Microsoft Moves to Limit ULPCs

Microsoft has launched a campaign to promote the use of Windows OS in ultra low-cost PC notebooks. However, the company is asking hardware manufacturers to limit the hardware capabilities of these machines as to avoid cannibalizing sales of higher-end notebook computers.

Microsoft plans to offer PC makers steep discounts on Windows XP Home Edition to encourage them to use that OS instead of Linux on ultra low-cost PCs (ULPCs). To be eligible, however, the PC vendors that make ULPCs must limit screen sizes to 10.2 inches and hard drives to 80G bytes, and they cannot offer touch-screen PCs.


GNU/Linux
has found a niche in this market, as it has been available on the XO, the Eee, and others. ULPCs have great potential to solve problems around access and affordability to technology in the classroom. It’s unfortunate that the true potential of computers like this will not be realized due to manipulation of the marketplace by companies like Microsoft.

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?

The Curse of Being Free

Brian Lamb recently wrote one of those posts that made me get up from my seat and point frantically at the screen in agreement.

Re: finding a solution for inexpensive course hosting, Brian writes:

This approach is fatally flawed in a number of respects and it will never catch on. For one thing, it is far too cheap, and can never justify escalating technology infrastructure budgets. Worse, instructors and students could adopt this technology with minimal assistance or oversight from instructional technology specialists. In this profoundly unserious framework, there is nothing to prevent students from previewing courses before they take them, or reviewing courses later on. Indeed, some “learner” might benefit from this content without being an enrolled student at all!

The course that I am teaching currently uses a number of free software tools and services, and the content is freely available online. Yet I predict that this approach would not currently go over well with the majority of faculty at my University.

I just read a similar idea in regards to the lack of popularity of GNU/Linux on the desktop. Vlad Dolezal tells the story of Tom Sawyer where he cons his friend into giving away his favourite possessions to have the opportunity of whitewashing a fence. Dolezal concludes:

The above story illustrates a basic human nature. We don’t value things we can get easily. Yet we’d climb mountains, cross rivers and travel across deserts just to reach something we can’t easily get our hands on.

Dolezal talks a bit more about the idea of value and how individuals may perceive value to be less when something is given away. Because Windows as a product is priced at (roughly) $300, it is valued to be worth that cost. If one is to choose between a pirated version of Windows and a free copy of Ubuntu Linux, the cost is the same, but the perceived value is different.

Dolezal comes up with a plan:

I’m going to present Ubuntu as a very expensive posh OS. I’ll mention it sells for upward of five hundred dollars in the States. I’ll say I managed to get an illegal copy off a Polish guy I know over the internet.

Only THEN will I mention all the positives. Multiple desktops, bullet-proof security, stunning visual effects. Somehow all of it makes sense in the context of a super-expensive elitist OS. I’ll see how many people I can convert when advertising Linux this way.

I’ll post exactly a week from now, reporting back on how my Linux Preaching v2.0 went. Hi yo, Silver, AWAAAAY!

Hmmmm. While I believe there are many other reasons for a relatively slow GNU/Linux uptake, these are interesting points. And, it makes me feel that there is some way to solve the problems that Brian has identified.

The Web Is Agreement

The Web is Agreement is a fantastic hand-drawn poster by Paul Downey, created on behalf of Osmosoft for the 2007 BT Open Source Awareness Day.

The poster, drawn in the style of the Lord of the Ringsā€™s Map of Middle-Earth, delineates the various pitfalls along the way of creating an open source, creative commons work on the Web.

The Web Is Agreement

Visit the original size image on Flickr for a better look.

Google’s Highly Open Participation Contest

Google’s Highly Open Participation Contest was announced today at the Open Source Developers’ Conference in Brisbane, Australia.

Following on from the success of the Google Summer of Code program, Google is pleased to announce this new effort to get young people involved in open source development. We’ve teamed up with the open source projects listed here to give student contestants the opportunity to learn more about and contribute to all aspects of open source software development, from writing code and documentation to preparing training materials and conducting user experience research.

If you’re a student age 13 or older who has not yet begun university studies, we’d love to see you help out these projects. In return, you’ll learn more about all aspects of developing software – not just programming – and you’ll be eligible to win cash prizes and the all important t-shirt! You will, of course, need your parent or guardian’s permission to participate where applicable.

Almost any initiative the exposes students to collaboration and sharing while helping them build technical skill is all right by me.

More information.

More Great Mac Apps

I recently wrote about some of the Mac Apps I use on a daily basis. Here’s another list, most of these apps are very useful to me, but I don’t use them quite as often.

Delicious Library: This is one of my favorite apps for keeping my personal library organized. I have hundreds of books in my office and I am lending out books quite often. With this application, I am able to inventory my books using an iSight webcam or a Bluetooth barcode scanner (I use the latter). You could also do it manually. Then, I am able to lend out books easily to people by dragging and dropping the book to the individual I lent it to. It even send notifications via email for those that keep my books way too long. :-) It’s one of the few apps I pay for, and it’s worth the money if you need this sort of thing. It also syncs well with LibraryThing.

Handbrake: Handbrake is a free, multi-platform, DVD to MPEG-4 converter. This will rip DVDs to a number of formats. But if you are looking for something just does DVD to iPod specifically, check out Instant Handbrake or iSquint.

