OLPC about to self destruct?

May 4th, 2008

I consider OLPC to be one of the most exciting initiatives of the last few years. When the idea was first circulated it was such an exciting call to arms to do something about the lack of education in poor regions of the world. And the project has produced what appears to be a pretty incredible product, the research of which is now recycled back into the general hardware industry, so it has brought advances that wouldn't otherwise have happened (now).

I recall pondering the real purpose of the project, asking what is going to be achieved with these laptops. The OLPC project had a very good answer to this. They said the laptops will promote learning in areas where school books are a luxury. Furthermore, the laptop itself is completely tweakable, you press a special key and the source code of the current program pops up. This will promote learning through tweaking and experimentation, so that eventually an industry can be built on these foundations, in regions where little industry exists today and where perhaps the potential for one (in terms of natural resources) is bleak. A beautiful dream, one that could change the world in big ways.

Now Negroponte has changed his tune. Visionary that he is, he failed to convince the clients of the value of free software. So now he's humming "forget open source, it's all about the kids!" while preparing to run Windows on the laptop. There is a new smoke screen being constructed:

Negroponte says that the organization is working to ensure that Sugar can run smoothly on Windows.

Riiiight, running Sugar on Windows. Tell me, what exactly is the value of running Windows with an all free software stack? It's completely useless, that's what. The whole value of Windows is as a platform, not merely as an operating system. People buy Windows to run Windows applications, not for Windows itself. Or are we actually buying that Egyptian officials are eager to purchase Windows licenses in order to run the free software suite?

Congratulations, Negroponte, you've just become a licensed Windows vendor. The kids will no doubt have fun clicking on the Start menu and playing Solitaire. There is a great deal to learn from that, just nothing about the operating system or the applications, you know, actual learning.

OLPC in its original form was about empowering the users, with Windows that capability is entirely destroyed. The fact you cannot mix learning with trade secrets should be blindly obvious to anyone. Open souce is important, but it's especially important when you want people to learn something.

Furthermore, learning doesn't happen in isolation. It's accelerated when it happens in a community of ideas and impulses that flow freely. Resigning OLPC president gets it when he says:

"What comes part and parcel with open source is a culture, and it's the culture that I'm interested in," he says. "It's a culture of expression and critique, sharing, collaboration, appropriation." And this culture can and should spill into classrooms, he says.

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