingly well. There were four or five easily-understood questions and, no more than 20 minutes later, my detested Windows ME welcome screen was gone for good. In its place was a minimalist plain brown desktop.
This is the first great thing about switching to Linux - an end to clutter. No more QuickTime forcing itself into your startup menu. No more of those pre-installed first-six-months-subscription-free packages that Dell loves to force on to its valued customers. Just a plain brown screen which you can actually use as a desktop - a place to leave those few documents that you are currently working on.
There are lots of other great things about Linux. There is the almost total lack of spyware, worms and viruses. There is the universe of free software waiting for you to download. There is the volunteer spirit of the whole Linux community. As a wannabe geek, I even enjoyed the control and responsibility of using the command line interface.
So, why am I sitting here with the headache and the blurry vision and the clumsy fingers? It is because I have hit a brick wall.
There is one thing that the bright-eyed fans of Ubuntu and its kind never tell you. That is that if you install it on to an old Windows machine in a country where dial-up internet connections are still the only way – then you are in for a rough, rough ride.
Ubuntu, you see, doesn't like winmodems - the modem systems installed as standard in most commercially available PCs sold with a Window operating system (ie almost all of them). Minutes after my wonderfully easy install, I found I had no way of connecting to the internet.
If that Dell Inspiron had been our only computer, that would have been it. We would have been left with a beautifully brown laptop with no one to talk to. Because we are in the highly unusual position of owning two laptops, I was able to log on via Windows through our No 1 machine to try and Google around for a solution.
There is a solution. It involves the downloading of what they called a Linmodem - here are the full instructions - a piece of software that will force your Winmodem and your Ubuntu system to get along. I followed those instructions. And after three long nights of installing and re-installing and tweaking and swapping messages with very nice volunteers on Linux user forums - I still can't connect to the internet.
My new Ubuntu PC is managing to reach out and touch something. When I set the new Linmodem running, messages start popping up in the console, including a version of Ethiopian Telecoms' logo (see pic). But it is steadfastly refusing to accept my username and password.
Sorry to go on like this. And I know everyone has stopped reading this by now. But you wouldn't believe the frustration.
It is worth repeating that I have only got this far because I own a second computer - an almost unheard of luxury in Addis. it is also worth pointing out that without an internet connection, I can not start downloading updates to fill a few other vital holes in the basic Ubuntu system (for legal reasons, the basic version of Ubuntu can not run DVDs or play MP3s).
It is enough to make me wonder whether Ubuntu really is a viable alternative to Windows in its present state in dial-up countries across Africa like Ethiopia. I am not the first to wonder that. Here is a passionate plea for built-in winmodem support from a computer user "outside the USA":
I would like to remind developers that people outside USA (especially the "third world" -sic-) actually use modems (dialup) to connect to net. We provide them free operating systems, which will not work with their modems and force them to purchase over-priced high-speed internet, or a serial modem, which is kind of expensive abroad (any electronics is expensive for that matter). that, they won't do it, so they'll switch back to what ever they had before (we know what that is), probably leaving ubuntu with wasted shipping costs...
We are providing good language support. why not provide network support (out of box) that they (we) will use as well? Wouldn't linmodems.org people wanna work with you on this? Wouldn't ubuntu be slashdotted as the first out-of-the-box winmodem supporting distro?
This isn't supposed to be a Ubuntu-sucks post. When it comes to Linux and open source software, I really want to believe. But I can only keep trying for so long.
Posted by aheavens at June 26, 2006 3:57 PM