Jing: I should have put this in my last list because I use it every single day. Jing is a screencast tool that makes screencasting incredibly easy, it’s fast, simple, uploads the produced videos for you automatically, and even copies the link to your clipboard. I use this daily to send quick “how-to’s” to teachers and students via email, any of my Ning groups or via instant messaging. It’s a new, free app, but it’s quickly become essential for me.

Skitch: Screen capture on the Mac has always been a weak feature. Skitch works very much like Jing, but works with still images. You can edit screen captures and they are kept online for you. This is another great free app.

Chicken of the VNC: To see my office Mac from home, I regularly use VNC (Virtual Network Control). This is a very useful app which is easy to use once set up. It’s free and open source.

SubEthaEdit: I haven’t used this as much lately, but it’s a great “text collaboration engine”, most suited for programming. It runs over the OS X “Bonjour” network. I just noticed that this is now software you have to pay for (it used to be free).

Flip4Mac: This free tool allows you to play Windows Media files via Quicktime.

Scratch: I haven’t played with this much yet, but will be introducing it to my undergraduate students this semester. Scratch is free visual programming environment designed for kids. This has great potential for the classroom.

Senuti: Senuti (“iTunes” in reverse) is a free app that allows you to transfer songs from your iPod to your computer.

Well, that’s all I can think of right now. If there are others you know of that are worth noting, please comment!

Freedom Sticks For The Classroom

I’m working with teachers in a small-town Saskatchewan school. My role involves getting these volunteers to begin using current forms of technology in the classroom, to research the process and to begin a technology-related mentorship program. These teachers will eventually become mentors to others in the division. It’s important to note that these teachers are very new to technology in the classroom and are beginners in this area.

After some initial conferencing, I decided that blogging would be a great place to start. The following documents the process with the first teacher.

I thought I’d start at WordPress.com. It’s been really reliable, and although (philosophically) I prefer edublogs.org, it has been buggy for me and my students in the past. I found out quickly that WordPress.com was blocked by the school filter. So, we tried edublogs.org. It worked!

We started the sign-up process. Everything went well. But, when we went to check the authorization email that was to be sent from edublogs.org, we realized that the school mail filter rejected the message from edublogs.org. Uggh. We tried again, but first I had the teacher sign-up with a Gmail account. This worked, but we had to choose a new userid and URL for edublogs. But that’s OK, we’re getting there.

In edublogs.org, I had the teacher change the presentation (theme) and the temporary password. When we came to create our first post, I noticed something missing. The ONLY browser on the school computers was IE 6. For some reason, the visual editor in WordPress did not show up. This was another big issue, but at least we could post basic messages.

Next we tried attachments. We could upload files in IE6 in edublogs, but when you went to attach the file to the post, it would not work. Another IE 6.0 issue it seemed. Then we went to embed a Youtube video. Nope, YouTube blocked. Oh, we could get to TeacherTube … but, wow, no Flash player installed on these machines either.

So let’s go through the list of things of issues:

  • Filtering blocked some really important, educational sites.
  • No visual editor in WordPress because of IE 6 (it seems).
  • No ability to attach files to blogposts.
  • No Flash player.

Frustrating!

Solution:
I setup a wireless network (probably against board policy) in about 10 seconds using my Airport Express. I take this tool with me everywhere, to every classroom I work in, to every hotel I stay in and to every conference I present at. Setting up a wireless network is idiot-proof with this tool, and this is by far the best $100ish I have every spent.

While on the Wireless networked, I noticed that I could get to any site using Firefox on my MacBook Pro. As I had a few USB sticks with me, I thought I’d try installing Firefox Portable onto a stick and see if it would work on the school computers. If you don’t know much about portable apps, basically these applications run from a USB stick with no need to install on the local computer. In placing this USB stick into the school machine, I quickly realized that we were now able to do everything we wanted to do including bypassing the school filter. For some reason, the entire web proxy system was closely tied to IE, so when we used Firefox, we no longer had limits. Edublogs.org now worked perfectly on Portable Firefox. We now had the visual editor and could attach files. We were free!

I quickly realized that it would be useful for these teachers to have their own sticks. Thus I purchased 8 sticks (one for each teacher) and included the following apps, most of them available at portableapps.com.

  • 7-Zip Portable: Compression utility (WinZip equivalent).
  • AbiWord Portable: MS Word replacement.
  • Audacity Portable: Audio-editing utility.
  • FileZilla Portable: FTP utility.
  • Firefox Portable: Web browser.
  • GIMP Portable: Imaging editing app (Photoshop-like).
  • Open Office Portable: Includes Write, Calc, Impress, Base, Draw, Math (MS Office replacement plus).
  • VLC Portable: The best cross-platform video player (plays almost everything).
  • Opera USB: Another web-browser. I added this because it seems to have the Flash player built in the browser, Firefox Portable doesn’t.

There are a number of other portable apps which I did not include simply because I don’t think the teachers needed the apps (too techy), yet.

Distributing these USB sticks to teachers is done as an interim measure. For now, this will allow these teachers to get to many great resources and will allow them to use powerful Web 2.0 tools. Teachers will also be able to show their students the resources they choose and deem appropriate. I have dubbed these loaded USB devices “freedom sticks” as this was exactly what was gained from this experience.