Having just read Rory Cellan-Jones article on the BBC News Website about the OLPC choosing to use the Windows XP operating system, I felt it sensible to put forward the reasons why I think it may/may not be a bad thing, and who's going to benefit from the deal.
Education versus Training
Unfortunately, I think the UK IT Education System passed under this bridge so far up river, that it would require getting out of the river, and a hard trek upstream to ever get back to fixing the problem. Since 1997 (the year I started secondary school, and the year the Labour government came into power), there has been a worrying trend toward using the education system as a training system. I enjoyed my first couple of years IT lessons - we played with things like Logo - and used some very simple database software (key-plus?) to understand the power of databases. We also used MS Excel to enter data into spreadsheets, and learn some basic formulae - as well as being told how to write the same formulae on the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software I had at home.
The difference that occurred in Year 9 (when RM 'upgraded' the IT suite at school) - was that we were now using MS Office. Sure, we'd had Word and Excel on the PCs before, and I guess the financial costs of upgrading to Office rather than having the two separately are minimal, especially once you take into account the "educational discount" that schools are entitled to from Microsoft.
This meant that everything we did was MS based. The simple database has gone, we were using MS Access. In essence, IT lessons involved being trained in how to use basic productivity tools for our future office careers; which, in my opinion, is not something that the Education System should pay for. I'd prefer to see people have an understanding of the difference between the 'web' and 'email'; the difference between what a Spreadsheet can accomplish in comparison with a Database; and hopefully a way for people to be taught on looking after their data, online and offline.
Advocacy as a Business Model
I recently watched a lecture given by Nicolas Negroponte in 1984. In it he discussed his ideas for the future of Computer Interfaces. It was an interesting talk, as he spoke about experiments he was doing in some African Countries on UI design. However, he also noted that he'd done a dry-run of these experiments in New York previous to heading out to the African Continent.
In the school in New York, there was a child of around 14. He didn't know how to read and was seen as needing Special Needs treatment. However, he was simply left to fend for himself in the IT rooms. One of the days, a local council worker came to visit the school, and happened to notice this child in the library, so asked him what he was doing. He showed him what he'd created on the screen using the 'LOGO' program. The council visitor was suitably impressed, and asked him if he could do a little variation on his work. Rather than simply say 'no - I don't know how,' the child reached for the manual, worked out how to do it - and did it - clearly pleasing the visitor.
The visitor then went to the Principle's Office (his reason for attending the school in the first place) and happened to mention the child. The principle was certain that the visitor was the victim of some kind of 'set-up,' therefore took the visitor down himself to see the child demo his abilities. Lo and behold the child was able to do a further variation on his work by looking through the manual.
When asked why the child could read the manual, yet could not read the books provided to him in class, his answer was akin to the following: "What the teachers give me in class is boring, and I don't get anything out of it. However, when I'm on the computer and working, I can see the results of my efforts straight away and get rewarded for them."
OLPC - Sugar UI
The Sugar UI for the OLPC project, for me, was a symbol of the 'LOGO' program for this child. Someone that the teachers has written off as a massive underachiever had been able to produce ingenuity and learning independently - given the resources to do it. Encouragement wasn't necessary, as the learning process is something organic to the human mind.
The Sugar UI isn't about being Free and Open Source (thus cheap) - it's about so much more than that. However, it's also not the be-all and end-all of the OLPC project. There are thousands of Open Source applications that can run on top of Windows XP that the OLPC users will be able to access. It will also open up their opportunities for developing for FLOSS software on Windows Desktops - and thus be able to access the Windows Market in developed countries.
Why did OLPC do the deal?
For those of you that have been following OLPC, you'll know that the 'Intel Classmate' has played some underhand tactics in order to get their processor on the OLPC - and then pulled out once they'd hijacked the relationships that OLPC had with important African leaders. There's so much corruption in Africa, that XP was probably an (unofficial/off the record) requirement. Sometimes you've got to get in bed with the bad guys to help the small guys.
Where does this leave OLPC in the future?
OLPC 'Ltd.' will always be the pioneers to the concept of OLPC. The aim is a noble one, yet in what is essentially a commercial market - pure advocacy fell to the power of multi-national marketing. However, it has opened up a new market in the developed countries too - of Ultra Mobile Personal Computers - many of which run Free / Open Source Software. This can only be a good thing in the long run, with more and more people using FLOSS and seeing the benefits. Coupled with the coming-of-age of Ubuntu, and the fantastic marketing effort that's coming with that, Nicolas Negroponte can be confident that where his company may have compromised - his idea is still being pushed by those supporting him.