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Failure: Open Source & OLPC

I never thought much of the One Laptop per Child effort.   My belief was that spending so much effort and capital on technology could be re-direct to better uses, such as food and books (notably The Book Thing in Baltimore, MD which has shipped thousands of books to emerging countries…).    The other part of my skepticism of the OLPC effort was that anyone could actually do this effectively.   This was further reinforced in Spring 2007 when someone showed me a OLPC computer.   To say I was less than impressed is an understatement.

Now, Ivan Krsti?, the ex-CTO of OLPC, has written a long rant about what happened to the OLPC project.   Not surprisingly, perhaps, it has largely been a victim of Nicolas Negroponte’s ego and hubris, which is useful at times, but, in this case, has turned OLPC into a sham.  Ivan makes several very good points about OLPC and Open Source in general, particularly in regards to real-world usability, but his core theme is that OLPC has turned into a mainstream laptop manufacturer with zero support backend (and running Windows…).

However, there are two other memes in Krsti?’s post that the Open Source community should pay attention to.   The first is that changing computing paradigms is not always the best thing to do.  OLPC tried to change too many things at once, everything from general computing paradigm (time based instead of files and folders) to the UI (which emphasized circles of activity and communication), resulting in a hugely complicated software design fraught with issues:

    "Choosing to reinvent the desktop UI paradigm means we are spending our extremely overconstrained resources fighting graphical interfaces, not developing better tools for learning. …"

There is a real lesson here that if the goal is to do something radical, better focus on doing just one radical thing (e.g. one laptop per child – literally, even if they are used laptops running Ubuntu & Gcompris), rather than 20.   Comes back to that focus thing I discussed in a previous post….

The second, and perhaps most damning, meme that Krsti? brings forward is the "elephant in the room" that no Open Source person really wants to discuss, that Open Source desktops suck:

    "About eight months ago, when I caught myself fighting yet another battle with suspend/resume on my Linux-running laptop, I got so furious that I went to the nearest Apple store and bought a MacBook. … As one of the people who actually can hack my kernel to suit, I find that I don’t miss the ability in the least. There, I said it. Hang me for treason."

I can empathize.   Over the years, I have gotten flamed for running Windows on my laptop, particularly while doing conference presentations.   I’ve also gotten flamed for saying that Linux on the desktop was not ready for prime-time.   Now, like Krsti?, I’ve been a Linux user for about 15 years, but I won’t run it on my laptop as it’s almost impossible to get everything working correctly at the same time (try hot swapping a DVD drive during suspend…)  and I don’t have time to fiddle with every single package to get things running just right.   I would note that the problem seems to have gotten worse in the last 5 years as hardware capabilities have grown.

To be fair, Krsti? does point out that this is not the Linux community’s fault, but a result of hardware vendors not releasing specs.   Regardless, the net effect is that Linux desktops are partially broken, particularly on laptops. And a chunk of the Open Source community is just not interested in solving this as it does not fit into their philosophy of OSS to work with proprietary anything.    That’s great if you live in a vacuum, but, in the real world, these problems have to be solved regardless.   And, right now, the Linux community is largely failing to solve them.   Perhaps a non-profit like the Linux Foundation could step in and fix this mess…