Free to burn

Fri, 11/18/2005 - 00:00

TUNIS - Jason Hudson, 26, wants to encourage South Africans to go on a burning spree.

Stick a blank CD in this machine and get it back in about five minutes with software burned into it. The price? The blank CD
photo by Alan C. Robles

At the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, he’s exhibiting what he calls the “Freedom Toaster” – a bright orange kiosk that vaguely looks like a cross between an automated teller and a softdrink vending machine machine, except that it dispenses software, and doesn’t charge customers anything.

You walk up to the Toaster with a blank CD – or several of them – which you insert into a slot. You then make a selection from a touch screen, and after a few minutes the machine spits back your disc with the software you chose burned into it. The kiosk offers 13 different varieties of the Linux operating systems, Mozilla’s browser and email programs (collectively labeled “Firemonger”), Open Office, and materials from Gutenberg Project – books not protected by intellectual property rights. Copying all the software a Freedom Toaster contains would need more than 20 discs.

Toasters have been set up in 30 locations in South Africa and Hudson says they’ve been such a hit that queues of would-be burners gather around the kiosks.

Hudson, a system administrator for the South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation, says he got the idea for the machine when his organization held an open source software exhibition. One of the most popular attractions proved to be a desktop PC where visitors could freely burn copies of open source programs. “I thought it would be cool if we could give away software.”

With a 500,000 rand (US$74,580) grant from his own foundation, Hudson built 30 of the kiosks, setting the first one up late last year in a science museum, and the others in universities and private companies. The machines aren’t networked and are maintained by volunteers. Each kiosk is basically a cabinet enclosing a desktop PC system: Pentium 4 2.8 gigaherz with 512 MB of RAM and a 120 gigabyte Seagate hard drive. Several DVD/CD slots allow the Toaster to burn more than one disc simultaneously. The machine runs on an open source operating system with a few Perl scripts. At 7,500 rand (US$ 1,119) the cabinet actually costs more than the 4,500 rand (US$ 672) computer it contains.

Hudson explains that although all software the Freedom Toaster offers can be downloaded from the Internet, the process would take excruciatingly long. By comparison, the kiosk can burn a CD, which is enough to contain Open Office or Fedora, in about five minutes. The Debian operating system would require 20 CDs. So far the most popular program has been Ubuntu, a Linux variant. About 100 people use the machines each day.

According to Hudson, the kiosk is “a bandwidth substitute – it frees a person from the frustration and cost of spending hours online waiting for a download that may be corrupted due to poor local connectivity and then burning the CDs.” The name Freedom Toaster not only means the right to “toast” or burn a CD,but also that getting software should be “easy as toast.” In keeping with the creative commons concept, the name hasn’t been copyrighted.

The foundation doesn’t plan to build any more of the machines, although it does intend to add more selections to each kiosk. “We’re looking at music, video clips – all content within the creative commons (unprotected by copyright)”, Hudson says.

He relates that his exhibit has already been visited by a people not only from Africa but also from the developedworld. One of them was a representative of Microsoft,which has a huge booth a few meters away. “He spent 15 minutes looking at the machine and asking questions – he said it could be something the company could use for distributing their service packs (Windows updates).”

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