Five minutes from the center of Warsaw is the city’s looming, Soviet-era palace of culture, a place where software is almost free. As in many Central and Eastern European countries, software piracy is rampant, and you can buy a copy of Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition or a Ricky Martin compact disc for about five dollars at the Stadion.
The Stadion is a crumbling stadium now home to a weekly bazaar featuring pirated pop music and games, cheap clothes and Russian memorabilia like rusting bayonets and aviator goggles. Although recent legislation passed by the Polish parliament has reduced piracy over the past three years, a 2001 study by the International Intellectual Property Alliance estimated that 85% of entertainment software and 55% of Windows business software purchased in Poland is pirated.
The market the pirates haven’t been able to crack is Linux. The major technical journal in Warsaw, Linux Plus, publishes entire Red Hat distributions for about four dollars, and the Polish Linux Distribution (PLD,http://www.pld.org.pl/) is gathering steam as students and professionals adopt the free OS. Although copies of Red Hat sometimes show up at the Stadion, they disappear in a few days; they just don’t sell, so the pirates use the CD jewel boxes for more expensive software.
“A lot of young people are realizing Windows just isn’t it”, said Tomasz Kloczko, spokesperson for PLD and a programmer at the Polytechnic University in Gdansk. “There’s a wave of new users coming out of the universities and middle schools, and you’re going to see Linux become accepted commercially over the next few years.”
In Warsaw’s city center, at the Hotel Jan Sobieski III, another free software revolution is taking place. The entire hotel, except for a pay-per-view TV system and a copy of a well-known graphics program, runs on the SuSE and Mandrake distributions of Linux. Everything from the room locks to the hospitality systems are all running on open-source software. The company that installed the software, Pro-Test, and consultants from the Warsaw-based company Softomat translated StarOffice from Sun Microsystems into Polish. The project not only saved the hotel thousands of dollars, it released a new localization of the StarOffice suite to the Open Source community in the process.
“There’s one rule that a lot of people have realized: if you need a solution for something, it’s probably already been done under Linux. That’s the incredible thing about the platform”, said Jaroslaw Szumski, editor of Linux Plus. “Businesses are moving over to Linux because people are looking for practical solutions to big problems.”
Szumski said that with the recent crackdowns on piracy, people are looking for other basic software for the office. “The standard in businesses here is of course Windows NT and Office 98, but there is a real trend of people looking at StarOffice or another office package and saying `Why don’t we use that?”’
But the universities and internet service providers are a real bastion of Linux in Poland. PLD, a distribution based on Red Hat Linux and translated and localized for Eastern Europe, was a product of necessity. Students and professionals in Warsaw, Wroclaw and Krakow, cities famous for their technical schools, found that most distributions lacked an easy interface in Polish.
“We started with a Polish install program. But necessity is the mother of invention: when we needed something for the distribution, we put it in”, said Kloczko.
The PLD group’s work has spread to the Linux Documentation Project. They’re now translating technical documentation into Polish and updating HOWTO documents.
With the introduction of the Internet in Schools program led by the Polish Department of Education, PLD took off. Polish versions of applications are showing up in schools around the country.
“PLD is stimulating a change in computing. It’s clear that there are a lot of people working on this, and it’s a self-perpetuating project. The more you do, the more there is to do”, said Kloczko.
Linux is also coming into its own commercially. One company making waves in the open-source world is ABA (http://www.aba.krakow.pl/), based in the royal city of Krakow. Its flagship product, ABA-X, is a general-purpose thin network client based on Red Hat embedded Linux and running on a Flash-ROM system for easy upgrades.
ABA’s owner, Tomasz Barbaszewski, is proud of his recent work with the Polish Parliament. His company installed twenty workstations there and has a contract with Polish Customs for 200 ABA-X stations, complete with passport readers.
“Open source is the only way to create something like this in a short time. To create the code for one of these workstations from scratch would take a few years”, he said. “We didn’t choose Windows CE for our operating system because you don’t know what’s going on inside the OS, and you can’t find out. I’d rather be able to create my own system than depend on a mass-produced installation where the bottom line is most important, not stability.”
Barbaszewski sees a vacuum in the Open Source community when it comes to good end-user applications.
“Linux comes in through the back door, in a server. But you still don’t have applications. You see one or two solutions for certain clients, but those are closed projects and you don’t see code reuse”, he said. “Say you own a business, and you want to use Linux. You have Linux, StarOffice and not much else. You need an accounting program, a money manager—real applications.”
Everyone in the Polish Open Source scene echoed Barbaszewski’s complaints. “Everything is in place”, said Kloczko, “but nobody wants to do the boring stuff that will make Linux easier for end users.”
Years ago, as Poland stumbled out of years of Soviet rule, computers like the Atari 800XL and the TRS-80 cost as much as a small car, and mainframe accounts were coveted among university professors. Now, the country boasts four major mobile telephone operators (running Linux), countless ISPs (running Linux) and two major parallel computing test beds in Gdansk and Czestochowa (of course, running Linux). It’s one of the fastest-growing economies in the area and business is booming in the Linux consulting market.
In the Middle Ages, Poland created its first national network by building “eagle’s nest” castles along a north-south parallel in order to protect the country from invaders. The soldiers stationed at each castle could communicate with one another using smoke signals. This line of defense kept enemies out of Poland for years. Now the world has become smaller. Poland is growing rapidly and the need for networking is even more dire. As Linux slowly takes root here, the goal will not be to cut off Poland from the outside and repel invaders, but to invite the community in, encouraging growth and keeping open source alive in an unlikely country.
John Biggs is a writer and consultant in Brooklyn, New York