Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sound bites bite

Goodness knows, I'm not cheerleader for Microsoft but this is truly slanted writing.

A Slashdot item this morning read "Microsoft Thinks Africa Doesn't Need Free Software." My immediate reaction was what kind of lunacy is this? And, since it was about Africa (which by the way is an entire continent, not a country) I had to pop over and read it on ZDNet. The tag line above the article reads,
"You can give people free software, but they won't have the expertise to use it, says Microsoft Nigeria's manager."
Well, duh. OK, that makes sense and I expect that MS is in fact supporting training. (After all, Gates is big into support for conquering malaria). Then the lead paragraph flips back to the sound bite,
"Microsoft has claimed the cost of software is not an important issue in the developing world."
Back to the lunacy. But read on. The next paragraph begins
"In response to a question on the role of open source software in Africa, Gerald Ilukwe, the general manager of Microsoft Nigeria,..."
Key points are
  • They are focusing on Open Source so the discussion appears to not be so much about the ability of peoples in developing economies to afford it as it is a response to the notion that Open Source is a good thing there. So that explains why MS is saying this.
  • The quote is from an office in Nigeria. Nigeria is a much, much richer country than its neighbors. Oil profits make it unlike any of its neighbors in sub-Saharan Africa. What I'm saying here is that a person working out of an office in Nigeria is not the best person to look to for an economic analysis of the financial worth of the vast majority of people living on the continent.
Next we get the meat of the article that includes some paragraphs quoting the head of MS for Europe, the Middle East and Africa about how MS is hitting on all fronts--equipment and training. So they are doing good, right?

Don't get too comfortable because the final paragraph is all about organizations that are offering Open Source software training. In that page there are a number of links to those organizations and those links draw your eyes to that part of the page.

So, if you read the whole article you get a subtler understanding of the players, the context and the details of their arguments. But the thinking in journalism is that as people skim through the news they often only read the first and maybe last paragraph. If you'd done that here you'd have only picked up the 'sound bite' version and as a result gotten a very skewed understanding.

This is the print equivalent of those talking heads whose idea of a political debate is to name call the opposition and it drives me crazy. I don't care which side of the fence you are on--commercial or Open Source--this is just lousy reporting.

At the bottom of the page are links to two other articles.

Microsoft 'lends security expertise' to Nigeria Emerging markets a priority for new Microsoft head

Did I follow the links? Naw, they looked like puff pieces -- minimally re-writen versions of PR releases. [insert grin face icon here]


And, BTW, I'm always irritated when I see people write about Africa as if it were a single country. It's a hugh place! Three times the size of the US at least. Thinking all Africans are alike makes about as much sense as saying that all North Americans are alike. Try telling an Alberta cowboy that he's just like a Mayan Indian in Guatemala. Arghhh.[flame off]

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