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. Kather Augenstein and Bristows Shift Attention to Germany in an Effort to Ram the Dying UPC Down Everyone's Throats

    Down the throat, hopes Team UPC, the Unitary Patent system will go, even though Britain cannot ratify, throwing the whole thing into grave uncertainty



  2. United for Patent Reform Defends USPTO Director Michelle Lee From Attacks by the Patent Microcosm

    Michelle Lee is finally (if not belatedly) shielded by a bunch of large technology companies; The deep-pocketed industry finally steps in line with our position, which is usually when things turn out the way we advocate for



  3. Team UPC and CIPA Are Lobbying, Publishing Puff Pieces, and Rewriting the Law for Unitary Patent (UPC) Behind Closed Doors

    A collection of the latest news and views on the UPC, which is being lied about by those who stand to benefit from it and is probably going nowhere because Brexit means that the UK stays out, in which case it must be reset and pertinent ratifications done all over again



  4. China's Suffering From Patent Maximalism Has Europe Forewarned

    The parasitic elements inside China -- those that just want lots of litigation (even if from patent trolls) -- are winning over, much to the detriment of the Chinese economy, and Team UPC threatens to do the same in Europe with help from Battistelli



  5. Links 27/4/2017: Mesa 17.0.5 RC1, Git 2.13.0 RC1, and Linkerd 1.0

    Links for the day



  6. The Latest Expensive PR Blitz of the EPO, Led by Jana Mittermaier and Rainer Osterwalder Under the 'European Inventor Award' Banner

    The PR agencies of the Corsican in Chief, who appears to be buying political support rather than earning any, are very busy this week, as yet another reputation laundering campaign kicks off



  7. Links 26/4/2017: SMPlayer 17.4.2, Libreboot Wants to Rejoin GNU

    Links for the day



  8. PatentShield is Not the Solution and It Won't Protect Google/Android From Patent Trolls Like Microsoft's

    A new initiative called "PatentShield" is launched, but it's yet another one of those many initiatives (Peer-to-Patent and the likes of it, LOT Network, OIN, PAX etc.) that serve to distract from the real and much simpler solutions



  9. Patent Quality Crisis and Unprecedented Trouble at the European Patent Office (EPO) Negatively Affect Legitimate Companies in the US As Well

    The granting en masse of questionable patents by the EPO (patent maximalism) is becoming a liability and growing risk to companies which operate not only in Europe but also elsewhere



  10. Blog 'Takeovers' by Bristows and Then Censorship: Now This Firm Lies About the Unitary Patent (UPC) and Then Deletes Comments That Point Out the Errors

    Not only are Bristows employees grabbing the mic in various high-profile IP blogs for the purpose of UPC promotion (by distortion of facts); they also actively suppress critics of the UPC



  11. Links 25/4/2017: Kali Linux 2017.1 Released, NSA Back Doors in Windows Cause Chaos

    Links for the day



  12. Astoundingly, IP Kat Has Become a Leading Source of UPC and Battistelli Propaganda

    The pro-UPC outlets, which enjoy EPO budget (i.e. stakeholders' money), are becoming mere amplifiers of Benoît Battistelli and his right-hand UPC woman Margot Fröhlinger, irrespective of actual facts



  13. EPO Fiasco to be Discussed in German Local Authority (Bavarian Parliament) Some Time Today as the Institution Continues Its Avoidable Collapse

    Conflict between management and staff -- a result of truly destructive strategies and violations of the law by Benoît Battistelli -- continues to escalate and threatens to altogether dismantle the European Patent Office (EPO)



  14. In the US and Elsewhere, Qualcomm's Software Patents Are a Significant Tax Everyone Must Pay

    The state of the mobile market when companies such as Qualcomm, which don't really produce anything, take a large piece of the revenue pie



  15. In South Asia, Old Myths to Promote Patent Maximalism, Courtesy of the Patent Microcosm

    The latest example of software patents advocacy and patent 'parades' in India, as well as something from IPOS in Singapore



  16. Links 24/4/2017: Linux 4.11 RC8, MPV 0.25

    Links for the day



  17. Why Authorities in the Netherlands Need to Strip the EPO of Immunity and Investigate Fire Safety Violations

    How intimidation and crackdown on the staff representatives at the EPO may have led to lack of awareness (and action) about lack of compliance with fire safety standards



  18. Insensitivity at the EPO’s Management – Part IX: Testament to the Fear of an Autocratic Regime

    A return to the crucial observation and a reminder of the fact that at the EPO it takes great courage to say the truth nowadays



  19. For the Fordham Echo Chamber (Patent Maximalism), Judges From the EPO Boards of Appeal Are Not Worth Entertaining

    In an event steered if not stuffed by patent radicals such as Bristows and Microsoft (abusive, serial litigators) there are no balanced panels or even reasonable discussions



  20. EPO Staff Representatives Fired Using “Disciplinary Committee That Was Improperly Composed” as Per ILO's Decision

    The Board of the Administrative Council at European Patent Organisation is being informed of the union-busting activities of Battistelli -- activities that are both illegal (as per national and international standards) and are detrimental to the Organisation



  21. Links 23/4/2017: End of arkOS, Collabora Office 5.3 Released

    Links for the day



  22. Intellectual Discovery and Microsoft Feed Patent Trolls Like Intellectual Ventures Which Then Strategically Attack Rivals

    Like a swarm of blood-sucking bats, patent trolls prey on affluent companies that derive their wealth from GNU/Linux and freedom-respecting software (Free/libre software)



  23. The European Patent Office Has Just Killed a Cat (or Skinned a 'Kat')

    The EPO’s attack on the media, including us, resulted in a stream of misinformation and puff pieces about the EPO and UPC, putting at risk not just European democracy but also corrupting the European press



  24. Yann Ménière Resorts to Buzzwords to Recklessly Promote Floods of Patents, Dooming the EPO Amid Decline in Patent Applications

    Battistelli's French Chief Economist is not much of an economist but a patent maximalist toeing the party line of Monsieur Battistelli (lots of easy grants and litigation galore, for UPC hopefuls)



  25. Even Patent Bullies Like Microsoft and Facebook Find the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) Useful

    Not just companies accused of patent infringement need the PTAB but also frequent accusers with deep pockets need the PTAB, based on some new figures and new developments



  26. Links 21/4/2017: Qt Creator 4.2.2, ROSA Desktop Fresh R9

    Links for the day



  27. At the EPO, Seeding of Puff Piece in the Press/Academia Sometimes Transparent Enough to View

    The EPO‘s PR team likes to 'spam' journalists and others (for PR) and sometimes does this publicly, as the tweets below show — a desperate recruitment and reputation laundering drive



  28. Affordable and Sophisticated Mobile Devices Are Kept Away by Patent Trolls and Aggressors That Tax Everything

    The war against commoditisation of mobile computing has turned a potentially thriving market with fast innovation rates into a war zone full of patent trolls (sometimes suing at the behest of large companies that hand them patents for this purpose)



  29. In Spite of Lobbying and Endless Attempts by the Patent Microcosm, US Supreme Court Won't Consider Any Software Patent Cases Anymore (in the Foreseeable Future)

    Lobbyists of software patents, i.e. proponents of endless litigation and patent trolls, are attempting to convince the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) to have another look at abstract patents and reconsider its position on cases like Alice Corp. v CLS Bank International



  30. Expect Team UPC to Remain in Deep Denial About the Unitary Patent/Unified Court (UPC) Having No Prospects

    The prevailing denial that the UPC is effectively dead, courtesy of sites and blogs whose writers stood to profit from the UPC


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