Little green machine turning blue

Not so long ago I proved, through my usual exemplary and infallible logic, how open source projects will always be scuttled and splintered without the least bit of effort from Redmond, simply by reminding advocates, users and devotees that they have options. Strangely enough, it seems the OLPC crowd is proving me right this time.

I watch the OLPC mailing lists only casually. The news there is primarily about the deployment of the laptops and technical issues they face, or counterpart projects in developed countries, and how they are faring. It’s esoteric, but I have a lot of experience in development work, so I find it interesting somehow.

Recently though, with the departure of Walter Bender, Nicholas Negroponte’s sudden coziness with Microsoft, and the papal bull from Richard Stallman, everybody has an opinion and the lists are buzzing a little louder.

People want to know why Sugar doesn’t handle Flash videos. People want to see XP as the framework for Sugar. People want to know if they can get one in pink. And thus the bickering ensues. K.Mandla’s law proves true again: Any open and free project faces the risk of derailment simply by reminding its acolytes that they have choice.

What happens next, at this point, is anyone’s guess. Too many generals in the OLPC structure seem without a core principle. Bender says Sugar should work on other machines too. Negroponte just wants to make sure kids in the developing world get their hands on a computer. And Ballmer … well, Ballmer is after world domination. There’s no disputing that.

For my own part, I don’t really care. It would be sad to think that the noble and courageous $100 laptop project could be scuttled by lack of decisive leadership, or flimsy goals, or by the zealots burning down the temple over things like truly free and open source software. And it would be slightly hypocritical for me to tout Sugar or open source software in this scenario — I run my system with Arch Linux, and use the wireless driver, which isn’t fully free (by Stallman’s standards anyway).

It’s a tough call. But this much is clear to me, as a spectator to the entire event:

  1. Just about any government, with perhaps the exception of extremely poor nations, can probably dump Windows-driven UMPC laptops on their children for not much more than the OLPC models cost. I have a feeling it could be arranged, with the prices on some eeePCs just as possible examples. And if a government shies away from the XO because it’s not Windows-friendly, let them go.
  2. So in that case, the XO really only has the added benefit of being a truly open model, giving underserved children a shot at high technology without the ridiculous strings attached to a Windows-driven product. Having said that, it should probably be a stated goal of the project to swing clear of Redmond. Talking about running Sugar on top of XP, or getting XP working on XO’s is counter to what the project stands for, in my opinion.
  3. And having said that, it should be acknowledged that it’s going to be done. Windows is going to hit the OLPC at some point, and nobody’s going to get around that. But trying to draw more people to the project by welcoming Windows to the OLPC is rather like inviting the fox into the henhouse, under the pretense of universal brotherhood. Like it or not, a fox still has motives. Let Windows make its way to the XO. That’s unavoidable. But leave it to the ubergeeks at Redmond to solve.

In a nutshell I think the project should be as free and clear as possible, with a stronger goal and better leadership toward that goal. Should Sugar run on other machines than just the XO? Sure. It’s been done for a long time (I ran it against Dapper a couple of years ago, just for fun). Rewiring Sugar to run as the core OS on my Inspiron might be kind of fun.

But should Sugar run Flash videos? Nah. If you really want to play Flash on your OLPC, do it the geeky way and get an alternative distro running, and throw the Flash plugin on. Pollute your own system if you must, but I would prefer Sugar were kept clean of anything that endangers that core goal I talked about there.

Being free and open is a selling point for the laptops, and something that really should be focused on. Let Microsoft worry about getting XP on it, let the individual user work out how to embed YouTube videos on it. But I would really prefer a child in a village somewhere in South America didn’t get a laptop tainted with licensing requirements or proprietary codecs.

And for goodness sake, stop talking about choices. πŸ˜‰


5 thoughts on “Little green machine turning blue

  1. Alejandro

    As a third-worlder, I’m kind of happy. I don’t want my government squandering money on sublaptops (that will be exchanged for votes, without a doubt) when it could be invested in public schools (which don’t can’t be electorally abused in the same way). It’s much cheaper and more efficient to use Linux thin client desktops at school than handing out sublaptops which will be obsolete in no time.

    If OLPC’s goal was giving laptops to children, then they should DONATE them. What I see is a business disguised as a foundation (OLPC might not make money, but AMD and other parts manufacturers would… and they’re precisely the ones funding OLPC).

  2. Alejandro

    Oh, and about Flash… I personally learnt how to use computers loading DOS games. It wasn’t that I loved DOS, but I had to learn in order to get a reward. Today, Youtube can be a big incentive for kids to learn how to use a computer. A computer which can’t run Flash will probably gather dust.

    As a corollary, if I could learn DOS commands to play games, then there’s no need for Sugar: just give kids any modern DE and it’ll be FAR more user-friendly than what my generation had to learn. I doubt Sugar will see much use out of the XO, so it seems kind of pointless to learn how to use it. It’s like they’re underestimating kids’ capacity to learn.

  3. K.Mandla Post author

    That’s interesting. I like your perspective on this.

    So let me ask you this, and it’s not an attempt at debate, just a curious question: Would you prefer to see a standardized, full-size laptop over the XO, perhaps running a “normal” flavor Linux or even Windows? Or does that sound unattractive?

  4. Dr Small

    Alejandro, I have the FlashBlock extension installed for Firefox πŸ˜€ Flash is an enemy!

    But I remotely put my system in VT1 while my cousin was sitting at my computer, and he had no idea what it even was, or what had happened. It is pitiful, and kids are too used to smooth, chocolate coated candy…

  5. Pingback: Somehow, surprisingly frustrating « Motho ke motho ka botho

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