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September 14th, 2015

Finding Linux & FOSS Where You Least Expect It

It wasn’t that long ago that being a Linux or FOSS user in Panama was a lonely experience. Like everywhere else, the country was an established Microsoft camp and you either bought proprietary software — Windows, Office and the like — or pirated what you needed. There were no other options.

Back in the days when the PC and the Internet were starting to change how work is done in Latin America, I was a project manager in small business finance. Even though I’m an industrial engineer by training, because I’m tech oriented I was asked questions about network security, wireless, storage, what sort of program we could use at the office…stuff like that. My conclusion? We were either going to have to buy expensive software licenses and new hardware or find another way.

Panama City

Panama City

In those days, “another way” was hard to find. Outside of certain tech circles, no one even knew what open source was. I had tried Red Hat, with poor results, and had seen an early version of Star Office (the granddaddy of LibreOffice, which I’m using to write this article), but didn’t care much for either and went back to proprietary for a while. Along the way I tried one of the first — if not the first — live distro’s around: Knoppix.

But as I said, life was pretty lonely for a FOSS user back then.

Things have been improving, however. Maybe even more rapidly than in countries with more robust economies, like the States. I don’t know for sure, but maybe our economy has been a help for FOSS adoption here. Perhaps because we’re not a huge market, big companies like Microsoft and Oracle aren’t coming down hard on local businesses trying to break free of their control. Who knows? What I do know for sure is that I’ve seen FOSS being used in places where I would least expect it.

My first inkling of this change came back in 2006, when I found free and open source software being used by a large retail chain. I’d stopped at a DoIt Center, one of those home improvement warehouse sort of stores, and was surprised to find that they were using Red Hat’s stack to handle inventory management. In a world where virtually all big businesses used Windows, as far as I knew, I found this to be nothing short of amazing. The company’s customer service still sucked and I never managed to get anyone at the store to tell me anything, but I walked away with a smile anyway.

Another surprise came from the young man who was in charge of the computer lab at the university where my wife was both a student and an administrative staff member. He was a computer science major, working to finish his degree and hoping to find a job in the tech sector. Prompted by a chat we had, I introduced him to open source and gave him a live distro disk to try out. I think I even lent him a book as well. After reading about and testing Linux, he decided to learn more.

A couple of months latter he went on a job interview at CHATALAC, a Panamanian non-governmental organization (ONG) that manages water resources, applying for a position as sysadmin. During the interview it came out that the company needed someone who knew their way around Linux servers — Debian if I recall. He got the job, almost by default.

Several years later I got yet another surprise from an unexpected place when I found FOSS being used at a local police station. I had been the victim of a fraud and was there to file a complaint, and was astonished to see that the desktops were all running OpenOffice.

I found this incredible. To think that somehow someone managed to sneak under the radar of Microsoft and their vendors and had deployed open source in a government department. Forget all the fuss about Munich: A police department with a low budget in Latin America is managing to get things done, saving money in the process, by using open source. The officer, obviously not a tech expert, was taking notes like a pro. So much for the so-called “learning curve.”

Later on, when I told my wife what I’d seen at the cop shop, she related that around 2006, when she’d worked as a lawyer in the legal department of a government agency, that the local government office for technologies had decided to open the door for the deployment of products that were not proprietary. The local big proprietary vendors had tried to get that overturned, of course — to no avail.

Unfortunately, despite all of these happy surprises, even today there’s still not that much deployment of open source by the enterprise; probably about the same as in the rest of the world. If you look, however, you do find it.

Last year I was looking to find a local company that could handle supplying a modern customized inventory/sales system using open source. It turns out we have a couple of companies selling customizations for OpenBravo, the open source business suite for medium to large companies. They do it for a reasonable price, with support from OpenBravo’s main office in Pamplona, Spain and from other regional developers in Central America. You don’t see them in the news, but they are around us.

My biggest surprise, however, came came very recently and from even closer to home — from my dad.

All of the PCs and servers at home run Debian base, with the sole exemption of a new laptop my father bought a few months ago. He came into technology late and doesn’t understand it very well, but for the last six years he has managed to be able to use open source for most of his needs, with the sole exception of applications used for the insurance sector for which he works. For those, he has no option but to use a computer running Windows, although it’s still loaded with LibreOffice.

About two weeks ago, completely out of the blue, he tells me: “As soon as the company puts this remaining health plan on the web, switch this computer to Linux, I’m tired of the constant bullying and battering I get on this PC every day” That was a surprise I would have never expected from him.

But that’s not all. I have one more little FOSS surprise to relate:

For a few months I’ve being hearing radio commercial for a tech company that does the usual stuff — support, equipment, etc — but they also advertise that they handle open source. They explicitly advertise Linux server deployments and maintenance.

As I said, it used to be lonely being a Linux or FOSS user in Panama. Not so much anymore.

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Juan Courville

Juan Courville resides in Panama City, Panama, where he lives with his wife of twenty years. When he's not riding his bicycle or working with Linux and FOSS, he's publishing the Spanish language websites Linux para Las Masas and Mccpanama.

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3 comments to Finding Linux & FOSS Where You Least Expect It

  • CFWhitman

    I too have been surprised at the people who after they use a system with Linux for some reason decide that they like it and want it on another system. My brother still has a Windows laptop, but as soon as he got the newer one, he asked me to wipe the older one and install Linux instead. He didn’t like how slow Windows 8 (what came on the laptop) ran on the computer. It was a very inexpensive laptop, and didn’t really have the power to run Windows well, especially with the shovelware that had been loaded on it by default.

    I’ve given Linux computers to a few other people, and more and more they decide they like them. My oldest nephew decided to resurrect his wife’s laptop by putting Ubuntu on it himself, and he is satisfied with the results. I am installing Linux on an old machine written off by the company I work for to supply to my other sister’s oldest son. There was a time I would have wondered how much use he would get out of such a system, but now I’m more confident that he and his wife will use it.

  • qox

    in india, the at Central Government Health Scheme(CGHS) , the doctors and other all the administrative staff are using CentOS based Desktops. There primary app is browser based (accessed using Firefox) and Libreoffice.

  • qox

    Today in year 2015, There are more than 400 medical dispensaries/clinics (offices) of CGHS -across india, which use CentOS and Redhat based “Desktops” to access this browser based website , for their office’s information management system. This document from year 2009 at contains some details on this