Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Elephant in the Room

(updated, update-2: resized images and fixed their layout) - Who says Elephants Can't Dance? That title lay splashed across Lou Gerstner Jr.'s book about the history turnaround of IBM in the 1990s. Chronicled in the book was IBM's transformation from lumbering and dying dinosaur to be industry juggernaut that it is today. All this push for middleware? Gerster saw it then and today, years after he has left IBM, Middleware was where the battles were going to be fought on in corporate space.

I don't know what made me think of re-reading that book after I saw the (added this feed:) feed about the One Laptop per Child. Apparently OLPC wouldn't be costing US$100, it would cost in the region of US$175. Across cyberspace, Microsoft was going to sell Windows at US$3 in China and it came to my attention that Intel had thrown their hat into this child pc space. Why was this space suddenly, so seemingly out of the blue, ablaze?

To be honest, I've been a skeptic of this whole OLPC bit. A hundred dollars to deliver a laptop to every kid in the world, most in the wild where they've hardly got food, electricity, running water and shelter. OLPC comes also with its own crank-powered charge.

It was a few days ago that I absentmindedly downloaded Nicholas Negroponte's Vision for the One Laptop per Child project over at Ted. iTunes had saved it and being a skeptic proved to be a hindrance to watching it. I had already closed my mind at the thought that this thing would succeed:

Nicholas Negroponte's Vision for the One Laptop per Child

Apparently, I shouldn't have.

Why shouldn't I give this thing a go? a quick google located the link for me: Sugar SDK was ready for download and it took two hours off my slow dsl connection to fetch the iso image. My Mac was already configured to test drive this operating system. Creating the Virtual Machine via Parallels--- and off the OLPC Operating System booted (see image to you left).

I was a skeptic no longer. Here was a decent user interface. It had a program for painting, it had a tetris like game, it had a word processor, a browser, news reader, picture slideshow viewer and a thing for what i think is used to making music called "Tamtam". It was a kid's computer.

I ask your indulgence, i couldn't get the thing to run full screen so my screen captures are all in windowed form.

Some of the initial issues i've encountered: i couldn't get it to browse the internet. Though i noticed the network went up during the boot-phase. Maybe because it was looking for a wifi one--- the vm it was running on has only an ethernet running. anyway--- it wasn't important to test drive that but the OLPC has that capability.

It has a pie-menu thingy, full technical details: here.

SugarOS is a simple, neat user interface. I had thought they wouldn't have any applications on it--- but they do. It ran very well on 128MB ram that I allocated to it. (I at first set aside 256MB, it ran pretty fast on that but it ran above decent on 128MB). OLPC will be running on an AMD Geode LX-700, here's the full spec from their wiki.

One of the insights one can draw from this device is that it is now possible that future school children should start learning on computers. we're going to be making text books obsolete. Homework, exams, lectures will now exist only on portable devices that kids carry to school. What devices like the OLPC will do, is what the iPod and the mobile phone has done to our lives. these will completely transform how children are taught. It can help revolutionize instruction, transfer knowledge quicker, introduce a lot of the have-nots and half that digital divide.

Why Microsoft is scrambling to get windows integrated into devices like the OLPC? Why Intel is building their own? It would be about brand recognition, it would be about being comfortable with technology and if the OLPC uses open source and uses the competition's technology, history has taught us that's what they're going to be buying when they've got the opportunity to do so.

The One Laptop per Child project is the one laptop to rule them all, but it is not a Laptop Project nor is it a Linux or Open Source Project. It is an Education project.

What OLPC can do for education, the iPod and mobile phones have done for our daily lives. Pretty soon, teachers will be giving and checking assignments via devices like the olpc. textbooks will go the way of the dinosaurs and learning and innovation will revolve around computers like OLPC. Someday soon, it'll be at the heart of education, touching lives.

The elephant in the room is education. Like religion, it is a minefield of a topic. What the OLPC and its ilk can bring is the kind of innovative technologies that educators ought to be looking at and integrating into a vision for what education should be going forward and not loose themselves in ancient ideas that will not prepare the next generation for that unknowable future. it is a space where software is few and needs to be captured. It may not be grand and sexy an idea, but if you are looking for innovative solutions for education: olpc is the space where you should be and just maybe, this elephant can surprise us and dance.