When I started writing for OLPC News, I was mainly countering the naysayers who said that it would never work, that it was all hype, that poor children needed food, water, and medicine, rather than education, and so on. It's true that there was some inadvertent hype. Nicholas Negroponte mistook handshakes from heads of state for firm orders.
But he believed what he was saying at the time. On every other point, I stand by what I have said. No, they don't need education instead of food, they need education and food. Why else do we have free school lunch programs in the US?
One-to-one educational computing is the biggest human rights initiative in history; the biggest move towards a sustainable human society that stops trashing the Earth and starts putting it right again; the most disruptive technology ever to appear, far beyond the implications of steam, the Gutenberg press, iron, or even banging the rocks together.
Our community has moved along with the reality of putting half a million XOs into the hands of children, with another half million on order, so that the naysayers are most often found in the parts of the business press that is hostile to Free and Open Source Software, or just likes to stir up controversy. As in the case of the Sakshat, the alleged $10 Indian laptop, which turns out not to be a computer at all, but a wireless flash drive, a storage device for moving files from one computer to another. In other words, India has labored and brought forth Yet Another Sneakernet, and this is put forth as doom for the XO.
Meanwhile, the level of questions that we hear from the community has risen greatly. We are having many thoughtful discussions, which are sometimes worth continuing here as well. For example:On Wed, Feb 4, 2009 at 3:11 AM, Ron Penny wrote to [email protected], in the context of that alleged
Indian $10 computer:
> I still wonder what the impact will be on people like me who
> want to provide the poorest with the education they need,
> providing the technology now available in this fast moving
> 21st century.
I replied roughly as follows. (I have added links and a bit more
explanation in places.)
I can point you in two directions here.
There are, in fact, a number of 8-bit computer projects in the $10-15 range, such as Playpower.org. They are rather similar to an Apple II, Commodore 64, or 8-bit game machine, with similar processors, and also requiring an external monitor or TV for display.
None of these systems is suitable for taking home from school, for working outside, for storing even one full day's homework or any meaningful amount of content or digital textbooks. They do not include microphones or cameras. We can do good work with such systems, but they cannot deliver a full education, particularly not for younger children.
I led the I-APL project to put APL on such systems long ago (in 29K!), and there are a number of good math textbooks using APL as executable math notation, going back to IBM's experiments in loaning a 360 to an elementary school and having Turing-Award-winner-to-be Ken Iverson teach arithmetic.
The other direction is being defined by a number of partners of OLPC, including OLE Nepal, Alan Kay's Viewpoints Research Institute/Squeakland Foundation, Inc., Creative Commons' ccLearn, and my NGO, Earth Treasury. Various of us are working on the necessary infrastructure for electricity and Internet access; teacher training; more software; and a new architecture for digital textbooks, taking advantage of existing quite powerful software, and able to be integrated into curricula.
We propose to combine a stream of volunteer textbook projects, where people can tell us what they would like to do, with a stream of paid projects, where governments, aid agencies or NGOs tell us what they think is most urgently needed, and what they are willing to pay for. Some of them might even ask teachers and children what they need.
> The XO's pricing has to change, DOWNWARDS,
> rapidly, or be left behind...surely. Or am I wrong?
The XO is currently less expensive than the alternatives in quantities of 1,000 or more. It is a far better design in hardware and software both, but is not nearly finished in the sense of a commercial product. Even so, it already produces spectacular results in changing the culture of education in target countries, with no more than a tiny fraction of the software and content it ultimately needs.
There are two designs for a second-generation XO, one at OLPC, and one at Pixel Qi, Mary Lou Jepsen's screen technology company. She led hardware development for the current XO. Her plan is to make a ton of money on radically better screens for everything, and to put some of it into creating a $75 laptop with greater capabilities than the XO. The target date is mid-2010. I expect that schedule to slip, but I expect Mary Lou to be right on the price, based on my own experience in high-tech market analysis.
Cost trends for known technology are the easiest part of the market to predict. What gets built when is harder. What version succeeds, and how it is used, are beyond anybody's ability to predict in any detail. Steve Jobs has an admirable record at Apple, but he has shipped some legendary duds. What is most important for the user community is not the specific company or product, but the creation of a new market category. The XO market, at one million units so far, is for real, no matter what it turns into next. There are supposed to be well over a million other computers running Linux ordered for the schools in various countries, notably Venezuela, Brazil, and Spain.
Sugar Labs and the various Linux distros are making sure that whatever Linux a country likes, they can get Sugar with it. Windows, no. (Countries will be able to order dual-boot XOs with Sugar on Linux and no Sugar on XP.) For an analysis of the problems, see A technical assessment of porting "Sugar" to Windows, by C. Scott Ananian.
So we know how we could put a crippled subset of Sugar on Windows, which would still be better than the educational shovelware M$ provides, but full Sugar would require access to Windows source code. Microsoft says it won't do it for Windows XP, and it certainly won't allow us inside.
Edward Mokurai Cherlin is the Founder of Earth Treasury.