Sunday, June 19, 2005

Time to Switch: Linux in Armenia

When I first started to live in Armenia from October 1998 onwards, one of the first things I missed was my Apple Macintosh Power PC that I had to leave in England. However, when I returned to the UK for a short break last year, I dusted it off and started it running again. Man, how I missed it. Still has a nicer OS than XP. Unfortunately, however, Apple Macs are in very short supply in Armenia, and certainly software is lacking, although there is an official distributor in Georgia.

Anyway, not much you can really do about it here. All the CD shops in Yerevan sell pirated copies of Windows and the latest applications in Russian and English versions for just 1,500 drams ($3) while every computer shop stocks the latest Pentium PCs although generally put together in kit form. Which is fine but because most of the software is pirated and often comes pre-installed, it's no wonder that computers crash from time to time, and when they do, they often take with them a lot of important information. Keeps on happening to me and I've had enough of it, to be honest.

But as, Jon, a friend in England, says constantly, there is another option -- Linux. In fact, even over there it is his preferred OS of choice. The Windows box running Win 2000 is only kept around for music software. So, today, after having my fill of XP, I went out and bought a copy of Redhat Linux. It's installed on a separate partition and albeit slowly, I will try migrating over. Personally, I think it's a great option for countries like Armenia because unlike Windows, you are allowed to distribute and install it freely.

Secondly, there are more and more applications for most computer user's needs available -- also free of charge -- and let's face it. It is unlikely that incomes and the economy in Armenia will grow enough for most computer users and even small to medium sized businesses to purchase legitimate western-produced software from the likes of Microsoft, Adobe or Macromedia.

Instead, because it is not hacked or require a crack, open source software is likely to be more stable (famous last words!). Of course, the mainstay of my computer use are not available under Linux -- Quark Xpress, Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Flash. Even so, I can at least keep a Windows XP partition for when I need to run those packages if Linux Windows APIs run too slow or not at all. My Nikon Coolscan will at least work as there's a Linux version of the excellent Vuescan.

However, there are other reasons why Linux is a good choice for countries like Armenia. Sooner or later, the World Trade Organization and anti-copyright watchdogs are going to come down hard on Armenia for the huge market in pirated software. Secondly, because this software is generally hacked, the idea that government will be running unstable software is really quite worrying. Moreover, rather than running Armenian versions of software, people have to run English or Russian.

That situation might change, however. Already there is an organization, Open Source Armenia, that has produced a localized Armenian version of Open Office, Linux's equivalent of Microsoft Office. According to their web site, they are now in the process of localizing Armenian versions of Thunderbird and Firefox, an email client and web browser I am running anyway under XP because IE6 is so full of security holes and underpowered anyway.

There's even a joint Children's Internet Gateway Project by Open Source Armenia, Yerevan State University and SpiTux, a Linux project based in Spitak close to the epicenter of the tragic 1988 earthquake. Personally, I think this is the way to go and it was interesting to see that countries like Iraq are already orientating themselves in this direction.

One problem, however. Because of all these damn winmodems in Armenia, it is nearly impossible to find a driver to run under Linux. The best I've managed to find so far is a cut down shareware driver for the conexant chip set but which only crawls around at 14.4K. Still, perhaps Open Source Armenia have a solution or can recommend a different modem. Best email them, I think so that this transition happens sooner rather than later.

Incidentally, there's an interview by ArmInfo with the Director of Open Source Armenia here.

Any opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of any publication or organization that he may be working for now, in the past or in the future.