One lap

I love Linux. It’s not as if I use it much but I love the idea of it. Open source. Free collaboration. All that.

I am less enamoured of the techy-boys-toys attitudes that seem to infect a lot of Linux-users, or the unlimited contempt that they can show to anyone who knows ever so slightly less than them about operating systems.

The recent developments in the one-laptop-per-child project which will now see it offering Windows, as well as Linux, seem to be causing a lot of dissent. This was described on the BBC as the OLPC project “getting in bed with… the Great Satan”

According to the BBC report, the purists in the OLPC movement see Linux as at the heart of the project. Well fine, but is this project supposed to be about spreading access to technology and internet communication or is it about creating a world full of Linux nerds? Because, to most people, even to most techies as Ivan Krstic pointed out, computers are not ends in themselves. They are just tools.

Some of us like messing about with tech (to a degree..) Most people don’t. A television that you couldn’t operate without degree-level knowledge of electronics engineering would be pretty unpopular. Why assume that every third world kid will suddenly become someone who is happy to mess about with a kernel for weeks?

Most people in the world use Microsoft products. Nearly everyone of us has to use Microsoft in work. Surely that makes a Microsoft operating system a reasonable component to put in a product that aims to cover the world.

Or are the kids who get these laptops only to be allowed to use predefined worthy educational products on them, while their first world equivalents are playing games?

I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of the OLPC project anyway, but I don’t think it stands or fails on the nature of the operating system.

IMHO the OLPC has always been liable to turn out to be another top-down western attempt to solve the problems of the poor countries – our solutions to which usually turn out to benefit the rich countries.

13 thoughts on “One lap

  1. Most modern Linux distributions are perfectly good for use by non-techy-types, and some are so similar to Windows it really makes no odds. Personally, though, it seems to me that Microsoft already have too much of a monopoly on the world of OSes, and giving them, effectively for free, entire countries of people who’ve only ever used Windows seems like the kind of act charities should avoid being involved in, especially when there’s a perfectly viable alternative that can’t possibly start changing them money all of a sudden one day. Our student union boycotts Nestlé for almost exactly this behaviour and I trust Microsoft even less.

    I find it slightly perverse for a charity whose stated aim is to help the poorest people on Earth furthering the dominance of one of the richest companies on Earth, but then the BBC say “certain countries had been insistent that they wanted Windows XP as an option before they would consider signing up”, so then you have to weigh up which part of your vision is the most important.

  2. I am a longtime Mac person who also uses Windows. I recently loaded an unused laptop with Linux and have found it to be very useful, fun, and not techie at all. The flavor I use is Ubuntu, in its latest distro (distribution) 8.04, also called the Hardy Heron. The system is easy to download and install and you can run it along with XP or partition the drive as Ubuntu alone. The computer starts up without problems and Ubuntu updates it frequently by uploading the files and installing them automatically. There are many applications available, all free, and easy to access. Everything you already know about the operation of the computer carries over, including Firefox, a free “Office” suite called OpenOffice, games, graphics programs,sound apps, etc.

    The best part is that all the peripherals worked without problems. The laptop has used all the printers on my wireless Mac network without fail as shared printers. Linux has grown up, shaves and wears a clean t-shirt (with an Ubuntu logo on it) every day.

  3. Well, I’d buy that Linux is now much more user-friendly than it was back when I was tinkering with it, but I think it is unsuitable as the ~only~ OS for the OLPC.

    I previewed my brother’s OLPC from the give one get one program last year, and was enamored of its cuteness and annoyed by its usability. A different user interface experience is a little like learning a new language. It’s fun if you want to do it, and probably a good idea for stretching your brain, but I really hate having to do it in order to simply make something work. Now, imagine you’re the kid who has only ever known how to use the interface on your school-issued OLPC, and you head off to secondary school or even college. The tool you knew so well is gone, and you have this whole new interface to get used to on top of dealing with a new school environment.

    To make a completely politically incorrect comparison, it seems a lot to me like immigrants who don’t learn the native language of their new country. Everything is more difficult, they miss out on opportunities available to those who do speak the common language and often end up relegated to a lower socioeconomic class than they would expect for their level of education. I think it is fantastically short-sighted to equip the children of the developing world with a technological tool that is so very different from what they could expect to see as they continue their education and enter the workforce.

    Regardless of the boundless wonders of the OLPC’s interface and the hegemonic evil that is Microsoft, kids in developing countries should have access to relevant tools. The more relevant, the more useful. Clearly, Microsoft knows a good thing when they see it-they’d be idiots not to provide the software for free, really. Kids, being much more clever than any of the do-gooders involved in this project seem to imagine, will learn how to work with XP and figure out its uses and comparative limitations. I’m mildly surprised that Apple hasn’t come up with a sleek version of OSX to just give to OLPC as well.

    The more the merrier, I say. I can think of no better way to provide actual benefit to kids of the developing world than to give them a broad range of tools and turn ’em loose to learn and improve on them.

  4. Gray Lensman and Andrew

    I agree completely about LInux. I know that Ubuntu is easy to use. Linux is an infinitely better choice than Microsoft,

    However, I got the impression that these machines are to be dual-boot anyway,

    My point was really that most development initiatives are driven by Western needs. Top-down development schemes that don’t take the needs of the recipients into account tend to have pretty bad effects,

    How many Western governments. schools or large companies use Linux? If the governments that are getting these things say they want Microsoft, surely that’s their choice. Mostly, they’ll be paying for the things.

