OLPC Sadness

Free Software 8 Comments »

I like the OLPC XO-1. It’s a quite little machine, it doesn’t have venting holes, and is quite resistant to dust and water. It’s also strong, and handles small falls (like falling from a desk to a floor) very well. I also like the amount of effort they have put into creating the custom Sugar interface, and all the other things around it like the mesh networking support and the way that a user can find other users close to them.

I think the project has taken a turn for the worse though. Nicolas Negreponte, founder of the OLPC project, is pushing the project for the XO-1 to use Microsoft Windows, and they have lost top staff like Walter Bender, who was also one of the top open source guys in the company. Negreponte claims that his interest is to get the machines in as many children’s hands as possible, this article also says:

He lamented that an overriding insistence on open-source had hampered the XOs, saying Sugar “grew amorphously” and “didn’t have a software architect who did it in a crisp way.” For instance, the laptops do not support Flash animation, widely used on the Web.

“There are several examples like that, that we have to address without worrying about the fundamentalism in some of the open-source community,” he said. “One can be an open-source advocate without being an open-source fundamentalist.”

Personally, I think that getting the laptops in the hands of kids in an irresponsable manner can do more harm than good. I previously blogged about Microsoft trying to force their old software on users, and this isn’t too much different. Microsoft is already reportedly releasing the next version of Windows next year. This means that by the time many of these XO laptops running Windows get to their target users, it would be an 8 year old operating system that’s already two releases behind the newest. I think this is terribly cruel, and shouldn’t be allowed. If I was a project donor, I would rather pay a bit more for decent hardware like the ASUS Eee or Intel Classmate PC (or even a Classmate 2) and run a modern, supported, localised operating system that truly benefits the users, instead of providing a legacy operating system on slow hardware.

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One Laptop Per Adult?

Education, Free Software, Gadgets 10 Comments »

People just love the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project. The hardware is great: It’s water-resistant, dust resistant and even to a large degree child resistant. The project have made huge innovations, especially in terms of the unique user interface developed for the machine, as well as large amounts of development that have gone into it’s mesh networking technology and the display that has a super-low-power black and white mode that is clearly visible outside in the sun. The project also aims to develop it at US$100 when it is produced on large scale, which makes it a great cheap and durable machine for the developing world.

Jenni with OLPC Laptop

Jenni with OLPC

Then there’s the slightly lesser well-known Classmate PC. Another low-cost machine intended for use by children. It has a nicer keyboard (although I don’t think it’s water-resistant) and has better processor (the OLPC seems to be a bit underpowered for some of the Python applications people want to run on it). The Classmate PC’s are even capable of running Compiz, which is quite impressive for such a small device. The Classmate PC costs more than US$200, and will probably be more appealing to youth who would already have at least computer at home.

Ogra with classmate
Oli with Classmate PC

Both these laptops use flash memory for storage, which generates less heat and uses less power than a traditional hard disk. In some cases, performance is even increased, since the storage is solid state and there is no seeking that has occur. The innovations in both laptops will benefit young humans everywhere, but why stop there? There are literally billions of adults on this planet that don’t have access to basic information technology and the technology used in the machines mentioned above could certainly be used to create a low-cost, low-powered machine for adults. Or can it?

Yes, it can, and the ASUS Eee is the answer. It contains a Celeron-M Ultra Low Voltage CPU, up to 1GB of RAM, and up to 8GB of flash storage. Just like the OLPC, it also contains a built-in webcam. The great thing about the Eee is that it will make access to information cheap and accessible to people from around the world. Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t think that this is a machine that will only be used by the less fortunate. The compact size and the low power consumption makes it an ideal machine for the traveler. It’s also easier to carry along than the traditional bulky laptop (weighing less than 1KG), and it even has a smaller power supply. What it misses though, in my opinion, is an integraded GPRS/EDGE card. It would probably only cost US$10 per machine to build it in, and would go a long way to help people stay in touch. Eee stands for “Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play“. It will be available with either Xandros (tailored version for this device) or Windows (not that ASUS was really keen on Windows on the device in the first place). The Eee costs around US$400, depending on which options you select.

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Eee PC (Photo from ASUS Website)

This is probably not the last low-cost laptop we’re going to see. There will be plenty of manufacturers who will follow, and the great thing is that these machines tend to love GNU/Linux, which should improve uptake of free software everywhere. I suspect that Microsoft will also use its bad business tactics to try to circumvent this, we’re in for interesting times!

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Kusasa Analytical Education

Education, Free Software, Gadgets 1 Comment »

Previously, I mentioned the Shuttleworth Foundation’s Classroom Coders project. It seems that it may soon be a reality under the Kusasa Analytical Education project. Kusasa is real innovation, it fundamentally changes some of the few 100 years old teaching methods we still use in classrooms.

Kusasa screenshot

It makes use of Mathland, Squeak and Python to achieve this. From the Kusasa site:

The idea is not that learners gain tools they use for the rest of their lives. That’s not realistic. We don’t use any specific theorems or other mathematics constructs from school today. Learners should use tools at school which help them develop a general ability to learn new tools. This general ability is the skill of analysis. It is the ability to break a complex problem into pieces, identify familiar patterns in the pieces, solve them using existing tools, and synthesize the results into a view or answer. We want to ensure that learners graduate with this ability, making them effective, successful, productive and fulfilled members of society.

Kusasa is a Zulu word that means “tomorrow”. Take a peak at the Kusasa website for more information. I think it could potentially be a good educational program to run with OLPC/Classmate type PC’s, and even more importantly, have a major influence on the way the future generations learn.

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UES Sevilla

Education, Free Software 3 Comments »

The Ubuntu Education Summit has been quite good so far. Today people from various projects and distributions were giving presentations and talks, and tomorrow we’re going to have a workshop discussing the problems that were presented and discuss possible solutions. I talked about tuXlabs and about some of the lessons we learned in South Africa.

