EditorsAbout the SiteComes vs. MicrosoftUsing This Web SiteSite ArchivesCredibility IndexOOXMLOpenDocumentPatentsNovellNews DigestSite NewsRSS

04.02.09

How OLPC Failed Where Industry Succeeded with GNU/Linux

Posted in GNU/Linux, Hardware, Microsoft, OLPC at 7:39 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

olpc-headline

THE One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project — an initiative whose purpose was to give underprivileged children around the world a better chance at modern education using technology — may have been stifled though a combination of disinformation and other coordinated efforts by hardware and software monopolies that needed to stop it.

The project’s original goals were soon neglected, ultimately defeated, and blame then passed to a scapegoat that was Free Software. Let’s take a look at ways in which OLPC was derailed and why Free software was never the problem at all, as evidenced by its success in the industry, even outside the realms and shelter of a non-profit with goodwill and several sponsors.

“The project’s original goals were soon neglected, ultimately defeated, and blame then passed to a scapegoat that was Free Software.”In order to view this in from the right perspective, I also discuss an ongoing transformation of what companies often refer to as “the desktop” and why disruption plays a considerable role. This angle explains why existing monopolies battle against such change or — when all else fails — attempt to absorb that change, sometimes by means of devouring one’s competition.

The Breaking Moment

To give a little background to this, back in April, a major split in the OLPC project had generated a lot of headlines. Precedence was given to Windows over GNU/Linux on the children’s laptops. It soon became a proprietary versus Free software debate. The split was characterised in the media as one that revolves around practicality, but there are other ways of approaching and analyzing this issue.

The debate is important for various reasons. Come to consider, for instance, recent success stories about low-cost GNU/Linux laptops from industry giants, along with the lessons they can teach us about OLPC, and vice versa. There are several commonalities worth exploring and myths that are worth busting. Free software and modern PCs increasingly enjoy a symbiotic relationship, so where and why did OLPC fail?

Revolution Arrives from the Bottom

In recent months, spurred initially by OLPC (which in turn inspired ASUSTeK, having received Intel’s endorsement), there has been this incoming wave of low-end laptops. Many of them are running the GNU/Linux operating system, which challenges existing cost barriers and offers some unique advantages.

The seminal and exceptionally successful move from ASUSTeK ignited many similar ones, more latterly from Dell and Acer, which even promised to focus on GNU/Linux. This so-called ‘race to the bottom’ provides a valuable lesson about the merits of Free software in personal computing.

Similar rules apply to OLPC, so what ever went wrong? Why did OLPC liaise with Microsoft at the end? More importantly, what would be the impact? In order to answer these questions, let’s step aside for a moment and consider disruptive trends.

The Personal Computer Reinvented

Personal computers are not just word processors and they are no longer terminals or workstations in the traditional sense. This is made ever more evident partly because a lot of processing gets done over the network nowadays. Our computers are not necessarily gaming machines either, especially since there is a game console-TV receiver convergence. Entertainment is often taken to the living room where there is greater interaction. The standalone ‘fat client’ is aging and may soon become irrelevant.

“The standalone ‘fat client’ is aging and may soon become irrelevant.”Further to this, attempts are sometimes made to explain why affordable laptops are no longer capable of running the latest operating system from Microsoft, namely Windows Vista. People’s expectations from computers and new patterns of their use, e.g. Web-based applications, play a significant role here.

There are more different classes — or tiers — of personal computers these days. With PDAs, smartphones and pocket-sized PCs, people sometimes have more than a single PC. This observation is particularly important because adoption of small GNU/Linux laptops depends on it. Multi-purposeness makes a niche, an emerging market to address and to fill. The OLPC project needed such a gap for great expansion to be assured and for mass-production levels to be reached. Competition from Intel, however, stood in the way and there were other barriers.

The Great Misconceptions

Since its inception, OLPC has come under heavy criticism from some. There is a lot of disinformation suggesting that OLPC’s vision was to raise children that engage in programming tasks. This is false and it’s also a means of distraction. It is a fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) tactic that may or may not rely on deliberate misunderstanding.

