Isbel Diaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES – Though Microsoft has been announcing for months that it will cease to offer technical support for its Windows XP Operating System (OS) on April 8, Cuban computers continue to regard the announcements of the multi-million software company incredulously.
In 2008, Microsoft announced it would discontinue the popular OS. Though it stopped being sold at stores the company’s partners continued to offer technical support for the package until this year.
Alarmed, “techno-dependent” people around the world are voicing their comments on the decision, and opinions in favor and against this development circulate on the Internet. Cuba, however, does not join the chorus, immersed as it is in its own survival logic. After all, at this very second, someone may be setting up a 486 and installing Windows 95 in it on the island.
American cars from the 1950s are still driven around Cuban cities, an immense majority still dream with having a landline and many Cubans continue to write their loved ones abroad the old fashioned way.
Who cares, then, if Windows XP survives or not, when it is likely that it will die before millions of Cubans even get to use it?
The Cuban government does, and it has been officially urging its institutions (where nearly all computer use pirated systems) to switch from this OS to such open source platforms as Linux.
In 2005, authorities announced that the Cuban Bureau for the Computerization of Society, subordinate to the Ministry of Information Sciences and Telecommunications, had designed a strategy for a gradual switch from the Windows OS to freeware platforms. The strategy comprised a series of organizational, technical, legal and instructional measures.
In 2009, as part of a new strategy, it was proposed that Cuban companies and institutions organize this transition on the basis of a guiding document and the “characteristics of each workplace”, as Hector Rodriguez, head of a national team of experts on the subject, said then.
At this point, the stretegy could well be said to have failed, as the call for a change in operating platforms hasn’t been coupled with any technical upgrading and most individuals and institutions continue to use Windows XP on their computers.
Some of the people consulted believe such a change in technology could take as many as ten more years, and that it will be implemented in a rather irregular fashion by the different ministries on the island.
“Only the Ministries of Culture and Education and the airport, customs and police could be forced to start using Linux,” declared an interviewee, who believes the average age (45) of the staff using these technologies at some companies spells “an unshakable resistance” to change.
The case of Cuban customs, where all computer systems are operated with freeware (and even applications developed by the institution), is one of the more successful examples authorities refer to.
For the time being, Cuba’s Computer Clubs continue to offer basic and rather poor quality courses aimed at introducing users to different freewares. Some entities have developed more rigorous training programs in this connection.
Freeware in Cuba
The growing popularity of freeware is owed especially to its superb stability, the fact users can access the program’s source code (and thus personalize it) and the abundance of documentation on their use now available.
More and more programs for such systems become available every day, and the quality of these increases with each new version. The vast majority make their source codes accessible to users and are distributed free of charge, under conditions similar to those that apply to the operating platform.
Students at Cuba’s Information Sciences University (UCI), whose graduates already occupy different job positions in the field around the island, have in practice been the main proponents of using these OS as an alternative to the rule of Windows, beyond any bureaucratic instructions on the subject.
It is worth mentioning that, as of 2010, computer clubs in Cuba have been advising, assisting and coordinating the work of freeware communities around the country, which rely on hundreds of different webpages on the subject. One of the most noteworthy is the Grupo de Usuarios de Tecnologias Libres (“Users of Free Technologies Group”), or GUTL.
Interviewees, however, say that things aren’t exactly a bed of roses. One of the problems facing broader freeware use they identify is the learning process: people’s natural resistance to change and the difficulties they face to access the Internet in Cuba isn’t helping.
In addition, there are hardware incompatibility and inadequacy issues that Cuba’s impoverished economy cannot yet overcome. What’s more, “not everything comes with technical support, and many international manufacturers aren’t eager to help,” Jorge, a student at UCI, points out.
“The same thing happens with software. There is a huge number of programs out there and different applications are difficult to integrate,” he added.
Cuba Wants to Join the System
During the 15th International IT Convention and Fair held in Cuba in 2013, the head of UCI’s Social Sciences department Orlando Cardenas declared that “freeware is being called on to lead the class struggle in the digital domain and to guarantee our technological sovereignty.” The fact of the matter, however, is that reality seems to be pointing in a different direction.
Some of the historical and widely-implemented practices of the Cuban revolution – which were considered emancipatory for many decades – such as publishing and distributing works without paying copyright fees, have been undermined by the “pragmatism” of Raul Castro’s policies.
The printing of foreign textbooks at universities, the free use of international television and radio signals by our media, the use of pirated private software at companies and research institutes around the country – these practices are incompatible with Cuba’s integration into the modern world, the system of private property and the global economy.
More and more foreign companies have demanded that the Cuban government respect intellectual property in such areas as music and research work, so that the island’s products can be legally marketed beyond its borders.
The same holds for the use of operating systems. Software production is one of the areas which the Cuban government considers has great productive potential, and Cuban IT professionals have taken part in such projects under a number of international contracts (with Venezuela, for instance).
At the IT convention mentioned above (which gathers experts from different countries in Havana every two years), Cuba presented its operating system Nova, designed to be used with a Linux platform.
Cuba’s operating system has a “light” version for computers with hardware limitations, but very few users employ it. Even though two thousand DVDs with the first version of Nova were distributed at the convention held in 2009, the platform remains mostly unknown.
Some differences have arisen between Nova and GUTL within Cuba’s freeware community. Some of Nova’s developers do not wish to establish links to GUTL, and it is not uncommon for GUTL members to look on Nova as a closed project, as UCI’s website “humanOS” mentions.
Such debates, however, are taking place within expert circles in government or academia. Society in general – run-of-the-mill computer or technology users in Cuba today – does not take part in them, and most haven’t even heard about Microsoft’s decision, which becomes effective today.
Short and Mid-Term Perspectives
In recent years, users of Windows Vista, Windows 7 and even Windows 8 have begun to appear in Cuba’s IT panorama, still dominated by the XP platform. Cracked versions of these operating systems circulate in the same informal market where films are sold on the island.
In addition to films, soap operas and television series, bargain “packages” include folders with installation files, computer and cell phone applications and these Microsoft OS, which tend to demand far less space than freewares.
A “natural” migration towards Windows 7 seems to have taken place on the island, particularly owing to the platform’s attractive graphic interface. Such upgrading, however, has been limited in scope by the RAM requirements that Windows 7 demands for optimal performance.
The move towards Windows 8 has been more uncomfortable for users, as the system is designed to rely on an Internet connection which is next to impossible to access on the island today.
Because of this, Windows XP still refuses to go in Cuba. The lack of technical assistance will not change anything, as, in practice, no one has ever enjoyed this service in Cuba to begin with.
The absence of other forms of support, such as patches, anti-virus protection, compatibility issues, drivers, etc., commonly secured through official technical support channels, might force part of the users that need to remain updated to switch systems.
However, the majority of the limited number of people who own a computer in Cuba, who commonly only use basic applications (such as the Office package) and use their computers to listen to music, watch films or store photos, could well stick to Windows XP for another decade.