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.

OLPC to Switch from Linux to Windows?

I have been quite critical of OLPC, but the one thing I really liked about the project was that they were using free and open source software as the operating system. If OLPC switches to Windows, I do not think I will have anything left nice to say.

One day after the resignation of the One Laptop Per Child project’s president was publicly revealed, the OLPC’s founder and chairman said that the group’s XO laptop may evolve to use only Windows XP as its operating system, with open-source educational applications such as the homegrown Sugar software running on top.

OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte also told The Associated Press on Tuesday that an insistence upon using only free, open-source software had hampered the XO’s usability and scared away potential adopters. (Link)

Re: OLPC, Negroponte is quoted as saying, “It’s an education project, not a laptop project.” When does commercialism and techno-colonialism become relevant here? At what point does “education” in this context become indoctrination?

OLPC & Education

If you follow me on Twitter, you’d know that I have been trying to get people to convince me of the value of OLPC. I have been intending to write a comprehensive post on some of these responses and my thoughts, but I just noticed an important post from Teemu Leinonen that will the gap in the meanwhile.

Leinonen shares that likely the greatest accomplishment of OLPC so far is that it has created a market for low-cost educational computers.

One Laptop per Child – the laptop project of the OLPC association, a North American non-profit has change the markets of low-cost mobile computers for educational sector. Even that in the OLPC there are such a multi-billion industry sponsors as the AMD, Google, Nortel, and Newscorp, the achievement of changing a whole market, or actually creating it, is absolutely remarkable.

In 2008 we will have the Intel’s Classmate ($250), Zonbu notebook ($279 + $14.95/month), Asus Eee laptop ($299-399), Nokia Internet Tablets ($150-$299), Nova NetPC “thin client” system (around $80/unit), and the OLPC’s XO laptop ($200).

Leinonen then goes on to argue that the OLPC is really a laptop project, and not an education project (as OLPC founder Negroponte continues to state). Leinonen follows with three reasons why the OLPC is in fact a laptop project. These include:

    – The OLPC has shown total lack of understanding of education as a system.
    – The OPLC has a naive believe on computer technology (per se) as a silver bullet in education.
    – The OLPC do not understand different cultures and traditions.

From everything I have seen related to OLPC, I would have to agree with Leinonen. There are some excellent points here, and the post is certainly worth the read. Most importantly, I think, Leinonen doesn’t see this all as negative, rather, he calls for a greater educational emphasis on the project.

I have a lot more to say about this, but it is much too late, and morning is near.

Videos Of XOs In Use

Well I’ve ordered my XOs, and I’m looking forward to getting an idea of their capabilities. Meanwhile, I noticed several interesting videos from BBC demonstrating these laptops in use.

The second video “The XO in Nigeria” was particularly interesting, and alludes to some of the common concerns of this project. In any case, it’s surreal seeing these laptops within the context. I don’t think anyone can predict the outcome of this education project.