Not Free At Any Price

I have been a soft-spoken critic of the OLPC project; it is hard to critique something that gets technologies into the hands of children. Yet, I’ve had two main issues. First, I have my own XO and I have complained from the day I received it that I felt the machine to be a piece of junk. I never got the machine running well, although I know others have reported much more positive experiences. But, I thought, what should I expect for $100 $200. Second, I voiced the opinion that the project is a type of techno-colonialism, and although well-intended, it instills particular values and tools on cultures we patronizingly regard as “developing”. Yet, on this second point, there was something that made me feel a bit better when I knew that these machines would be loaded with free and open source software. At least then, we could avoid exporting even more of our corporatism. But that OLPC goal began to fall apart earlier this year when Negroponte confirmed that Windows XP was to be available on the XOs. For myself and others, this move marked the end of the OLPC as an educational project and it simply became just another laptop project.

I just came across this article by Richard Stallman in Boston Review. Stallman, once a proponent of the project, rejected it once “the project backed away from its commitment to freedom and allowed the machine to become a platform for running Windows, a non-free operating system.” For those of you who do not know Stallman’s work, this article is a good backgrounder that includes Stallman’s four essential freedoms that should be available to all users of software, as well as the distinction between “free as in beer” and “freedom of knowledge and action”. And my favourite quote from the article has to be, “Teaching children to use Windows is like teaching them to smoke tobacco—in a world where only one company sells tobacco. Like any addictive drug, it inculcates a harmful dependency.

These are important issues to think about. Learn more about free software at the Free Software Project.

7 thoughts on “Not Free At Any Price

  1. When you say the machine is a piece of junk, are you referring to the software or the hardware? Specifically, I find the hardware to be outstandingly innovative (though not so powerful in its first incarnation). The software is buggy and limited though. I still enjoy playing around with it but find the software extremely limiting for everyday practical use. But really, the hardware is fantastic – mesh networking and the non-reflective screen are really neat. Very durable, lightweight and compact too.

  2. Peter, it’s really hard to say. It rarely connects to a wireless network, and when it does, it drops off after a few minutes. And, it crashes … all the time! I updated the software, and still, same issue. Maybe I got a dud? I don’t know. As I mention in my post, others have had better luck with these … so it’s either mine is a huge dude, or I am just expecting way too much … you know, for it to actually run.

    I’m getting my Eee PC tomorrow, I’m hoping this will be a much better experience.

  3. Sounds like a dud in terms of wireless. Simon and I have never experienced such a problem with either of our machines. We get high speed net access, see each others machines, and even other mesh networks in our building.

    I have an EeePC…one of the first models. Not a fan of the Xandros distribution and the screen and keyboard are way too small. But the new models are apparently better with a reasonable sized screen/keyboard. As well, I hear installing Ubuntu instead of Xandros is possible.

    I also got a hold of the new Dell Inspiron Mini with Ubuntu 8.04 preinstalled. Good sized screen and keyboard. So far my only practical complaint is that Firefox is sluggish. It pauses a lot. Not sure why considering there’s 1GB of RAM. The more serious problem is the wireless chipset that requires proprietary software to function. I believe it is Broadcom. Hopefully Broadcom will release their drivers as free software or Dell puts Atheros inside their future models.

  4. sing it…

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the project, and the turn to windows just reinforces what seemed more like a question of a project that was designed to get the project funding and less something that would work on ‘scale’. It depended on 3rd world countries spending a huge chunck of their educational budgets on tech when they could be spent in much better places.

  5. HI Alec, No surprise that I would add my own two bits. I have a few comments.

    First of all, you must have had a dud, because I have had 6 XOs pass through my hands and have not had the difficulties you described. I find the latest build from just a few weeks ago to be awesome; the interface is much more intuitive and easy to use.

    You know that I have had the opportunity to bring 4 of the XOs to Africa and recently just sent two more with embedded content from my own students. I hope that the Kenyan students will respond to the content that my students left for them. A very exciting thought!

    These machines have brought hope to African teachers and students. While I wish I could have brought enough for all the students I met in Africa over the summer, just the thought that these machines exist and have dramatically lowered the cost of the availability of such technology have inspired many teachers. They were so amazed by the XOs!

    You referred to the XO as “a piece of junk”. Therein lies one of its strengths! From what I saw in South Africa and Kenya, the fact that it looks more like a toy than a laptop means that it will not likely be stolen and sold for parts. In fact, there are no parts to be sold at all.

    I have described the XO as a swiss army knife to my students. It has multiple uses and is low-cost. The vision behind it is remarkable and innovative.

    With what I have seen from my visits to many schools in Africa, it is a great machine which could facilitate many uses. It is simply unfair to compare it to what we have available in North America.

    Would I have sent over EEE PCs or Classmates given the opportunity? You bet! I will send over whatever I can; but would those laptops even exist without the XO push?

    But I do share your grief about the MS Windows involvement. It is a very tough compromise.

    One of my teammates on the Teachers Without Borders team to South Africa did not altogether grasp the XOs’ significance until he witnessed the “donation” of free desktops to a school in the Townships. When he saw every one loaded with Windows XP, it hit him. Yes, they were free now, but …. what was the cost over time?

    Yes, like nicotine….

    And just the other day, in a meeting with my own school’s IT staff, we examined the issue of webware vs OSS vs MS software. And most of us agreed, “why would we take a step back?” As if OSS or webware does not offer the quality of “industry standard”.

    How can we address this? I am left frustrated and feeling impotent.

  6. First I would like to thank Sharon for her comments. She has actually been to Africa and can surely make well informed comments.
    Being from “Africa” myself, although I would prefer people to see Africa as different countries and therefore different levels of need, education and development. I can see the benefits of desk tops in South Africa and Kenya, but not necessarily to all of the other.

    I agree with Alex that it is sad that MS Windows are involved now. Are they ready for that?

    My argument still stays, that I feel and see the need more towards providing kids with a safe school to go to, educated teachers to teach them and a meal in the morning to keep the hunger pains away. If we do have extra money or help to offer I would rather spend it towards those needs. I think I will see more appreciation in the eyes of the hungry kids on the street corners of South Africa when I gave them food to eat or a warm blanket to sleep under in their make shift house than handing them a note book.

    It is not that I don’t want to help to educate the kids, but I was a teacher in South Africa myself and feel strong about teaching well fed, happy and warmly dressed children.

  7. The argument that money should be spent on “much better” things like “food to eat” or a “warm blanket” is specious given its implied disconnect between technology access and one’s standard of living.

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