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OLPC can work, if we work.

Posted on | January 11, 2008 | No Comments

OLPC = One Laptop Per Child, for the current-tech-events impaired

There is a proverbial ego storm raining fud all over the Internet, its been pouring now for about two days. I am sad to see that (for many) the need to express our ideals is usurping our desire to consider solutions. People are in an uproar over the OLPC once again (or did they ever stop since the last uproar?). The latest saga was sparked by (you guessed it) Microsoft.

Microsoft wants a strong foothold in the developing markets created by developing countries. The theory being (simply), one day every developing country will be developed. Everybody wants to rule the world, go on, sing it … you know you want to. For a short time, rumors that Microsoft was working with OLPC to develop a dual boot system were circulating, those were (apparently) entirely false.  Bruce  Perens,  who defined the ‘open source’  definition  seems to be more intent on arguing that the first OLPC ran  Debian rather than addressing  real issues.  What’s up with that?

Microsoft and OLPC were never working together. Microsoft wants to deploy a special version of their OS for the OLPC project. They will not be developing a ‘dual boot’ system, they are required by OLPC to have a ‘revert’ feature (which reverts the XO back to GNU/Linux) in order to get a security sign off.

This arrangement solves 2/3 of the problems that could arise, here’s some meta examples of what those problems might be:

1 – A “Real world” scenario:

A child in a developing country uses the Microsoft operating system, through malware or spyware, the XO unit is rendered useless. The child, in lieu of paying hundreds of dollars for proprietary anti-virus software (or being forced to rely on free solutions that require downloading and may be incompatible with the special Windows version) could simply revert the XO unit to its native Fedora based operating system.

2 – A “Maybe world” scenario:

Net neutrality breaks and children are no longer able to update their operating system via The Internet. While this is a remote possibility, it is not entirely unlikely. Should this happen, the XO unit can be reverted to its original OS

3 – A “Not Likely” scenario:

Microsoft goes out of business and no longer supports the software that it shipped on XO units. A child could revert to the original (community supported) operating system

These are real world concerns, the OLPC XO is supposed to be a one time expense (a lot of its appeal). If you hope to ship software on an XO, you must not defeat the purpose of the OLPC.

Now we get into DRM, which is what has me extremely concerned. If Windows XO units are shipped with hundreds of text books that are locked down by DRM, there would be very little motivation to revert the OS to the original GNU/Linux distribution. Keeping that in mind, one should re-consider the 3 meta scenarios that I described above, their outcomes change a bit.

What is needed, urgently is a ton of free learning texts that are just as good as the ones that Microsoft would be including. Wikipedia is one source, sure, but we’re talking about class room text books, not a canonization of many articles. If the teaching and learning material is of equal quality on both ends and kept free of DRM, the playing field becomes level again. Free, quality texts and media would reduce the choice of which OS to order to a matter of preference, not a matter of necessity.

In layman terms, if kids don’t need Windows to read their textbooks due to DRM, they (truly) have the option to use whatever OS they like on their laptops. In some cases this would be entirely up to the school system, which loans laptops to kids .. but the fact remains, the choice is still a choice and not a fallacy.

People should be free to install whatever they want on their computers and use what works best for them. Kids should be free to use whatever they like, instead of what we want them to like. For this to happen, we need to produce free, quality educational materials in many languages.

Hopefully, I have all of my facts straight. It took a while to separate fact from fiction when trying to find out what all of the fuss is about.

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