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. Xinova is a Patent Troll With Connections to Microsoft and Intellectual Ventures, the World's Largest Troll

    A Microsoft patent troll gives birth to another trollish tentacle (one among literally thousands), this one called "Xinova" but formerly known as Invention Development Fund (IDF)



  2. IAM 'Magazine' Rented Out to Microsoft Again, in Order to Attack Amazon (as Host of Free/Libre Software) Using Software Patents FUD

    The new front against GNU/Linux, or the attempt by Microsoft to tax the platform using software patents, is glossed over in puff pieces from Microsoft, conveniently published under IAM's own umbrella again



  3. Links 27/2/2017: GNU Linux-libre 4.10, Weston 2.0.0, Git 2.12.0, Linux From Scratch 8.0

    Links for the day



  4. Top Officials in French Government Are Growing Tired of Battistelli's Abuses at the European Patent Office (EPO)

    An automated translation of a recent debate about the EPO in the French government, culminating in intervention by Richard Yung



  5. A US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) Which is Hostile Towards Patent Maximalists May Closely Examine More Patents That Apple Uses Against Android

    A company which often takes pride in designers rather than developers (art, not technical merit) may lose that leverage over the competition if its questionable patents are taken away by the Supremes



  6. As Long as Software Patents Are Granted and Microsoft Equips Trolls With Them, “Azure IP Advantage” is an Attack on Free/Libre Software

    Microsoft is feeding enemies of GNU/Linux and Free/libre Open Source software (FLOSS) in order to sell its 'protection', which it names "IP Advantage" in a rather Orwellian fashion (same naming as back in the Novell days)



  7. Patent Trolls on Their Way Out in the United States and Their Way Into China, No Thanks to the Open Invention Network (OIN)

    An update on patent trolls and the role played by supposed allies of Free/libre software, who in practice do everything to exacerbate the problem rather than resolve it



  8. Insensitivity at the EPO’s Management – Part VIII: When Governed by Criminals, Truth-Tellers Are Cast as Criminals and Criminals as Justice Deliverers

    The bizarre state of affairs at the European Patent Office, where being an honest and transparent person makes one incredibly vulnerable and subjected to constant harassment from the management



  9. The Sickness of the EPO – Part V: Shedding Light on Institutional Abuse Against Ill and/or Disabled Individuals

    The seriousness of the situation at the EPO and a call for action, which requires greater transparency, even if imposed transparency



  10. The EPO's Race to the Bottom in Recruitment and Early Retirements Explained by an Insider

    The European Patent Office under Battistelli is failing to attract -- and certainly failing to retain -- talented examiners



  11. Wouter Pors and Other UPC Boosters Believe That Repeating the Lies Will Potentially Make Them Truths

    The lobbying campaign for UPC, or hopeful lies (sometimes mere rumours) disguised as "news", continues to rely on false perceptions that the UPC is just a matter of time and may actually materialise this year



  12. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) is Utilised in Fixing the US Patent System and the Patent Microcosm Loses Its Mind

    A roundup of PTAB news, ranging from attacks on the legitimacy of PTAB to progress which is made by PTAB, undoing decades of overpatenting



  13. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and the Federal Circuit (CAFC) Take on Patents Pertaining to Business Methods

    Patents on tasks that can be performed using pen and paper (so-called 'business methods', just like algorithms) and oughtn't be patent-eligible may be the next casualty of the America Invents Act (AIA)



  14. Google's Stewardship of GNU/Linux (Android, Chromebooks and More) in Doubt After Company Resorts to Patent 'First Strikes'

    Google has just turned a little more evil, by essentially using patents as a weapon against the competition (by no means a defensive move)



  15. Links 24/2/2017: Ubuntu 17.04 Beta, OpenBSD Foundation Nets $573,000 in Donations

    Links for the day



  16. IAM, Greased up by the EPO, Continues Lobbying by Shaming Tactics for the UPC, Under the Guise of 'News'

    The shrill and well-paid writers of IAM are still at it, promoting the Unitary Patent (UPC) at every opportunity and every turn



  17. Patent Scope Gone Awry: European Vegetable Patents Office?

    In its misguided race to raise so-called 'production', the EPO lost sight of its original goals and now facilitates patent royalty payments/taxation for naturally-recurring items of nature



  18. Yes, There is Definitely Brain Drain (Experience Deficit) at the European Patent Office and Stakeholders Feel It

    The direction that the European Patent Office has taken under Battistelli undoes many decades (almost half a century) of reputation-building and progress and naturally this repels existing staff, not to mention hampers recruitment efforts



  19. The Sickness of the EPO – Part IV: Cruel Management That Deliberately Attacks the Sick and the Weak

    The dysphoric reality at the European Patent Office, which is becoming like a large cell (with bolted-down windows) where people are controlled by fear and scapegoats are selected to perpetuate this atmosphere of terror and maintain demand (or workload) for the Investigative Stasi



  20. Links 23/2/2017: Qt 5.9 Alpha, First SHA1 Collision

    Links for the day



  21. UPC Roundup: War on the Appeal Boards, British Motion Against the UPC, Fröhlinger Recalled, and Fake News About Spain

    Taking stock of some of the latest attempts to shove the Unitary Patent (UPC) down Europe's throat, courtesy of Team Battistelli and Team UPC



  22. The Sickness of the EPO – Part III: Invalidity and Suicides

    An explanation of what drives a lot of EPO veterans to depression and sometimes even suicide



  23. The Appeal Board (PTAB) and Federal Circuit (CAFC) Maintain Good Pace of Patent Elimination Where Scope Was Exceeded

    The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) continues to accept about 4 out of 5 decisions of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) refuses to intervene



  24. Software Patents Are Ebbing Away, But the “Swamp” Fights Back and Hijacks the Word “Fix”

    The club of patent maximalists, or those who profit from excess prosecution and legal chaos, isn't liking what has happened in the United States and it wants everything reversed



  25. Report From Yesterday's Debate About the European Patent Office (EPO) at the Bavarian Landtag

    A report of the EPO debate which took place at the Bavarian Landtag yesterday (21/2/2017)



  26. Links 22/2/2017: Wine-Staging 2.2, Nautilus 3.24

    Links for the day



  27. French Politician Richard Yung Tells the Government About Abuses at the European Patent Office (EPO)

    The subject of EPO scandals has once again landed in French politics, just a couple of months since it last happened



  28. The Sickness of the EPO – Part II: Background Information and Insights

    With a privatised, in-house (sometimes outsourced and for-profit) force for surveillance, policing, justice, public relations and now medical assessment (mere vassals or marionettes of the management) the EPO serves to show that it has become indistinguishable from North Korea, where the Supreme Leader gets to control every single aspect (absolutely no separation of powers)



  29. EPO Cartoon/Caricature by KrewinkelKrijst

    A new rendition by Dutch cartoonist and illustrator KrewinkelKrijst



  30. Inverting Narratives: IAM 'Magazine' Paints Massive Patent Bully Microsoft (Preying on the Weak) as a Defender of the Powerless

    Selective coverage and deliberate misinterpretation of Microsoft's tactics (patent settlement under threat, disguised as "pre-installation of some of the US company’s software products") as seen in IAM almost every week these days


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