The openness of program code and its accompanying rights is a question of control by an individual or a trusted capable peer, e.g. a fellow countryman who is ably trained to customise the software to better suit the needs of local schools, address requirements of individual classes of children, and contribute back the changes for everyone else to take advantage of. OLPC is an international and global-scale project, so this peer production cycle is an essential ingredient for its success. The project needs inertia that depends on software and hardware developers; it does not attempt to create or recruit any.

Another pattern of disinformation revolves around the user interface. A simplified desktop metaphor, Sugar, was used at the core of the OLPC XO, along with Fedora. It does not assume that one universal user interface should be tailored for every person or that all user interfaces should be created equal. It taken into consideration the audience (children) and the key purpose (education). Sugar boldly takes a step further what many adults are unable to grasp peacefully due to their personal prior experience. This leads to antagonism and hostility.

The last noteworthy misconception involves the belief that developing nations will thrive in supply rather than self-sufficiency. If the project’s goal is to only to provide tools that inspire and permit everyone to gain control, then there is no dependency. To an extent, OLPC has a lot to do with economical and technical autonomy. It’s an enabler that liberates and potentially expands a local workforce.

Mission Goals Forgotten

“While capitalising on Free software, OLPC was in some sense a tool (with surrounding infrastructure) for connecting and delivering information.”So, what was OLPC all about in the first place? While capitalising on Free software, OLPC was in some sense a tool (with surrounding infrastructure) for connecting and delivering information. It was not a case of preparing children for life at the office, so utility of such laptops shouldn’t be equated to what we know as business-class laptops. A direction as such would just beg for a “let them have cake” parody. It would be a harsh scenario. Originally, OLPC XO was seen as somewhat of a book equivalent, a communication and exploration tool. It was about embracing and absorbing knowledge, not products.

To use an analogy, OLPC might as well be seen as the equivalent of setting up an electrical framework before departing from a colony, thus jump-starting development. On the other hand, if put in hands of a proprietary software vendor, it might, if anything, perpetrate a cycle of practical dependency, a state of digital imperialism if you like.

The understanding of dependency goes a long way back and Bill Gates’ reference to copyrights infringement of software in China was very revealing. He confessed: “They’ll get sort of addicted, and then we’ll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.” Therein lies the danger of introducing and permitting any centralization of control inside OLPC.

For educational purposes, one must not be treating the target audience like customers. One should never be providing lessons (training) in a particular user interface that prepares the children for dependency on a limited set of products they can neither afford nor control.

Getting as many laptops out there as possible, no matter the means, was perhaps the project’s mission once it had been revised. The collaboration with Microsoft was praised by some adults to whom computers are probably synonymous with Windows. Nonetheless, adults’ existing skills can be blinding. It’s hard to envision oneself in the shoes of a brand-new user, so options may not be assessed correctly.

Justification with Name-calling

After changes were made to the project’s direction, things got a little confrontational, which is truly a shame. Those who support the project’s original goals were at times labeled “open source fundamentalists,” which is a religious equivalent of some more political slurs such as “communists”. It’s a daemonisation technique that lacks reasonable logic.

Free software is neither politics nor a religion. It’s an engineering practice that prevailed in the industry long before proprietary software came about. Today’s principal backbones, including the Internet, are largely based on Free software.

“Free software is neither politics nor a religion. It’s an engineering practice that prevailed in the industry long before proprietary software came about.”In the context of education, closing of source code can be equated to deprivation of rights at a young age and passing of control (technical and financial) while compromising system security. That too can be considered rather “fundamentalist”, so hypocrisy springs to mind immediately. Such characterizations widened a gap and put more cracks in OLPC.