  5. Argh, how confusing is that. A comment that seems to come from me but comes from some other Heather. (The long one above that says “Heather”, with which I tend to agree, so I could almost have written it.)

    I may have to start signing myself Heather 1,0

  6. Yeah, I think my point of view on anything like this is flavoured by my dissatisfaction with IT teaching in general: the number of people at school and university who couldn’t do anything with computers except specifically and exactly what they’d been taught with the exact software they’d been taught it on was shocking. My laptop has the taskbar skinned and down the left hand side, and now nobody can work the computer because of it. Teaching people computers by teaching them how to use Publisher is a bit like teaching history students a long list of dates but nothing about causes or people or why these things happened. It gives knowledge — in this case knowledge that will become obsolete before they finish university — but no understanding. That’s the problem.

    If people were taught to ‘get’ computers and understand even vaguely how they worked then it wouldn’t matter a damn what OS they learned on; they’d be okay with any well-designed system. And that’s a far more useful education, because there are a lot of Linux PCs and Macs (and even Windows PCs running or something) dotted about the world and if you can’t get to grips with anything but Microsoft then you’re going to get stuck pretty soon. Teaching on several OSes is the ideal, but it’s harder so it’s probably not going to happen.

    It would be a bit ridiculous if third-world children got better IT training than British children, but not exactly a big surprise.

  7. Andrew, I couldn’t agree more with you about IT education. I remember IT classes where I completely outfoxed the school security with HTML. When I tried to show these problems to the Head of IT, he had no understanding of it at all. I had to explain what HTML was. Their idea of IT was Word and Excel. Bit of a joke to someone who learnt more about Windows in a few months (until then I had only really used Macs), then they had in their entire careers.

    The sad fact is too many people don’t even understand some of the basic features of their computer, like shortcut keys. This one bit of knowledge would increase productivity no end.

    It’s a sorry state of affairs.

  8. Xander, I did two weeks’ work experience with the Inland Revenue in year nine of high school. I must have been 15 or so. I think I actually improved productivity there, by teaching them how to use the clipboard. They were transferring people’s details from one programme to another via. a bit of paper.

    Once at school I found I could access everyone’s personal drive using the cunning hacking technique of Looking In Network Neighbourhood To See What’s There. You shouldn’t be able to hack anything using only a mouse. I told them and they fixed it, after which I looked in Network Neighbourhood again and found everyone’s passwords in a big bat file.

    If IT qualifications measured relevant skills rather than knowledge of Excel then these problems would go away. Mostly. This is a whole other rant, though.

  9. Sorry about that, Heather. I seem to remember finding your blog shortly after seeing a crazy Heather commenting on another blog and wondering if I had an evil twin. And then laughing that you’d posted exactly the thing I was thinking. I’ll try to set myself apart as ~not~ your evil twin…

    Agreeing with everyone above, IT education is pretty lousy. I had a college course that was nothing short of a joke, even for someone whose only computer experience outside of word processing had been programming a TRS80 back in elementary school. I also was required to take a “computers for teachers” course in grad school that was a painful, extended look at using various MS Office products. And they were “teaching” this to future teachers, unhealthy love of Powerpoint and all. Ugh. A friend and I successfully lobbied for this course to be dropped from the curriculum entirely until something that wasn’t such a complete waste of time could be devised.

    I don’t think there is a huge danger of kids in the developing world being taught only to create powerpoint monstrosities. I just argue that they should have some access to the stuff that goobers everywhere use badly so that they know what they’re up against. Then they can go back to playing with the cool stuff that’s been developed for the OLPC. Kids are smart, and given time to muck about with various tools they’ll find the ones that work best.

  10. Heather-the-other

    Blast. That must mean we have an evil triplet.

    (Sorry that Akismet keeps treating your comments as spam and holding them for moderation.)

    I agree with everyone here that IT teaching is usually rubbish. There are even bizarre and worthless certificates like the “European Computer Driving Licence” that you get by being able to copy and paste in Word.

  11. I wonder what version of Windows will end up on that laptop. It’s now a dual boot system? Jeez, I thought this thing was supposed to be simple! At $198, the ‘original $100 laptop’ is getting pretty far away from its original price tag!

    I first saw the announcement on MIT Technology review:

    Microsoft has spent more than a year developing customized drivers that enable Windows to run on the XO. As a result, Windows now supports the laptop’s e-book reading mode, Wi-Fi networking, camera, writing pad and custom keys, power-saving features, and other hardware.

  12. Why assume that every third world kid will suddenly become someone who is happy to mess about with a kernel for weeks?

    I haven’t messed with a kernel in years, to be honest … probably 2001 was the last time I had to compile a kernel from scratch or change any kernel parameters.

    I’d fully support a dual-boot solution for these laptops, but I couldn’t support a Windows-only version simply because of the licensing costs involved. Linus costs $0 to license and install on as many machines as you like. Windows has a much higher licensing cost. Further, new versions of Linux, whether they be security patches or full OS releases, will be available for the same cost of $0, whereas the kids who get the Windows machines (by definition of the project, typically poor kids from developing countries) will have to pay for new OS versions as they come out.

    There are many foreign countries moving into Linux rather than Windows, specifically because of licensing and upgrade costs, as well as because Linux can make far better use of “less than modern” PC’s. The cost of upgrading is not a trivial concern when we are talking about developing nations, and thats one of the reasons Linux is favored in many of these projects. I don’t think we should ignore Windows, but it certainly shouldn’t be the only option available for a machine targeted at poor people from developing countries.

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