Friday, December 28, 2007

The Future History of the World

Andy Marken has put up as a Google Document an amusing little "History of the World" for laptops, inspired by the One-Laptop-Per-Child's XO.

The XO is a fascinating exercise. On the one hand, you have guys like Nicholas Negroponte and guru Alan Kay (whose Dynabook concept was surely an inspiration) trying to change the world in a fundamental way. (OLPC's Wiki sheds a lot of light on the project.) On the other, you have--well, almost everyone else, tending to be puzzled or cynical or outright hostile.

I've followed the OLPC as it has evolved because it uses a version of Etoys, which is a way I've introduced my kids to the computer as a learning tool. I see a lot of misconceptions that I myself had when starting out. In fact, just check out Slashdot and you can see all the misconceptions made every time, on every story about the OLPC. Or for a particularly stupid and hostile editorial, you can always count on John Dvorak.

As Negroponte says, it's an education project, not a laptop project. In other words, the laptop factor is incidental. That laptop can hold a number of textbooks--even if it couldn't do anything else--and the $100 target for the laptop was set to make it comparable to x textbooks. (I've forgotten what x was.) By that metric, even at $188, the machine will cost less and last longer than the textbooks it will replace.

But of course, the XO can connect to the 'net. Which makes it better than anything anyone had in any school 20 years ago. If they learn how to use the XO to really understand and model "powerful ideas" in science, math and engineering--well, I get a chill just thinking about it.

Andy's essay brought to the fore some thoughts that had been percolating since both Intel and Microsoft attacked the project. The XO is an educational project, yes, but it directly crosses the business of computing--in much the same way as if you were teaching poor people to farm, you'd be crossing the business of selling food to the countries they live in.

Few things are as aggressive in this world as corporations with significant market share trying to protect that share. Keep that in mind if you ever think of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation as a charitable one. Robber barons will give away anything except the power that allows them to be so rich in the first place. (If I'm right, the first credible threat to Google will see their "Do no evil" motto go directly out the window.)

So the big vendors have gone from "That's a stupid idea" to "Me, too, only with the products the world craves". But all they can do, really, is lower the price of the metaphorical corn. They can't teach people how to farm without threatening their business model.

One of the key elements of the XO (carried over from the Dynabook) is that it's meant to be completely open. Curious as to how something works? Click a button and the XO shows you how. Something not working? Whether it's software or hardware, you're empowered to troubleshoot.

This is both good education and practical: Supporting the millions of XOs out there is impossible under the current paradigm of "phone a call center" and "take it to an authorized service rep".

But, seriously, is Microsoft ever going to do that? Of course not. If Windows were open, it would be far too easy to work around it. They learned that back in the DOS days, Digital Research was turning out a far better DOS than they could manage, even with all that money. They rely on obscurity to maintain their choke hold. Well, that, and tons of money and a willingness to do anything to crush anything even remotely perceived as a threat.

This will, ultimately, lead to their downfall, I suppose. But not before they take down a lot of good ideas with them. I hope the XO isn't one of them.

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