Considerations of Practicality

Isolated claims of contradictory goals have always seemed baseless. There is nothing that makes “Free software” + “pragmatism” an oxymoron unless the pertinent tools which are sought and chosen are themselves constructed to restrict, spy, or shift balance of control. Such tools are rarely needed owing to increased standardization that ensures seamless operation across different platforms. As an example of this, one might consider the success of the GNU/Linux-based Eee PC. It demonstrated good assemblage of Free software for day-to-day use.

In conclusion, failures that have thus far been found in OLPC ought to be attributed, at least in part, to lesser-visible and external factors. It might also be useful to look back and ponder the following questions: why can a for-profit industry summon the value of Free software whilst OLPC cannot? Are there inherent deficiencies or just perceptual ones? Is blame being diverted to the wrong direction? Were the goals of the projects subverted? Moreover, how could moral and ethical aspects of this fine project be conceded by those most dedicated to them, for it is a human responsibility and not just an ordinary business?

Originally published in Datamation in 2008

Share this post: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Reddit
  • co.mments
  • DZone
  • email
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn
  • NewsVine
  • Print
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis
  • Facebook

If you liked this post, consider subscribing to the RSS feed or join us now at the IRC channels.

Pages that cross-reference this one

What Else is New


  1. Links 28/7/2016: CORD as Linux Foundation Project, Wine 1.9.15 Released

    Links for the day



  2. EPO Loses More Than 80% of Cases at the International Labour Organisation (ILO)

    The International Labour Organisation (or Organization) helps show just to what degree the European Patent Office (EPO) violates the rights of workers



  3. To Understand What Battistelli Has Turned the EPO Into Look at Turkey and China

    Battistelli and his notorious Vice-President from SIPO (Croatia) turn the European Patent Office, once the pride of Europe, into a human rights cesspool with SIPO (China) connections



  4. Patent Lawyers Move Closer to Battistelli's Rubber-stamping Office While the Appeal Boards Pushed Away as Collective Punishment Which Masks Decline in Patent Quality

    Urgently sending appeal boards away and urgently granting applicants patents without proper examination will be Battistelli's sorrow legacy at the European Patent Office



  5. Software Patents a Dying Breed, But Patent Lawyers in Denial Over it and Notorious Judge Rodney Gilstrap Ignores Alice (Supreme Court)

    A look at what law and practice are saying about software patents, contrasted or contradicted by the patent industry and trolls-friendly courts (which make business out of or together with patent aggressors)



  6. CAFC Meddling in PTAB Affairs; Unified Patents Fights a Good Fight by Invalidating Software Patents

    A look at how the AIA's Patent Trial and Appeal Board is invalidating software patents post-Alice, with or without involvement of patent courts



  7. Early Certainty That Benoît Battistelli is Dangerously Clueless and a Major Risk to the EPO

    The chaos which Team Battistelli is assured to deliver if it doesn't treat scientists like scientists, instead viewing them as a production line with rubber-stamping duties



  8. OIN Makes Claims About “Open Source Innovation”, But It Produces Nothing and Protects Virtually Nobody

    The Open Invention Network (OIN) reports growth, but in practical terms it does little or nothing to help developers of Free/Open Source software



  9. Links 27/7/2016: New CrossOver, Blackmagic for GNU/Linux

    Links for the day



  10. The Death of Software Patents and Microsoft's Coup Against Yahoo! Made the Company Worthless

    A look at what happens to companies whose value is a house of software patents rather than code and a broad base of users/customers



  11. Munich Attack Mentioned by EPO But Not Ansbach

    The EPO does the usual right-wing thing (exploiting disaster/emergency for domestic crackdowns), but some bemoan the omission of the explosion at Ansbach (also in Germany)



  12. Kluwer Thinks People Are Clueless About the Unitary Patent System and Pretends It's Business as Usual

    Flogging the dead UPC horse at times of great uncertainty (enough to bring the UPC to a standstill)



  13. Almost Everything That the Government Accountability Office Says is Applicable to the EPO

    The Government Accountability Office in the United States produces reports which can serve as a timely warning sign to the European Patent Office, where patent quality is rapidly declining in order to meet 'production' goals



