February 12, 2009 (Computerworld) Cuba released its own distribution of the free Linux operating system this week, as the communist island seeks to wean its citizens and institutions from what it says is insecure, capitalist-produced Microsoft Corp. software, according to a report. The Reuters news service reported Wednesday that the new version is called Nova, and was introduced at a technical conference in Havana. Based on a Linux variant called Gentoo that is popular with highly technical users, Nova has been in development since 2007, according to the Associated Press, after Free Software guru Richard Stallman visited the island and persuaded government officials to move off Windows.
Microsoft software, such as Windows, is widely used in Cuba, though much of it is pirated, according to Reuters. About 20% of the computers in Cuba, where PC sales to the public only began last year, run Linux, Hector Rodriguez, dean of the School of Free Software at Cuba's University of Information Sciences, told Reuters. "I would like to think that in five years our country will have more than 50% migrated [to Linux]," he said.
A three-minute video demonstrating Nova Baire, the Cuban Linux's name in Spanish, is available on YouTube. It is based on Gentoo, a Linux variant introduced in 2002 and run by a foundation in New Mexico. It is a source-based distribution, meaning that the Gentoo operating system is downloaded and compiled on each individual computer. That can offer performance benefits for enthusiasts, though it may be complicated for less technical users. According to Distrowatch.com, a Web site devoted to Linux enthusiasts, Gentoo was the third most popular Linux version in 2002, behind Mandrake (now called Mandriva) and Red Hat. Last year, it ranked 18th among Distrowatch.com readers. Donnie Berkholz, a developer and head of public relations at Gentoo Foundation Inc., confirmed that Nova is based on Gentoo Linux, though he said the Cuban variant is being developed independently without the U.S.-based foundation's help. Ironically, Gentoo's creator, Daniel Robbins, went to work for Microsoft's Linux lab for eight months in 2005 after resigning from the Gentoo organization. Robbins later left, reportedly "frustrated" because he "wasn't able to work at my full level of technical ability."
Cuba chose Linux generally because it is free, its source code is accessible and it is less vulnerable to malware, Rodriguez said. "Private software can have black holes and malicious codes that one doesn't know about," Rodriguez told Reuters. "That doesn't happen with free software." Microsoft did not immediately return an e-mailed request for comment. Rodriguez also said that free software better suits Cuba's politics. Some government ministries and the Cuban university system have already switched to Linux. But some government-owned companies have grumbled about incompatibility with their own custom applications, Rodriguez said. Cuba is one of several countries, generally communist or developing nations, whose governments are backing the use of Linux or open-source software as an alternative to expensive proprietary software.
The Venezuelan government, for example, has been moving its ministries to dump Windows for Linux and open-source software, and is reportedly making and selling its own "Bolivarian Computers" running Linux to the general public. China has for several years had its own government-supported version of Linux called Red Flag that is supported by U.S. vendors, including Oracle Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. In 2007, Nigeria chose Mandriva Linux over Windows for 17,000 Intel Classmate PCs aimed at elementary school students.