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. Who Kills Yahoo? It's Microsoft, Not Yahoo!

    The media should blame Microsoft, not Marissa Mayer, for what's going on (and has been going on for 7 years) at Yahoo!



  2. EPO Management is Trying Hard to Appease Its Critics While Pushing Forth Unitary Patent Agenda

    The European Patent Office and European Commission promote the agenda of large multinational corporations (at the expense or European citizens) and critics are being kept at bay



  3. Real Patent Reform Will Not Come From Biggest Backers of GNU/Linux, Not Even Google

    A look at the 'new' Google, the company which is hoarding patents (2,566 last year alone) instead of fighting for reform



  4. Microsoft's Troll Intellectual Ventures Loses Software Patents

    Intellectual Ventures is bluffing with software patents, but this time around it doesn't get its way



  5. Links 24/4/2015: Ubuntu and Variants in the News, Red Hat Developer Toolset 3.1

    Links for the day



  6. Links 23/4/2015: Ubuntu 15.04 is Out, Debian 8.0 Out Very Soon

    Links for the day



  7. Links 22/4/2015: Fedora 22 Beta, Atlassian Acquires BlueJimp

    Links for the day



  8. The Dying Debate Over Patent Scope (Including Software Patents) Replaced by 'Trolls' (But Not the Biggest Ones)

    The corporate media and Web sites or people who are funded by large corporations have essentially suppressed any debate about issues in the patent granting process, thereby guarding software patents and preventing criticism of large corporations' power grab



  9. The Patents Gold Rush Continues

    The morbid obsession with monopolising mere ideas still dominates the media, even increasingly in China



  10. 9 Millionth US Patent Tells a Story of Failure and USPTO Misconduct

    The USPTO, much like FISA (notorious court for surveillance/espionage authorisation), has become a rubber-stamping operation rather than a patents examination centre, as new evidence and old evidence serve to show



  11. HBO Helps Shift Debate Over Patents to 'Trolls' (Scale), Not Scope

    More of that awkward shifting of the patent debate towards small actors who are misusing patents, not large conglomerates like Apple and Microsoft which use patents to destroy competitors, crush startups, drive up prices, and so on



  12. Software Patents Are Still Menacing to Free Software: OIN Expands Scope, HEVC Adds to MPEG-LA Burden/Tax, Google and Facebook Give in on Patents

    A look at recent news about software patents and especially Free/libre software, which is inherently incompatible with them



  13. The Latest Developments Around Microsoft's Clever Attack on Android/Linux

    Microsoft's campaign of destruction, extortion, etc. against the most widely used Linux-powered operating system is revisited in light of new reports



  14. The Microsoft 'Community' is Maligning the Free Software Community

    Dishonest generalisations and baseless deductions portray the Free/Open Source software communities as a nasty place that leads to poverty and despair



  15. Googlebombing 'Microsoft Open Source' Even When Microsoft Shuts Down Its 'Open Source' Proxy

    A massive failure by the press to cover the most basic news, which is Microsoft putting an end to a supposedly 'Open Source' effort



  16. Links 22/4/2015: Calculate Linux 14.16, SparkyLinux 4.0 RC KDE

    Links for the day



  17. Links 21/4/2015: Project Photon, Ubuntu Touch Buzz

    Links for the day



  18. Embrace, Extend, Extinguish: How Microsoft Plans to Get Rid of Linux/Android

    Microsoft's sheer abuse against Android is laying bare for everyone to see now that Microsoft has paralysed Google's legal department with potential antitrust action in Europe



  19. Yahoo's Current CEO (Mayer, Formerly of Google) is Trying to End Yahoo! Status as Microsoft Proxy

    There are signs of relinquishing Microsoft's control over Yahoo! after Marissa Mayer worked to end the company's suicidal/abusive relationship with Steve Ballmer's Microsoft



  20. Repeating Microsoft's Lies Without Any Journalistic Assessment

    Poor fact-checking by relatively large media/news sites results in Microsoft's patently false claims being repeated uncritically



  21. Links 19/4/2015: New KaOS (2015.04), Manjaro Linux 0.8.13 Pre1

    Links for the day



  22. Links 18/4/2015: ExTiX 15.2, RaspArch

    Links for the day



  23. Microsoft Tired of Pretending to be Nice to Free/Open Source Software (FOSS), Microsoft 'Open' Technologies Dumped

    Microsoft dumps its proxy (misleadingly named 'Open Tech') and other attacks on Free software persist from the inside, often through so-called 'experts' whose agenda is to sell proprietary software



  24. More Translations of French Article About the EPO

    German and Dutch translations of the Le Monde article are now available



  25. Links 17/4/2015: Wipro and the Netherlands Want FOSS

    Links for the day



  26. Microsoft's Multi-Dimensional Assault on Android/Linux: Extortion, Lobbying of Regulators, and Bribes

    Microsoft's vicious war on Linux (and Android in its current incarnation) takes more sophisticated -- albeit illegal (as per the RICO Act) -- forms



  27. Microsoft's Plot to Associate Windows with 'Open Source' is Proving Effective, Despite Being Just a Big Lie

    A look at the latest headlines which can lead to a false perception that Microsoft is now in bed with 'Open Source'



  28. Microsoft Windows Remotely Crashed, Remotely Hijacked, But Still No Logo and No Branding for the Bugs

    Windows maintains its reputation as a back doors haven, but the media is still not highlighting the severity of this issue, instead focusing on accidental bugs in Free software, even very old (and already fixed) bugs



  29. Black Duck's Latest Self-Promotional Propaganda (for Proprietary Software) Still Fools Journalists

    Under the traditionally misleading title "Future of Open Source" Black Duck expresses its desire for proprietary software sales, salivating over fearful managers who may get bamboozled into buying the patents-'protected' Black Duck 'product'



  30. Links 16/4/2015: Opera for 32-bit GNU/Linux, New Chromebook Site

    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