My Laptop from the One Per Child project.

(Published on p2pnet)
Last November I participated in the Give One, Get One program of the One Laptop Per Child project. I received my "get one" XO in late January, at the beginning of the shipments to Canada. After a few months of having it I wanted to offer my thoughts.

I could give you specs on the hardware, but those interested in that can find the details online as well as comparisons with other smaller laptops such as the ASUS eee PC. I didn't get my XO because of the hardware specs, and to be honest I didn't think I would use it much. I mostly wanted to donate to the project and have a prop to show politicians and policy makers when I was hand-waiving about Free Software.

While that was my plan, it turns out that I carry it with me everywhere. It is quite rugged, so I feel comfortable just dropping it into my knapsack. The software is designed to be minimalistic in that it doesn't run with one of the heavy desktops that Linux normally runs with (GNOME or KDE) or that Windows or Mac has. This means that the battery will last much longer than other laptops, which is quite important. It has that dual-mode screen that makes it easy to read in the sunlight, with this mode also reducing power consumption (IE: increasing battery life). I often treat it like a book, opening a PDF or text file and walking around with it flipped into the e-book mode. It may be heavier than most books, but then again I don't print as much paper as I did previously either. It doesn't feel like I'm reading from a computer screen, and feels much closer to the comfort of reading a book.

I find that I can do almost all my work as long as I can get to a computer with a browser and a shell that I can use to SSH into my servers, which I can and have done with the XO. The snow has finally melted in Ottawa, and I've already sat just outside the Parliament Pub (Which has an OGWifi Hotspot) reading and responding to my email, and participating on BLOGs). The XO isn't designed to be a replacement of a destkop computer for an adult, but in my specific case it works pretty good.

The hardest thing for people to realize about the OLPC project is that it isn't a hardware project. The use of the domain "laptop.org" for their site is in fact unfortunate.

This educational project had specific hardware needs, and unfortunately the market was not yet supplying these needs. A hardware team was formed to design and get built the XO laptop, as well as some other supporting hardware such as the Active Antenna. The team was intended to create the hardware, and then leave the project to commercialize the hardware so that the project may benefit from the offshoots. It is interesting how it was misreported by the media which suggested that members of the hardware team leaving the project was a failure, rather than an anticipated measure of success. The OLPC project will be far more successful if it no longer needs to create hardware at all.

The focus shouldn't be on the laptop but the "One Per Child" aspect of their educational philosophy which is intended to lead to constructionist learning. The idea is that learning doesn't just happen in special classrooms where you have a teacher in front, but that learning happens everywhere. Having a classroom of computers may be better than nothing, but having each child have their own provides for learning opportunities that can't happen in any other way. The idea isn't to learn about "computers", but to have the computer be a tool used to explore other things (art, the natural world, etc).

The software for the project is important. The idea is that as much as can be made easily modifiable by the youth should be able to be. This isn't to say that every child will modify software, but that the opportunity exists for those who want to just as the opportunity to better learn how to manipulate other tools exists for children. When you launch an activity on the XO it creates a little virtual environment where any changes are stored. If the child likes the changes they can be saved, and if the changes turned out to be boring they can just be deleted. This is a far more useful environment than what is traditionally done with computing where things are divided by applications that can manipulate files, given any changes to an application are then global to the entire computer rather than just to a specific instance. While global changes are better for production development, keeping the changes local is far better for learning.

It should be obvious that software used to enable constructionist learning needs to be legally modifiable, and that those modifications need to be able to be shared with other children. This means that non-Free Software would not work well with these educational goals. This leads us directly into discussing some of the competition.

Microsoft and Intel have a Classmate PC which they consider to be a competitor to the XO laptop and the OLPC educational project. While there are versions of this PC that are shipped with Linux rather than Microsoft's OS, the educational philosophy is quite different.

Their idea is to ship generic PCs that would enable children to learn the same tools that the rich countries are already using, thus allowing them to be trained to work in that environment. There are many flaws with this goal, not the least of which is that the majority of the worlds population cannot afford to pay the royalties expected by legacy software vendors. For the vast majority of the worlds population they are either going to not use royalty-based software, or they are going to using infringing versions, given it is simply unreasonable for them to spend large percentages of their income on unnecessary royalties. While representatives of Microsoft have clarified in the past that they would prefer people use counterfeit windows than use competing software, this is bad public policy as it increases disrespect for authors rights. Promoting royalty-based software in these countries only promotes so-called "software piracy".

I also disagree with the whole concept of education as job training, rather than education being about enabling us to learn how to learn and become productive members of society. I consider it especially bad public policy for learning around technology given that the sector changes very quickly, and what people learn as part of "job training" becomes obsolete very quickly. It would be hard to convince me that any of the software tools that are popular today will be around in 10 years, just as it doesn't surprise me that the software I learned with 20+ years ago is no longer what people are learning today.

There is something about the OLPC environment that reminds me of when I was learning computing.

Back in the mid 1980's many of the computers you would buy would have manuals that had schematics in the back. You could go out and buy magazines that would include source code (often in the computing language known as "Basic") that you could type in, run, modify, and then share the modifications with your friends. My interest in computing was started because of my ability to take apart and modify both the hardware and software that I had in front of me, and explore in ways that were not necessarily conceived of by the designers.

While the XO doesn't come with schematics, although the Measure activity includes a hardware project people are intended to build themselves. The software environment lends itself to the same type of learning that I grew up in. In the rich countries it is still possible for motivated youth to install Linux on their own computers and learn in that environment, although the public policy direction (through things like legal protection for "DRM") is to make these types of choices harder and possibly illegal. More and more of the computing in the hands of youth have "no user modifiable parts inside".

One thought that always comes to my mind is that if the OLPC educational project is successful in majority world countries, but unsuccessful here in the currently rich countries, that we are heading into a future where those who grew up being able to be creative and innovative will be elsewhere. Will this eventually lead to a flipping of which will be the rich and which will be the poor countries?