PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Activists at a leftist gathering where Microsoft (search) is viewed as a corporate bogeyman urged developing nations Saturday to leap into the information age with free open source software (search).
John Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, told a gathering inside a packed warehouse that poor nations can't solve their problems unless they stop paying expensive software licensing fees.
Open source software includes programs that are not controlled by a single company. The software can be developed by anyone, with few restrictions. The best known such software is the Linux operating system, which can be downloaded free from the Internet.
"Already, Brazil spends more in licensing fees on proprietary software than it spends on hunger," said Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyberspace civil liberties group.
The session was one of several at the World Social Forum, which has drawn tens of thousands of people to an annual protest against the World Economic Forum, a gathering of world leaders now underway in Davos, Switzerland.
The activists in Brazil are generally united in their oppositon to what many call unbridled capitalism and the policies of the Bush administration. They are also promoting hundreds of causes, ranging from opposition to genetically modified crops to free distribution of land to poor farmers.
Barlow said Brazil is trying to wean itself from Microsoft with a campaign to persuade Brazilians to shift from costly Windows products to applications that run on the Linux operating system.
Microsoft contends open-source software can be more expensive than Windows programs when service costs are factored in.
How much people spend on Microsoft products is unclear because the company often provides discounts when it senses it may lose business. However, competition from open-source software has prompted Microsoft to offer those discounts.
Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's administration says the open-source policy makes sense for a developing country where a mere 10 percent of the 182 million people have computers at home, and where the debt-laden government is the nation's biggest computer buyer.
China, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea (news - web sites) also are pursuing open-source alternatives. In a partial response to the open-source threat and to piracy, Microsoft last year launched stripped-down, cheap versions of Windows in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Similar products are on the way for India and Russia.
Joining Barlow on Saturday were Brazilian pop superstar Gilberto Gil, who is Brazil's minister of culture, and Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University law professor and chairman of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization devoted to sharing creative material online.
All the social forum's 800 computers are running on open-source software, but the loosely organized event ran into an embarrassing glitch Saturday when two big screens betrayed the fact that the computer was running on Windows, with the operating system's toolbar visible at the bottom of the screens.
Lessig noticed and the computer was quickly disconnected and replaced with a laptop running on open-source software.