David Trask

I also got a chance to play with the Intel Classmate PC. At the moment users have the choice of KDE 3.5.1 (not sure which distribution) or Windows XP, and apparently it supports the XO interface too. It’s probably not as innovative as the OLPC machine, but it certainly is a nice piece of hardware. I’ve love to have one.

Classmate PC

Also got some Ubuntu and Edubuntu CD’s, they look really nice!

[Ed,U]buntu CD
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OLPC and Windows (and Microsoft and the education system)

Education, Free Software, Gadgets 11 Comments »

Warning: This post ended up longer than planned, if you are bored easily, only read the first two paragraphs ;)

I’m a bit surprised that there haven’t been noise about this on the planets, but it’s probably due to the long weekend and people generally spending less time with their computers.

Via Slashdot, the OLPC XO Laptop will (be able to run) run Windows when it is sold in the US. The writer of the article considers it to be a heavy blow to the open source world, I think that “heavy blow” might be an overstatement.

I can understand why a lot of people, especially in education, would want to run Windows on the machine. The vast majority of educational software out there is written for Windows, and often in such a way that they can’t be ported to a free operating system in an easy way, or at a low enough cost to make it worth while. The problem is very much similar to running games on GNU/Linux. In some cases, the design of the game makes it incredibly easy to port over. In some cases, especially where very specific technologies such as DirectX are used, it can quickly become very complicated.

In South Africa, we’ve seen some shifts, even though slight shifts, to make educational software more web based. In the tuXlab project, the number 1 request from the schools are for more educational content. The Shuttleworth Foundation and Inkululeko Technologies have sourced some real good educational suites for these schools, and it got the attention of some of the other software vendors who didn’t get a slice of the pie. The shift that we observed was that more of the local educational software companies were using more and more web-based software tools, and also making more use of Flash (hopefully that will shift again to svg/javascript or even something better), specifically so that schools running free software could run their software. Now and again, we had a school asking us whether they may install Windows on their machines, so that they could run the same educational software in their tuXlab than in their Windows lab, and we would just explain to them that it would kind of defeat the purpose of their tuXlab, and since the lab run as an LTSP network, that it would be difficult to do it from a technical perspective too. As time progressed, and the availability of pre-packaged software grew for the lab, teachers started to prefer using GNU/Linux. A few schools even said no when they were free Microsoft labs to replace their tuXlabs. In my opinion, that is very big, considering that the one particular school ran their tuXlab on second hand computers, and that they were offered brand new Windows machines as replacements.

Sorry, back to the XO. I think that the interface truly innovative, and the system has the potential to provide a high quality and stable environment to develop and deliver software and content. If you look at DirectX again, for example, the latest version requires you to run Windows Vista, and some of the technologies, which is widely used in educational software (such as DirectDraw), is being deprecated. For schools that use Microsoft labs and use Windows based software, this causes a huge admin overhead, which is an overhead that most schools can’t afford to have. For the developers of the software, it causes even more problems. Firstly, they have to spend money to port their software to the new Microsoft technologies. Secondly, they have to get their clients to upgrade to a new version of Windows before they can get a return on updating their software.

If you consider a GNU/Linux system though, the application interfaces are quite stable, and even when new technologies are introduced, you are still able to access the older technologies to support your application. I think that, over time, software development houses will discover the benefits of using cross-platform technologies to develop their software, and gradually move away from technologies that limit them and their clients.

One specific educational revolution that might take place would be an ideal application for the XO Laptop, and that’s the Classroom Coders project (that’s just a working name), here’s Mark Shuttleworth’s blog entry about a two day workshop on it that was held last year. Hopefully we can teach kids to think for themselves again, instead of teaching them how to shut up and listen. All that the current schooling system is good for, it seems, is to teach kids how to look busy when they are working in an office one day, and I personally think that it is ridiculous. People are discouraged to think for themselves and just to blend in with the masses, I hope that if I have kids one day, that they wouldn’t have to go through a pathetic system as I did.

Apologies again for the long rant…

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Free Software Coolness This Week

Free Software 1 Comment »

Ubuntu Feisty Release

Ubuntu 7.04 has been released on Thursday, 19 April. It’s in my opinion, the best Ubuntu release ever. Quite possibly because this has been a relatively long release cycle compared to previous releases. My favourite new feature is how it provides information about proprietary drivers that the system needs to run properly. This will make it easier for users who want to buy new hardware in the future to test whether a system can run on free-software-only before purchasing it.

Yesterday I went to the Ubuntu 7.04 release party in Cape Town (photos). It was a usual collection of Cluggers and other weird people, we had some drinks and Morgan burnt some Feisty CD’s.

Feisty Party

Digital Freedom Expo

In parallel with the Ubuntu release, was the Digital Freedom Expo. I had to miss a big part of it due to work commitments, but listened to the live webcasts and caught up on the last day. I got a chance to play with Antoinne’s OLPC Laptop, which was quite fun (I now know how to get a terminal on it, yay!)

One Laptop Per Jonathan

Impi Linux Progress

Following on the Ubuntu release, the next Impi Linux release is also imminent. Impi Linux is the Southern African Ubuntu system tailored for enterprise clients, and our main target market at this stage is various South African government departments. Stephan Buys blogged about the new artwork in Impi Linux, expect some announcements shortly :)

Impi GDM theme

Thunderbird 2

The new Mozilla Thunderbird has also been released this week. It provides better mail tagging and an improved RSS reader. Even though Thunderbird 2.0 looks quite a bit better, I’ll wait until I feel gutsy enought to upgrade to Gutsy before using it ;)

Mozilla Thunderbird

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