  14. Microsoft Says It Loves Linux, But Its Anti-Linux Patent Trolls Are Still Around and Active

    Highlighting just two of the many entities that Microsoft (and partners) use in order to induce additional costs on Free (as in freedom) software



  15. Links 26/7/2016: Microsoft Growing Desperate, Linux 4.8 Visions

    Links for the day



  16. Links 25/7/2016: Linux 4.7 Final, PostgreSQL 9.6 Beta 3

    Links for the day



  17. Leaked: Boards of Appeal Face 'Exile' or 'Extradition' in Haar After Standing up to Battistelli

    A look at some of the latest moves at the European Patent Office (EPO), following Battistelli's successful coup d’état which brought the EPO into a perpetual state of emergency that perpetuates Battistelli's totalitarian powers



  18. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) Comes Across as Against Software Patents, Relates to the EPO as Well

    Some analysis of the input from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with focus on the EPO and software patents



  19. In the US, Patent Trolls Engage in Patent Wars and Shakedowns, Whereas in China/Korea Large Android OEMs Sue One Another

    Highlighting some of the differences between the US patent system and other patent systems



  20. Links 24/7/2016: Elive 2.7.1 Beta, New Flatpaks and Snaps

    Links for the day



  21. Links 23/7/2016: Leo Laporte on GNU/Linux, Dolphin Emulator’s Vulkan Completion

    Links for the day



  22. Links 22/7/2016: Wine 1.9.15, KaOS 2016.07 ISO

    Links for the day



  23. Haar Mentioned as Likely Site of Appeal Boards as Their Eradication or Marginalisation Envisioned by UPC Proponent Benoît Battistelli

    Not only the Staff Union of the European Patent Office (SUEPO) is under severe attack and possibly in mortal danger; the increasingly understaffed Boards of Appeal too are coming under attack and may (according to rumours) be sent to Haar, a good distance away from Munich and the airport (half an hour drive), not to mention lack of facilities for visitors from overseas



  24. EPO Attaché Albert Keyack Viewed as Somewhat of a Mole, Reporting From the US Embassy in Brazil Until Shortly Before the Temer Coup

    Public responses to the role played by Albert Keyack on behalf of the United States inside the European [sic] Patent Office



  25. EPO Insiders Explain Why the EPO's Examination Quality Rapidly Declines and Will Get Even Worse Because of Willy Minnoye

    Public comments from anonymous insiders serve to highlight a growing crisis inside the European Patent Office (EPO), where experienced/senior examiners are walking away and leaving an irreplaceable bunch of seats (due to high experience demands)



  26. Patents Roundup: BlackBerry, Huawei, PTAB, GAO, Aggressive Universities With Patents, and Software Patents in Europe

    Various bits and pieces of news regarding patents and their fast-changing nature in the United States nowadays



  27. Glimpse at Patent Systems Across the World: Better Quality Control at the USPTO Post-America Invents Act (2011), Unlike the EPO Post-Battistelli (2010)

    While the EPO reportedly strives to eliminate pendency and appeal windows altogether (rubberstamping being optimal performance as per the yardstick du jour), the USPTO introduces changes that would strengthen the system and shield innovation, not protect the business model of serial litigants



  28. Blockstream Has No Patents, But Pledges Not to Sue Using Patents

    Blockstream says that it comes in peace when it comes to software patents, which triggers speculations about coming Blockchain patent wars



  29. Links 21/7/2016: Ubuntu 16.04.1 LTS, Linux Mint 18 “Sarah” Xfce Beta

    Links for the day



  30. Links 21/7/2016: An Honorary Degree for Alan Cox, Looks Back at DebConf16

    Links for the day


CoPilotCo

RSS 64x64RSS Feed: subscribe to the RSS feed for regular updates

Home iconSite Wiki: You can improve this site by helping the extension of the site's content

Home iconSite Home: Background about the site and some key features in the front page

Chat iconIRC Channel: Come and chat with us in real time

CoPilotCo

Recent Posts